Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Marilyn Waring: First of all, in this space I've been saying to myself it's almost like I'm sighing, but I'm not; I'm taking these huge breaths and exhaling with the relief of being in a space with my extended family.

What I want to focus on a little bit today is what I call the silent human right – dignity. Not one the New Zealand courts have ever engaged except in minority judgments. Like many of you I've been monitoring international news, and so I noted that this week the featured debate on the BBC was the question: Is homosexuality un-African? Well!, I went. Is disability un-African? Is religion un-African? Is old age un-African? How amazing that they think they can take who we are and question whether or not a whole continent might be un-African because not only might they be part of our extended family, but they might even live in a country like South Africa where we're allowed to get married.

It's been a long road for all of us to get to this hall, and I'm just going to share some of that part of my own journey. In the 1960s when I was 13 or 14, and I know this because I can remember very clearly the room in which I sat – everything about it – I began to watch a black and white movie on what used to be the Sunday afternoon cinema programme on television. It starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, and both were stars in our household. But it must have been a fine day because I was alone in that room; and I watched it because it seemed to be about a girls' boarding school. It was Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour."

Some of you, I can hear, already know this. In it Karen and Martha are just beginning to succeed in their struggle to make a school for girls a going concern. They have to discipline this young pupil who's a congenital liar and always wants everything her own way, and so the kid calls on her grandmother, who's very rich, and repeats to her that she thinks that Martha has an unnatural attachment to Karen. And grandma is horrified and she spreads the words to all the parents, and car after car begins to arrive at the main entrance of the school, loading their daughters into them and driving them away, and not a word is said and no explanation is given.

But with the final child to leave they're told of the rumor. Karen thinks the lie is outrageous, but Martha declares herself guilty of ruining both their lives. "I do love you," she says. "I couldn't call it by its name before."

And soon after Martha makes this confession grandma arrives to say that the granddaughter has been congenitally lying again. She agrees to a public apology. She wants to hand over a large amount of money to support the school and pay for all the damage that's been caused, and during all of this Martha leaves.

And Karen hears all of this and thinks: Goodness! It's okay. We're all alright. Sits alone for some time, and then in the film you see something triggers, and she races across the school to Martha's room. She has to break the lock of the door to get in, and the cut in the film to the inside of the room simply shows a noose in silhouette and an overturned chair with a single shoe beside it.

Now, the lesbian word wasn't used anywhere in the film, but that was my first lesson in what might happen to women who loved women. And despite the fact I'd had no sexual experience at all I knew I was one of them.

I was amazed to discover a couple of years ago that Ann-Marie MacDonald, in her novel "The Way the Crow Flies," gives her central character exactly the same experience with "The Children's Hour."

One or two years later, in fact I was shifted from Ngaruawahia High School to a private girls' boarding school to be finished off.

[laughter]

I was quickly introduced to a term used of some of the friendships that my contemporaries used, referred to as lesbi-friends. I had no idea what they were talking about and it took me some time to unobtrusively inquire. And when I learned the term lesbian, as I did with new words I went to the dictionary in the public library, and I discovered "The Well of Loneliness," Radclyffe Hall's novel. Of course when it was published in London the authorities declared it obscene and seized it. And the US charged the publisher with obscenity as soon as "The Well of Loneliness" appeared in print, and in the New York Court a presiding judge ruled that the book tended to debauch public morals, found the publisher guilty. And all of that was a good enough recommendation for me to hunt it down and read it.

Now, the book tells the story of a girl who's born into a wealthy English family. She's nicknamed Stephen; she has tomboyish ways. Her father, Sir Phillip, loves her to bits and isn't going to get in the way of this, but is heavily influenced by both Karl Ulrichs – some of you might know his work; he certainly thought that homosexuality was natural and healthy – and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who of course called us inverted and expanded on the theory of disease and that most homosexuals had mental illness.

Sir Phillip never says anything about this to Stephen. He dies, Stephen becomes a successful novelist, falls in love with Mary, the two of them race off to live harmoniously in Paris, going to the bars, and there, of course, gay and lesbian people are portrayed as people who lead lives of despair, finding momentary relief in crème de menthe and cocaine – tragic, suicide prone, and alcoholic.

