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The kiwi who helped Egale fly

Wed 10 Aug 2005 In: True Stories National Library

John Fisher For those gays and lesbians who dream of full equality in the eyes of the law, the last decade has been an exciting time to be Canadian. The progress made toward equal rights for gays and lesbians in Canada has been very similar to New Zealand's – in the last ten years both countries have incorporated sexual orientation into their human rights acts, added sentencing provisions for hate crimes against gays, and recognised same-sex couples under the law, although Canada went much further than New Zealand on that last one. You'd have to have been living on the moon not to have heard about the historic Equal Marriage Bill in Canada, the piece of legislation that saw Canadians granting their gay and lesbian citizens not civil unions, but full and equal access to the institution of marriage, with a decisive margin – 47 votes in favour, 21 opposed ran the numbers in the final Senate vote a couple of weeks ago. Although Canada had its fair share of religious fundamentalists (and the meddling from their counterparts in the USA was considerable) the support for same-sex marriage expressed by ordinary Canadians during the debate was nothing short of extraordinary. The country's Catholic Prime Minister forged ahead with promoting it, despite threats from the Pope to deny him communion. Inter-faith coalitions came out in support of it, including Muslims who felt it was important, as a religious minority in Canada, to help protect another minority (stones weren't mentioned at any point). What may surprise you is that a New Zealander was at the forefront of this battle for equality. John Fisher is an ex-pat Kiwi who for the best part of a decade has been the executive director of Egale, a national GLBT advocacy group which under his directorship grew from a small bunch of driven volunteers into a legal and advocacy powerhouse fighting for equal rights. With Fisher back in New Zealand to visit family, took the opportunity to discuss his time at Egale, the progress made in Canada and New Zealand over the last ten years toward equal rights for GLBT, and his move to Geneva as co-director of ARC-International, an international GLBT advocacy network. In light of the tremendous work he was to undertake in Canada, Fisher's decision to go there in the first place was remarkably nonchalant. After leaving school, he did BA and LLB degrees at Auckland University, went on to work as a judge's clerk at the Auckland High Court, and spent six months at a law firm. “I'd always planned to spend a year overseas doing a Masters. I applied to a whole bunch of universities, and waited to see where I'd get in,” he says. It was the early nineties, and at that time New Zealand had recently adopted its Bill of Rights Act, which was largely modelled on Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “I was quite interested to learn a bit more about how the Canadian Charter had been interpreted and applied, and what use could be made to advance queer issues,” he says. “So that's what led me to choose Canada. It's a country with a reasonably good progressive record. I'd been involved in gay activism in New Zealand and wanted to explore that a little bit more.” In August of 1991 he headed off for Canada, studying for a year and writing his Masters thesis on lesbian/gay rights in international law. “In the course of that I met up with a gay lawyer in Ottawa. He had a small practice which catered largely to the GLBT communities. He seemed interesting and he offered me a job. But I wasn't planning to stay on in Canada. If he hadn't offered me a job I probably would have come back to New Zealand, but since he offered I thought I'd stay on for another six months or so, and six months became a year, two years, and ten years or more later I was still there!” Egale was alive but dormant at the time Fisher arrived in Canada. It had been formed to secure the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Canadian Human Rights Act, a promise which had been made and broken by successive governments since the Charter of Rights was passed in 1982. In a similar manner to New Zealand's Human Rights Act in 1993, Canada's government exempted themselves from having to implement full equality immediately, suspending this until 1985. “So Egale in Canada was formed by a small group of lobbyists in Ottawa who thought there was a need for a group to make sure the government fulfilled its commitment,” Fisher explains. “That was in 1986, and I think they thought it'd take one or two years. In fact, successive ministers of justice repeated the commitment, and each of them in turn broke it. So what was thought to be a one or two year campaign became a ten year struggle to secure the inclusion that didn't happen until 1996. That was one of the first big projects I was involved in when I became Egale's first executive director.” Fisher had become involved as a volunteer with Egale four years earlier, but his work with the organisation was so successful it started to eclipse his day job. “My boss was very good at letting me do volunteer work for Egale out of his law office, but the volunteer work became more and more, and the day came when he politely suggested that I might like to spend some time working for his clients, or make some decision about where I wanted to prioritise,” he laughs. Egale at that time had no money. Fifteen volunteers made up the staff when Fisher first came on board, and through fundraising efforts in the GLBT communities they were sometimes able to be reimbursed for their work, and sometimes not. “Over time, as the community became more engaged in the organisation, we became more successful at establishing some financial security.” Splitting its work between legal interventions, political campaigns, and community advocacy, Egale set out to capture the hearts and minds of mainstream Canada. “It's easy for people to hate some abstract notion that they have of homosexuality, or what they think homosexuals are or do. It's much harder for people to hate somebody that they feel they know or have a rapport with,” Fisher says. “When you know the issues affect your son, daughter, friend, family member or co-worker it brings it home to you, and you can begin to understand it's about real peoples lives. So in our work we've always tried to bring a human voice and perspective to make sure that, for example, if there's religious opposition that people are hearing from people of faith who are supportive of these issues, building inter faith coalitions; working with groups like PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays] to ensure that people hear from parents and other family members, and recognise that it affects more than just members of the LGBT community ourselves.” However, many of the advances made towards equality in Canada over the last decade have been through the courts. Egale has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada in every gay rights case that has reached it. It was a historic Supreme Court ruling in 1999 helped pave the way for same-sex marriage. The Court ruled in the case of M v. H an Omnibus bill which amended all laws pertaining to marriage to include civil unions and defacto relationships also. This is almost exactly what was done in Canada as well, only in reverse. Following the M vs H Supreme Court ruling in 1999, the following year an Omnibus Bill was introduced by the federal government that amended 68 laws, including tax and pensions, to recognise same-sex couples. Immigration was dealt with in a separate statute. Canada operates a state system similar to Australia, meaning responsibilities for certain laws are divided between federal and provincial governments. Federal governments held sway over marriage, but the remainder of family law is delegated to provincial level. “Many of the provinces extended adoption rights to same-sex couples,” Fisher remembers. “So in virtually all of the country we already had same-sex adoption rights, other family rights, inheritance rights, and equal treatment under tax and immigration laws, before we even came to touch the issue of marriage.” While the Maxim Institute in New Zealand argued that our government was “making marriage meaningless” by adopting an omnibus approach to recognising same-sex couples, they didn't see fit to mention that Canada had already set the same precedent – odd, considering that some of their anti-gay material tabled in select committee submissions had been pilfered almost word-for-word from Canadian fundamentalist groups. With many of the issues of legal rights for same-sex couples taken care of in Canada, the last five years have seen Egale focus purely on the issue of same-sex marriage, and here is where New Zealand and Canada's paths to equality diverge most strongly. “The argument became primarily around the symbolism of marriage, what the institution means in society, and what the justification is for excluding same-sex couples from access to this social and legal institution, rather than about the specifics of what you get or don't get in a practical, legal way from having access to the institution,” Fisher says, “which made it quite a clean debate.” That Egale managed to successfully fight for not just civil unions, but full marriage, is remarkable given that with the Omnibus bill, the issues of legal discrimination had largely been resolved. Indeed, opponents of civil unions in New Zealand argued strongly that the Civil Union Bill was unnecessary because of our Omnibus bill, which was to be passed at the same time. Was this argument used against Egale? “It was to an extent,” Fisher says. “But if marriage is only about the symbolism, then what reason exists to exclude us other than to maintain discrimination? We very much advanced the struggle on the basis of equality, non-discrimination, freedom of choice. As long as marriage exists as a social and legal institution, the constitution requires that no-one be excluded through discrimination, and there is no rationale other than discrimination to exclude us.” “I think it became clear as the debate progressed just how deeply rooted in discrimination were the views of those who sought to exclude us,” he remembers. “We heard much of the same histrionics and vitriol that I'm sure the community here in New Zealand were subjected to, and the more that was heard, I think the more shocked many mainstream Canadians became at just how hateful our opponens were, and how much there was a need for protection and equal standing.” The freedom of choice argument resonated, with gay and lesbian Canadians now being free to choose – or not choose – marriage. In a twist that would no doubt infuriate religious opponents, Fisher fits into the latter category. He's happily settled with his French-Canadian partner of ten years, but neither feels the need to marry. This personal belief didn't stop Fisher forging ahead relentlessly to make these rights available for others, though, something that might perhaps be food for thought for those who sat on the sidelines during similar debates here, because they felt there was nothing in it for them. However, the debate for relationship recognition in New Zealand was clouded by the choice to push for civil unions instead of marriage. Some opposed civil unions entirely, saying they'd rather be ignored by the law under the status quo than be given what they saw as second-class status by partial recognition. Civil unions were proposed here as the “winnable” option – how large did this compromise feature in the Canadian debate? “It was discussed and debated,” Fisher says. “In fact, some provinces of Canada had civil unions or registered partnerships already. The provinces couldn't give us marriage because that didn't fall within their jurisdiction, so in their own efforts to advance equality, a number of provinces chose to implement either a civil union or registered partnership regime.” Fisher doesn't believe enacting civil unions in New Zealand is necessarily a setback for achieving full equality, pointing to a number of European countries which have run alternative systems like civil unions or registered partnerships alongside marriage. “I think regardless of the system used to recognise same-sex couples, there's always the dire predictions of the downfall of civilisation from our opponents,” he says. “Then time goes by and people realise that their sons, daughters, friends and neighbours and co-workers who are LGBT are now able to have some mechanism for affirming their relationships, and by and large society comes to accept that as a positive thing. If that acclimatises society so that a future debate around marriage might find more resonance, then so be it. But I don't feel that the people having access to civil union in any way prevents the debate round marriage from continuing.” That works both ways. The day after the Civil Union Bill passed its final reading in Parliament here, the Maxim Institute issued a press release to that effect, saying that the debate on marriage would continue. In other words, they and their religious cohorts weren't giving up on the battle against equality. “I think here, as anywhere, there's more at stake than legal