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RGOD2: New Zealand, living in a state of equality

Andrew Whiteside is one of New Zealand’s best known gay men. With a professional background in communications and media, he made history as one of the hosts and producers of New Zealand’s own LGBT weekly television program “Queer Nation” from 1996 to 2004.

Whiteside now has his own company and weekly online show “Gay Talk Tonight.” He has the enviable job of interviewing some of the most beautiful men in the world including Andy Derleth “Mr. Gay World 2012” and Health Jones, a hunky New Zealander who starred in “Gladiator.” He has also filmed travel programs for LGBT-friendly vacation spots and is looking forward to filming a story on Auckland’s Pride Festival in February 2013.

Auckland has just spent millions of dollars renovating its spectacular city coastline, first in 2003 for the America’s Cup and last year for the Rugby World Cup. The city was recently described in the Mercer Quality of Living Survey as the third most livable city in the world to live in with its stunning scenery and hospitable “down to earth” people.

I was here several years ago visiting family and we watched “The Lord Of The Rings” in the newly renovated theater in Wellington where it had just been premiered. The tourist industry boomed here as a result of the famous blockbuster trilogy and we are about to witness a second round of spectacular landscapes through Peter Jackson’s interpretation of “The Hobbit.”

New Zealand combines a rare embrace of the macho (obsession with rugby and water sports) alongside a thriving film and communications industry. The 4.5 million member (predominantly white) nation also allows for LGBT civil unions and equality when it comes to immigration of a same gender partner from another country.

Q&A WITH ANDREW WHITESIDE

Ogle: Tell us more about your country and what it is like to be a married and openly gay man living there.

“My husband and I attended the actual parliamentary third reading of the bill allowing for same gender unions in 2005. It was an electrifying moment in our lives and when I woke up the next morning, I proposed to him and he said yes! Te Miha works for the Maori Language Commission in Wellington and we have been together for nine years now. What does it feel like to be recognized as a couple by the state?

“It’s enormously empowering. We didn’t feel we had to get married (civil union), but we wanted to ensure our relationship was protected under the law and after four years together we wanted a legal commitment. I have to say that having now made that commitment it has strengthened the relationship in a subtle way. I don’t think a civil union or a marriage is essential for a relationship, but personally I feel that it has enhanced mine. There have been arguments that civil unions are a compromise and are a ‘separate but equal’ scenario. I agree, but at the time it was available, we wanted to make that legal commitment. Strategically it could be seen as an important stepping stone in that people got used to the idea. I do however believe in full marriage equality, and hopefully that will come to pass in New Zealand in 2013.”

Ogle: You recently interviewed Lief Wauters, who had to leave the USA to live in New Zealand because his New Zealand partner was not allowed to immigrate to the USA as heterosexual partners of U.S. citizens can do. What happened in New Zealand to bring about these amazing opportunities for LGBT people?

Whiteside: “We are a small and well-educated country so when New Zealanders are presented with the facts, (we tend to align ourselves on the side of the underdog) it was not difficult to grant civil unions or immigration rights to LGBT people. Even religious opposition now has been modified. In the beginning the Christian right would not support civil unions, but now they see how it is working and the country is not going straight to hell, they are now saying that we should just stick with civil unions and not go for full marriage equality. The older New Zealand Marriage Law is about to be modified to remove all references to gender, so the Religious Right are now questioning why we need to do that because the gays have civil unions! So they are now defending it as a rights issue over allowing us to marry”. It is quite bizarre given how opposed they were to civil unions. The current debate comes after basically 25 years of changing law and attitude. When homosexual sex acts were decriminalized in the mid 80s there was a huge public debate and some awful things said about gay people. 10 years later anti-discrimination legislation was brought in with opposition but not as bad. With civil unions in 2005 there was some opposition. Now with marriage equality the opposition is very muted and respectful. On another level, New Zealand allowed gay men and women to serve openly in the military in the 1980s and created a policy of ‘safe ships and spaces’ for them. In next year’s Pride festival, the military has given permission for a strong presence of queer military personnel at the event. New Zealand also has strong anti-discrimination protections for transgender people. They are allowed to change their birth certificates and passports and can legally marry.”

Ogle: New Zealanders have recently played a significant role in International Affairs. I worked with Sir Paul Reeves, (former Anglican Archbishop and Governor General) who helped to build funding and awareness for AIDS in the early 1990’s as UN Anglican Observer. Your former Prime Minister Helen Clark is now the head of the United Nations Development Program and New Zealand Archbishop David Moxon is going off to represent the Anglican Communion at the Vatican next month. What can New Zealanders bring to the global table as many countries still oppose LGBT rights?

Whiteside: “A number of things. For one, New Zealand decriminalized homosexual sex acts at the very start of the AIDS epidemic and introduced needle exchanges, free condoms and funded strong health campaigns particularly aimed towards the gay community. Despite severe opposition to this the government treated the epidemic as a public health priority and was not prepared to see discrimination and homophobia as a reason to interfere with a public health threat. They realized that if gay men feared arrest or intimidation they would not seek testing or treatment. The result of that is that now New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in the world. Secondly, New Zealand’s strong march towards tolerance and law reform towards LGBT people has shown how a country can be liberal and not collapse. It can also lead to a vibrant community and raise LGBT people who make a valid and important contribution to society. If one sector of our society is treated badly and with discrimination, then all sectors of society are in danger of that as well.”

Ogle: You are an expert at combining fairly serious LGBT program content with hunks, holidays and fairly trivial issues for LGBT people. What is your advice on how we communicate some of the more serious aspects of LGBT oppression to a largely indifferent LGBT community who appears to have all they need – jobs, equality and money?

Whiteside: “I think we can do this through story-telling and in sharing our stories there needs to be a balance between the light and the serious. Often in interviews I start with something lighter and then head down into deeper issues as it progresses. I think an audience is comfortable in going on a journey and feel safe if they see the host and subject are ok with going on that journey together. It is hard sometimes to get the balance right across an entire series. I ask myself have I covered a wide range of issues and people. In this first season of “GayTalk Tonight”, I haven’t got that balance right. I have not had as many lesbians as I’d like. But the show is in its early days so hopefully 2013 will enable me to redress that balance.”

Additional reading

You can see Andrew’s work HERE and he will add his interview with me focusing on the work of the St. Paul’s Foundation as his last edition for 2012. The interview will be made public next week.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.