Stephen loves Mary so much that she feels guilty for leading her lover into this tragic life in a seemingly hostile, unaccepting society, so she resolves to kill herself so that Mary can be freed to pursue a more rewarding life as the wife of a mutual friend.

So, in my short life to that point, suicide or suicide was not great role modeling. There was no Martina and no Ellen.

The media images of the '60s of the feminist movement either frankly weren't promising to me – boots, boiler suits, bikes and anger didn't do it for me.

To see several dozen women, neither suicidal nor leather-coutured dykes on bikes, under a Lesbian Nation banner at the 1975 United Women's Convention was the first exposure I'd had to alternatives.

It was also the year I entered the New Zealand Parliament. I remember on the first couple of days handwriting out the Mansfield: Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the thing hardest on earth for you to do. Act for yourself, and face the truth.

And beside it I put TS Eliot – I'm sure out of context, but it worked: And right action is freedom from past and future also. For most of us this is the aim never here to be realized; who are only undefeated because we have gone on trying.

Well, in the New Zealand Parliament I was definitely the gayest MP.

[laughter and applause]

For nine years. I don't know what it is about this testosterone competition the lads have. Tim was always desperate to claim he was the first out MP. Obviously he missed six weeks of the Truth in 1976.

It was fabulous in there for me in the National Party Caucus, especially when I was the only woman in the Caucus. I was frequently advised most Thursday mornings that most normal women didn't think like me. The opening salvo from Muldoon the night that the government fell was really interesting because it told me immediately that he wasn't interested in mediation, and that was, "What the fuck do you think you're up to now, you perverted little liar?" That's okay, he was no more seen much after that.

Certainly the years have seen lots of changes in my life since the viewing of "The Children's Hour." My sexual preference was never subject to criminal sanction, thanks to the interpretation of Queen Victoria's exercise of the Royal Assent to legislation. I've been interested in the story about queens today. I actually forgot to bring all my medals, which I normally only wear on occasions like this because it says you've got to wear them in the presence of royalty.

[laughter]

And also I was thinking during the last contribution that not only do we have representatives of queens, but we have kings as queens, as well.

In New Zealand it's especially thanks to two women members of Parliament, Fran Wilde and Katherine O'Regan, that there's been development of equality legislation.

But while I'm thinking about development I should say something about working in development. I have worked in many countries where I'm not afraid to tell you that I pull out the old gold Russian wedding ring, I stick it on this finger, I carry around old photographs of my three nephews as children, I carry around a photograph of my brother, and when it's necessary to try and get domestic violence into the national plan of Bangladesh I bring them out and show everybody my children and husband. I'm not afraid to use what has to be used to get through it, and I know that some of the work I do is more important, frankly, than my own pride and integrity at that very moment. And I tire of those who think that there's only one way to be gay, all the time, and that's to be out everywhere, because you can jeopardize other people's movements in doing that.

[applause]

At the same time, now that everybody can Google me and find out exactly who I am I really tire of the silences and presumptions that I'm especially greeted with when I work in the Pacific. Every New Zealander who works for our High Commissioners there knows I'm gay, and most of the women activists that I'm working with know that, too, and yet I'm expected to endure tedious breakfasts, lunches and dinners while they share what's happening to their partners and their children and their grandchildren, and nobody even bothers to ask of my own parenting and children. Straight people still have a lot to learn.

In New Zealand internationally we have started to say some of the right words at United Nations venues. I'm thinking in particular of the late Clive Pearson speaking on behalf of New Zealand at the Commission of Human Rights 60th Session, and on behalf of the CANZUS Group, so Canada and Australia in there as well, "Discrimination against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation takes place in all too many countries. It's silence that allows human rights abuses to flourish. It's silence that allows misunderstanding and mistrust to grow into fear, intolerance and discrimination. We are not prepared to compromise on the equality and dignity and rights of all people."

But it wasn't the truth. Australia hasn't even gotten near a civil union, and civil union is certainly a compromise on our dignity. I understand our Australian brothers and sisters wanting to visit here for a civil union, but what of the essential question of human rights? In Canada I witnessed Jenny Rowan and Jools Joslin wedding. I've witnessed Brettel Dawson and Angie MacDonald's, and I wonder: since their marriages there are not marriages here, just what was I at?

