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Natasha Vitali and Melissa Ray, one of the first same sex couples to be married in New Zealand in 2013. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Natasha Vitali and Melissa Ray, one of the first same sex couples to be married in New Zealand in 2013. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 17, 2023

The marriage equality bill, 10 years on

Natasha Vitali and Melissa Ray, one of the first same sex couples to be married in New Zealand in 2013. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Natasha Vitali and Melissa Ray, one of the first same sex couples to be married in New Zealand in 2013. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Ten years ago today, the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill passed, legalising same sex marriage in Aotearoa. Sam Brooks looks back on the landmark moment, with reflections from some of our current rainbow MPs.

On the evening of Wednesday, April 17, 2013, parliament’s public gallery was entirely booked out for the reading of a bill; so many people wanted to be there that another gallery was opened so they could watch remotely. Many MPs passionately spoke in support of the bill, with one going viral with a speech evoking a “big gay rainbow”. When it was eventually passed, the gallery erupted into cheers, flowers were passed around, and a waiata was sung – a moment that also went viral.

That night, The Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, colloquially known as the Marriage Equality Bill, which would allow people of the same sex to marry, was passed by 77 votes to 44. 

As MPs debated the bill prior to voting, Glen Bennett, one of the 11 rainbow MPs currently in parliament, was glued to the online stream. The video was “a little slow and intermittent”, he says; even worse, it cut out entirely just as the vote was being announced.

He needn’t have worried. “When I managed to reconnect, hearing the result wasn’t necessary… I saw clapping, hugging and heard ‘Pōkarekare Ana’ being sung,” Bennett says, remembering the spine-tingling spontaneous waiata from the public gallery in the moments after the votes were read. “I was sitting in my lounge in New Plymouth, with tears of joy running down my face.”

Eight years later, the Labour MP married his husband in parliament’s legislative chamber. “The history and power of parliament buildings wasn’t lost on us,” Bennett says. “This was the place responsible for the oppression of rainbow people and many other communities. But it has also been, and I hope will continue to be a place of liberation.”

The marriage equality bill had been put in the ballot box by Labour MP Louisa Wall less than a year earlier, on May 30, 2012. It was drawn on July 26 of that same year. The first reading passed 80 votes to 40, the second by 77 to 44, a tally that held for the third and final reading. Wall had been  hoping to get 61 votes in favour, so seeing the final numbers was “very special”, she told the NZ Herald.

According to Green MP Dr Elizabeth Kerekere (Whānau a Kai, Ngāti Oneone, Te Aitanga a Māhaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngāi Tāmanuhiri) the reason marriage equality “sailed through” was the long-term community advocacy that fought for it, and the Civil Union Act of 2005 that preceded it. “Rainbow people form whānau in many and diverse ways”, she says. “For those who want marriage, they should have that right. Each stage has moved us toward a world that acknowledges the mana, mauri and wairua of all Rainbow whānau.”

Still, it wasn’t all plain sailing. A 50,000-signature petition against the bill was delivered to parliament by anti-gay marriage lobbyists supported by Family First. Of the 44 MPs who voted against the bill in its final reading, many are still in parliament today – not including Winston Peters, however, who wanted the issue to go to a public referendum. At the time, he said, “This matter is, by definition, one of public morality and if New Zealand is to have a public morality it must be decided by the public, the voters of New Zealand.”

For Green MP Jan Logie, the passing of the bill is a highlight of her parliamentary career so far. “It was such a positive campaign focused on love and universal values and the debate in parliament by and large reflected that”, she says. “It was a marker in time that showed we had made real progress as a country towards inclusion.” Momentum from the bill helped the Green Party set up the Cross Party Rainbow Network, she says, and work towards “the expungement of homosexual convictions and changes to enable gender self-identification.”

Although a landmark moment, passing marriage equality was but one step along the road to fully equal rights and protections for queer people in Aotearoa. It was only a year ago that legislation banning conversion therapy was passed, and our hate speech laws still do not cover gender or sexuality. “The law change was a really important step forward,” says Green MP Ricardo Menendez, “but the fight for the genuine liberation of all queer people and queer relationships by our institutions continues, 10 years later.” 

A lot of the “grotesque dog whistle politics” of 10 years ago remain today, he says, and now it targets trans people. “It’s important that we stand in solidarity with those facing the brunt of the hate and strive towards liberation for all.”

Newlywed couple Ally Wanikau (L) and Lynley Bendall share their first dance during the reception inside the Air New Zealand hangar on August 19, 2013. (Photo: Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

Although the bill passed on April 17, it wasn’t until August 19 that the first same sex couples in New Zealand could get married. Fifteen couples in Auckland, six in Wellington and Christchurch and four in Rotorua jumped at the chance to be wed on day one of the new era. A couple that received particular media attention was Natasha Vitali and Melissa Ray, who had won a radio competition for their all-expenses-paid ceremony and had Reverend Matt Tittle of the Auckland Unitarian Church as their celebrant after other churches refused to perform the marriage. Another was Lynley Bendall and Ally Wanikau, who were married on an Air New Zealand flight between Auckland and Queenstown. (Bizarrely, Modern Family actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson was in attendance.)

For Logie, who says she herself is “not of the marrying kind”, the law has been all joy. “I have got to attend glorious weddings of people I love and my long-term partner gets to express her love of a running gag by pretending to propose and me saying no.”

Since those headline-making marriages, there have been 7,003 same sex marriages in New Zealand – compared to 214,364 “opposite” sex marriages (as well as 346 same sex civil unions compared to 470 “opposite” sex civil unions). That’s a lot of joy.

I was 22 when the bill was passed. At the time, a show I’d written when I was 19 –  essentially a deeply embarrassing collection of diary entries of what it was like to be a young queer man – was being staged. The issue of marriage never came up when I was writing, because I was a navel-gazing 19-year-old and because getting married wasn’t part of my potential future. It simply wasn’t possible in the country I lived in. 

That night, the queer people in the audience walked into the theatre without the same legal right to marriage that everybody else had. They walked out with the right to marry. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, even as it occasionally slips my mind that not so long ago, I wouldn’t have been able to marry the man that I loved. The 2013 amendment to the Marriage Act 1955 defines marriage as “the union of two people, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity”. Fourteen blandly formal words , but ones that carry a colossal weight. Not just for the 7,003 marriages that they’ve allowed to happen, but for any queer person who now knows their country doesn’t view them as being any less worthy than a straight person.

Labour MP Louisa Wall takes part in the Auckland Pride Parade along Ponsonby Road in 2014 (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

On the 10th anniversary of the bill’s passing, it feels right to give the last word to Louisa Wall, the driving force behind a law that has changed countless lives for the better. 

“I am proud to have contributed with MP colleagues across our parliament, for all New Zealanders regardless of their sex, sexual orientation and gender diversity being able to marry,” she says. “This was a concrete shift in our collective values by the people of Aotearoa New Zealand and a sign of our maturation as a nation. We will not tolerate discrimination against people based on their sexual and gender diversity, and that’s something we should all be proud of.”

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