NEW Zealand’s parliament yesterday voted in favour of allowing equal marriage.
Seventy-seven of 121 members of parliament voted in favour of amending the 1955 Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry, making New Zealand the first nation in the Asia-Pacific region to do so.
“Two-thirds of parliament have endorsed marriage equality,” said Louisa Wall, the gay opposition Labour MP who promoted the bill, after the vote. “It shows that we are building on our human rights as a country.”
People watching from the public gallery and some MPs immediately broke into song after the result was announced, singing the Maori love song Pokarekare Ana.
“For us, we can now feel equal to everyone else,” said Tania Penafiel Bermudez, a bank worker who said she already considers herself married to partner Sonja Fry but now can get a certificate to prove it. “This means we can feel safe and fair and right in calling each other wife and wife.”
In one of several speeches that ended in a standing ovation, Ms Wall told MPs the change was “our road toward healing”.
“In our society, the meaning of marriage is universal – it’s a declaration of love and commitment to a special person,” she said. She added that “nothing could make me more proud to be a New Zealander than passing this bill.”
MPs from most political parties were encouraged by their leaders to vote as their conscience dictated rather than along party lines. Although Ms Wall is from the opposition, the bill also was supported by centre-right premier John Key.
“In my view, marriage is a very personal thing between two individuals,” Mr Key said. “And, in the end, this is part of equality in modern-day New Zealand.”
Since 2005, New Zealand has allowed civil unions, which confer many legal rights to gay couples. The new law will allow gay couples to jointly adopt children for the first time and will also allow their marriages to be recognised in other countries. The law takes effect in August.
“This is really, really huge,” said Jills Angus Burney, a lawyer who watched the vote with her partner, Deborah Hambly. “It’s really important to me. It’s just unbelievable.”
Ms Burney, a Presbyterian, said she and Hambly want to celebrate with a big, traditional wedding as soon as possible.
The change in New Zealand could put pressure on some of its neighbours to consider changing their laws. In Australia, there has been little political momentum for a change at a federal level and Labour premier Julia Gillard has expressed her opposition to equal marriage. Some Australian states, however, are considering legislation.
Rodney Croome, the national director for Australian Marriage Equality, said that since Friday, 1,000 people had signed an online survey saying they would travel to New Zealand to wed, though same-sex marriages would not be recognised under Australian law.
“There’s this really big, pent-up demand for this in Australia,” Mr Croome said. “New Zealand is just a three-hour plane ride away, and many couples are going to go to New Zealand to marry. They are just so sick and tired of waiting for the government to act. I think it’s going to spark this big tourism boom.”
Many people in New Zealand remain vehemently opposed to equal marriage.
The lobbying group Family First last year delivered a 50,000 petition against the bill to parliament. The petition has since attracted another 25,000 signatories.
New Zealand is the 13th country to legalise same-sex marriages, after Uruguay passed its own law last week. Australia last year rejected a similar move.
Countries where equal marriage is legal include Canada, Spain and Sweden, in addition to some states in the US. France is close to legislating, despite vocal opposition.