I'm familiar with many other types of marriages that are uncivil unions, but I'm not sure that that's the term that is appropriate here. In my Professorial Inaugural for AUT University, which is available as a podcast if you're desperate....

[laughter]

Actually, it's a damn good lecture! And I focused on the framing of the debate around marriage in Canada and New Zealand, and I focused on it particularly because with the exception of about two or three words New Zealand's Bill of Rights and Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter are identical. Both of them are drawn from basically the civil and political covenant and protocol. And so, you know in politics you always understand – you're talking about really important leadership, Elizabeth – that most important political issues, just like strategic planning drafts, are framed before they hit the community. Somebody's already determined how far they think we can go. And in New Zealand from the very beginning we were framed to lose our dignity.

Two phrases I recall as central to the Canadian civil union versus marriage debate: First of all from Michelle Douglas, the woman who won against the Canadian Defense Force who tried to decommission her on the basis of her sexual orientation, as she led the Ontario Gay and Lesbian Defense Task Forces. She's also in paid employment in the Ontario Attorney General's Office, which helped a bit during all of this. She talked to me about how civil union represented separate but equal, the apartheid solution.

And I recalled Jean Chrétien's response to the pressure from the Liberal Party to have a referendum, "We don't have referendums on human rights for minorities," he said, "It's why we have human rights laws, so the majority cannot impose their lukewarm efforts on minorities."

And from Martin Cauchon, the Attorney General in Jean Paul Chretien's cabinet, "Equivalence is not equality."

And I think of those Jews in Germany; those blacks, coloreds, whites in South Africa; those colored white people in the southern states of the United States; they were all asking for the dignity of marriage. They weren't asking for all the other 102 laws to be changed. What they were centrally interested in was the equality and dignity of marriage, not equivalence and not the apartheid solution.

It was a sad but understandable experience in New Zealand that our gay leaders could not wait to move until equality was the only purpose. I understand in a Parliamentary context – I certainly do – I just mourn that second-class rights were deemed enough.

[applause]

Yet I take heart in this gathering and the research that is available and/or ongoing. Just in the last couple of years in Australia the work by La Trobe, Deakin, and Relationships Australia on same-sex parentage families, doing work on organizing work and home in same-sex families. No surprises, really: Same-sex couples divide household labor significantly more equally than heterosexual parents. Lesbian couples share parenting tasks more equally; no matter who had the child or who breastfed among lesbian couples, you could not then determine or assume that that mother would be the primary childcarer, certainly in the longer term.

The other work that they're doing around sexual orientation and mental health and well-being; things that equally we all know, but it's always great to have the rigor of academic research supporting what we always knew. The feminist movement came through this, and now our own organizations are doing the same.

I want to pay tribute to Mark Henrickson and Stephen Neville, the leaders of the Lavender Island Surveys in New Zealand that gave us some of the first material that we had about ourselves. But again, their figures also tell us of the threats, of fear, of unsafe places. Only 41% of the respondents in relationships and 27% of singles reported being out to everyone in their lives.

I'm enjoying reading the work of David Semp on using queer theory to inform research and practice in public mental health services, working with the Auckland District Health Board. In that tension between do we expect gay, lesbian, trans, intersex people to only be working with therapists who are like them? because very often in our institutions that kind of silo treatment is the norm. It's like sitting in the room waiting for everybody to speak up about human-rights offenses against us, and in the finish knowing since you're the only one in the room you're going to have to do it again, and yet again, and yet again, and the tedium of that. And David asking that question, and then also asking the question: But isn't it the responsibility of everybody in an institutional service? And if that's the situation, how do we keep safe?

It's been a long way from "The Children's Hour" to this plenary. The majority of my life I would not have believed this conference possible in Aotearoa in safety and with dignity. To see our lives begin to figure in research on: teacher's roles in queer discourse; pedagogyan practice; the experiences of gay mothers in early childhood education; asking about how supportive union organizers are on the rights of queer workers; talking about our challenges in Tonga, Thailand, Samoa, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nepal; our stories; having rainbows on uniforms, rainbows in sport; focusing on our health and well being; and much of this now through what I call an appreciative inquiry approach – rights based as opposed to a catalogue of deficit indicators.

We are battling towards dignity, and I hope we get there in my lifetime.

[applause]

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com