protections. We can never afford to take our rights for granted,” Fisher says. He's optimistic overall, and has faith in the fair-minded side of human nature, but: “I think we're seeing a much more organised, evangelical right wing who are very zealous and committed to not only preventing further advances, but also to roll back gains that have been made. If those voices are allowed to go unchecked or unchallenged, they do have an impact on the social environment, on public attitudes. And ultimately it's attitudes that give rise to things like gay bashings, or which feed into the still phenomenally high rates of youth suicide.” Why do opponents of equality for gays and lesbians appear to be getting much more unchallenged coverage these days? “Many of those who in the past would support our issues don't see it as a burning priority anymore, whereas those who oppose our rights often are zealots, and this is their burning number one priority. That package of what they see as ‘moral issues' often drives them, and means they have an influence on public debate that is disproportionate to their actual numbers.” With prominent places in the political system, these individuals now have the perfect forum through which they can not only voice their ‘concerns' loudly, but influence public policy. “I think that is galvanising the movements both politically and financially in other parts of the world. Certainly a lot of it flows across the border into Canada, and has been a significant source of concern as we've tried to advance these issues within Canada, and we know it has an influence in other parts of the world as well.” It's easy to look to America and the influence of the religious right on the Bush Administration, and the notorious attempt to amend the US Constitution to ban gay marriage. But closer to home, a recent bill to ban gay marriage in New Zealand was supported in full by four parties in Parliament: National, NZ First, United Future (who sponsored the bill) and even the Maori Party. It would only take a slight change in Parliamentary numbers after the election, and a re-introduction in this bill, to see discrimination enshrined in our law merely months after legislation was enacted to remove it. The rise in anti-gay rhetoric that accompanied the civil union debate has returned many in the GLBT communities here back to a pre-1985 state of silence, unwilling to publicly speak out against prejudice anymore. “I don't think there's an easy answer to that one,” Fisher acknowledges. “I think many members of our own communities want to be able to get on and live their lives where they're not subject to overt discrimination, intolerance and hatred. And as with many things, unless you're directly subject to a gay bashing or otherwise have a negative experience, you can think it doesn't effect you personally.” “You also need the structures, the organisations, the organised voices to be able to make people aware of the stuff that's still out there in society, draw it to their attention,” he continues, citing his own experiences with Egale: “We often find that once we gather the information and make it accessible to the community and the public as a whole, some people are genuinely shocked at what is out there, and are more than willing to respond. It's a challenge for us to have access to the resources and build the structures so that our own communities and those who support us can be informed and have the tools needed to make an active difference.” Fisher has now left Egale, aiming to make an active difference internationally as part of the advocacy project ARC-International. The recent horrific hangings in Iran of two gay teenagers is only one example of the gulf that exists between some countries when it comes to even basic safety for gay and lesbian citizens. ARC-International aims to bring networks of gay rights groups in such countries together and to pool their resources. “In some countries, there's no shortage of state abuses, exercise of the death penalty, torture, criminal sanctions and sadly, one of the features of this kind of work is people that we know and work with sometimes are subject to these kinds of abuses. So that's huge, and it's the kind of thing that's difficult to address, because one is not going to change those kinds of systems overnight.” Moving from the area of legal challenges and public advocacy work into countries where state-sanctioned murder for gays is on the books – how much of a toll does this take on one's state of mind? “I have to maintain a healthy balance in my life. I'm the kind of person who gets emotionally invested no matter what the campaign, but my partner is more than used to seeing me in some kind of emotional state at my computer! All the more so when it's something affecting people's personal security, and happening to people that we know and consider friends and colleagues. So, yeah, it affects you.” Chamomile tea? “I'm not a big fan of tea. I drink coffee, but I don't think that calms me down,” he laughs. So what if you are one of those GLBT individuals feeling particularly disempowered at the moment, zooming round town in your car being driven into an apopleptic frenzy by Leighton Smith because your Japanese car radio can't get any other station. What can you do about it? “There's always something that can be done to make a difference, and that's one of the things I love about the people I work with, either those who are involved in a big way as volunteer committee members or board members, or those people we meet everyday who just walk into our office off the street and ask what they can do to help. I think by becoming more involved in the life and work of our communities, there are always things that can be really rewarding, and make you feel you are making a difference.” And in the final analysis, although there's a way to go yet, great progress has been made. "I grew up in New Zealand at a time when criminal sanctions were still on the books. What a difference between, at one time, thinking of myself as a criminal, and now living in a country where I have the option to marry my partner of ten years – I never thought I'd see that kind of progress and change in the course of my lifetime, in the fairly short space of time that's been. Throughout our work, we see lots of progress in regions around the world, in many cases very slow and hard going, but the privilege of working with people with the courage to make a difference is really inspiring for me." Chris Banks - 10th August 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Wednesday, 10th August 2005 - 12:00pm

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