Old photo reminds us what marriage equality has won

The marriage equality win has made New Zealand a better place, but here's hoping it's been done right

In my pleasure at the passing of the Marriage Amendment Act I was reminded of an email my Mum sent me a couple of months ago, containing an old black and white photo of eight women and two children. They're seated in a garden. A sun spot blurs the right-hand corner, possibly obscuring another child.

Amongst the group are my Nana, her mother and various great-aunts of mine. But towards the end are two other women my Mum knew as Aunty Bid and Mrs B. They were friends of my Nana's as they all worked together. Aunty Bid's real name was Elizabeth and my Mum got her middle name from her.

As you might already have guessed, Aunty Bid and Mrs B were a couple. But here's the twist. When it was found out they were lesbians, they were sacked. Homosexuality, after all, was illegal.

The discovery of this photo sparked a memory from my great-aunt Daph, who remembers her husband bringing home a workmate out of the blue one night for dinner. She remembers a quiet man who played happily with her children, but one who she'd never heard of and wasn't a known friend of her husband's.

After he left she asked why he'd been invited over and my great-uncle said he felt sorry for him. The guest was gay and had just been released from prison, having served time for homosexuality.

The stories are shocking and sad. They seem to come not just from another time, but from another place. The fact is they are part of New Zealand history. They come from a time when we had it wrong.

I agree with Maurice Williamson, when he says – as he did in parliament – that he respects the moderate voices in the marriage equality debate who genuinely fear for a change to a major social institution.

Their wariness – even opposition – isn't necessarily bigotry, but stems from a fear of change and a deep commitment to the traditional nuclear family. Marriage is a hugely important structure in our society and one that politicians should enter (in a legal and moral sense) only with great and deliberate care.

While I'm sure the bill is morally right, I can only hope that it's been handled well politically. Time will tell. The decision to go ahead with a bill alone, rather than a referendum, was a gamble. It made major change easier to manage in the short-term, but it cut corners.

I'm not a fan of referenda; in fact I think most are pointless and binding referenda are democratically dangerous and at odds with the parliamentary system. Questions are too easily skewed, a significant-sized mob too easily hijacked, money is too influential and so on. But they are appropriate in major constitutional and institutional change. And marriage is a core institution. Changing the social definition of marriage is exactly the sort of thing that society as a whole – not just its representatives – should debate and decide.

To skip that step is to risk a negative reaction and to risk the change not holding over the long-term.

I suspect, as Kevin Hague said, that the time is right and there's no going back on this. But the risk exists given how many people feel disconnected from this decision. The lack of broad public endorsement gives opponents a stick to beat it with.

And if this change is, say, a launching pad the Conservatives use to get over five percent and give National a much-needed coalition partner, what will Labour and the Greens say then? If it gives momentum to calls for binding referenda, will this approach be regretted?

Short cuts may be effective, but they can have unintended consequences. Let's hope not in this case. Let's hope those who fear this change come to peace with it easily, because this is not a social change to fear, it's one to embrace.

My expectation is still that this strengthens – perhaps briefly, perhaps more substantially – the place of marriage in our society as it brings more New Zealanders into the tent.

What I'd say to those who fear this change is to remember Aunty Bid, Mrs B and an unnamed young man – three New Zealanders who paid a heavy price for their God-given sexuality and for their love.

That seems terribly unjust to us now all these decades on, and I'm sure decades from now our grand-children will look back at a time when gay people couldn't marry with the same sort of amazement we feel when we think of sending gays to prison. What happened this week has made New Zealand a fairer, kinder place, and that's always good.