Being First (Or) A Civil Union Tale

*wow this is long – it started out being about human nature wanting to be the first and ended as a civil union/gay marriage opinion piece. I feel like I should apologise for the length, but I won’t. *shrugs* if you’re that worried, you won’t read it 🙂 *

The world always seems to be in a race to be first. It doesn’t matter at what, it just seems that everyone wants to be the first to do something.

When you find yourself in that position, many people will do whatever they can, what ever it takes so that they can claim that often elusive title of ‘the first’.

It is kind of cool to be able to call yourself ‘the first’, but really, after that initial buzz, what does it mean? Is there any benefit to being ‘the first’ in your daily life? Does it fulfil anything for you?

The answer probably varies from time to time and maybe it depends on whether you were ‘the first’, or ‘one of the first’. I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last few days.

You see, we were one of the first couples, definitely the first lesbian couple, to have a civil union in New Zealand three years ago this month. One of my new workmates was asking me about civil unions the other day, and when I said that we were the first they were impressed and thought it was a big deal. So this post was sparked by that conversation as I didn’t feel like I could adequately explain it to her, and it’s been bugging me every since.

While we did intentionally plan our civil union ceremony for that date, and admittedly thought it would be kind of cool to have it on the first possible day, it played no part whatsoever in our motivation to get civil unioned (or married as we prefer to say – despite the legal ramifications CUPped or civil union partnership just don’t have the same ring to it).

In fact, I proposed to K in 2003, over a year before the civil union bill was passed in December 2004. Despite the fact that there would be no legal recognition, like many other same sex couples around the world, we planned what we called our commitment ceremony (or big fat gay wedding as it said on the invites). We wanted a longish engagement, and chose April 16 2005 as the date of our ceremony. We chose this date partly for practical reasons (it was the first Saturday of the school holidays so we could both take the next 2 weeks off), but also as it was the fourth anniversary to the day that we met online and first chatted into the wee hours of the morning.

As the date got closer, the topic of civil unions became the hottest topic around the country. There were debates in parliament, workplaces and homes everywhere. There were protests by religious right groups, and, surprisingly to many hetero people I know, there was a split in the gay/lesbian community as to whether we should be accepting a ‘second class marriage’ in the civil union legislation or holding out for the marriage title.

When the law was finally passed, we hoped that it would be through by April so that we could have our ceremony legally recognized. However, that didn’t happen and the bill came into effect on April 25 2005. That meant that with a 3 day stand down period, the first ceremonies could be undertaken on April 29

Seeing as we were having what we saw as our wedding not even two weeks before that, and we didn’t want to change that date, we decided to have our civil union on the first possible day. It wasn’t really a conscious effort to be the first that made us choose that date, although it was obvious we would at least be among the first, but rather it was the first opportunity we had to legalize what we had stood up in front of our family and friends for only two weeks earlier.

What we didn’t foresee at that time, was the media interest in it all. We, perhaps naively, agreed to a couple of interviews and radio soundbites (including the local paper who harassed us publicly via their front page for several days after we refused to give a second interview but hey, that’s another story) and were soon proclaimed around the country and world (via the net) as maybe the first same sex couple to have a civil union in NZ (technically we were beaten by two guys in Auckland that apparently convinced the registry office to open early because being first was just that important to them).

We were front page news initially, and while that was weird, and at times a bit scary given there had been very vocal opposition to the bill, it had some interesting outcomes.

For one thing, it outed us to absolutely everyone, everywhere. This wasn’t a big deal, we were both out to family, friends and work anyway, but for instance at my (large) workplace, not everyone knew. I had people coming up to me at work that otherwise might have been against the bill, saying that they were glad for me and K that we could do this. We had a couple of lesbians we didn’t know stop us in the street to say congratulations. I spent the first week after that sitting on the bus to work being sure that the other regulars were looking at me differently. We later found out that one of K’s students had stuck one of the articles on her wall at home as inspiration.

It was, and still is, pleasing and satisfying to me to know that by telling our story, we were able to ‘normalize’ civil unions and by extension same sex relationships, even if only in the eyes of a few.

But in terms of being the first? Well, first is a relative term. We were first to have our union legally recognized, but really that makes me sad more than happy these days. How many other couples have had commitment ceremonies and the like throughout the years, without receiving any kind of legal recognition or benefits? Both here in NZ and elsewhere around the world? For us to be the first to be given this ‘privilege’ which should be an indisputable right, is not good enough.

There are some that believe that our community should not have pushed so hard for the civil union legislation. That in doing so, we are accepting that we are still treated as second class, that we should be demanding marriage and nothing less.

I agree that same sex couples are no less deserving of the right to marry than anyone else. Like any other gay/lesbian person, it makes me crazy that on one hand marriage is held up as this supposed pillar of society and on the other they’re often seen to be treated as a joke in many arenas; the most obvious being reality tv shows.

But, having said that, I’m fairly certain that at that time gay marriage bill would not have made it through parliament. Public opinion was split over civil unions, and the bill was only passed by 65 votes to 55 – the pressure of upping the ante to include the word marriage simply would not have worked.

So yes, while I’m happy that we are able to have our relationship recognized in the eyes of the law, it still makes me sad that for so many years other couples in this country have had no such right. It makes me sad that around the world, people are still fighting for this same right. It makes me even sadder that right across the ditch in Australia, in a country so similar and close to our own, civil unions or gay marriages are no where even remotely near to reality.

I believe that while we do have civil unions in NZ now, that we should still look toward introducing gay marriages. Save for the odd ‘recap’ type article, the media hype has died down and the average kiwi has seen that civilization as we know it did not end once gays and lesbians could have their relationships legally recognized.

My hope is that with this acceptance, when the time comes for gay marriage to be put forward again, it will be easier. It will always be a contentious issue, especially taking into account the religious perspectives, but I believe that civil unions have gone a long way toward gaining acceptance for gay marriage. We just need to push when the time is right.

For us, we acknowledge both of our anniversaries, but the one we celebrate is our first one, April 16. The second was really just a few people in our living room signing a piece of paper. Sure, we were one of the first to sign that particular piece of paper, but the expression of love and commitment – we had already done that.

So when my workmate seemed impressed that we had the first civil union, I realised that being the first at this is not something that I hold much stock in. It doesn’t matter now, three years on, if it ever really did.

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About Tui

30-something kiwi-lesbian-stay at home-Mama, raising our toddler son with my wife, two cats and one dog.
This entry was posted in being first, civil union, gay marriage. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Being First (Or) A Civil Union Tale

  1. Stacey says:

    well girls, maybe, just maybe it will happen here in Australia soon… we just did our litle illegal wedding under the jetty, but itwould be so nice to have it done legally…. just stupid litle things get me, like we are not allowed to have our names on the same medicare card like a normal couple, it sh*ts me… anyway, one day…

  2. tiff says:

    Just came across your blog! Wanted to wish you lots of good luck in your baby-making endevors!

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