Transcript

This transcript was generously sponsored by James Barron. It has been lightly edited for clarity

Joseph Habgood: So, yeah, my name is Joseph Habgood and I'm currently the Communications Officer for LegaliseLove, Wellington. I also had the privilege of being one of the founders of LegaliseLove as it then was, back in the day.

And the idea for this essentially came about out of quite a horrific sort of story from the United States. Back in September, 2010, there were a spate of quite terrible homophobic attacks and suicides, and that gave, I guess, the impetus to this campaign and in North America to start what became Spirit Day, which was every October 20th there's an event where everyone wears purple to their school or place of work. And back in 2010 I had the idea that Spirit Day needs to be an international thing, that something that sort of came about out of this higher price, I suppose, needs to not be lost, and if anything positive can come from it, it needs to be.

So this led up basically to a rally on the 20th of October, 2011, where we brought around about 300 people marching on Parliament. And I guess because I see the world in a very sort of legalistic sense – I'm a law student – so what I wanted to kind of do to help was push for legal equality in marriage and adoption, and so those were the two kind of planks that LegaliseLove was formed on.

Since then, obviously, and at the start of 2012 we had this mindset of, you know, we want to keep pushing for these things, and we thought that it was a really worthy cause to go towards, but we were kind of thinking maybe in the next three years, four years.

And then of course President Barack Obama said: You know what? I think same-sex marriage is something good. And then all of a sudden all of our politicians start, you know, having a comment on it, and we thought there's got to be a moment soon in our history when this will be debated.

And then of course Louisa Wall introduced her Bill, and we thought wow, it's really impending, so we started preparing for the imminent debate. But we thought even then it was statistically unlikely for it to come out this year and we thought we've probably got a bit of time; the next day it was drawn [laughs], which, you know, was quite an exciting experience. At the time I was sitting in a law lecture and kind of trying to ignore my phone, which kept going off, and then I kind of snuck a glance at the third text and just nearly jumped to the moon, which was brilliant.

But yeah, since then I started off kind of being the leader of LegaliseLove. I soon sort of stepped down into a more communicative role, which I think I personally like it better. But it's been like the actual people involved in LegaliseLove have changed over a couple times, but I think consistently through it we've had this energy of I feel like it's been an absolute privilege to work with everyone who has been involved in LegaliseLove from the start. You know, some people are still there, some people are not, but we've always had this energy of wanting to change the world. So yeah, I think it's been a really, really good journey.

Our future I'm not entirely certain of. Like, after this Bill is dealt with, and I'm incredibly confident that New Zealand will come down on the right side, obviously we're not complacent about that and we're ready to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens, but once marriage equality is a reality in New Zealand I'm not sure where the group will go. Obviously we still have in our hearts a desire to fight homophobia and transphobia as hard as we possibly can. Whether that's as part of LegaliseLove or whether that's as part of other groups we've yet to decide, but essentially as a kind of conclusion underpinning everything that we do, at least everything I do, and I think my friends have this in common with me, is that homophobia and transphobia are – you know, I don't want to say the most because there are a lot of terrible things in the world – but certainly two of the most terrible things that modern society is cursed with, and I think the elimination of them is a goal that we all have to work towards.

Like, I'm personally straight. I don't identify as an ally because I think the word ally implies that there's some sort of special privilege to it which I think is incredibly heterosexist. I think every person in the world should be an ally. I don't think the word ally needs to signify anything special. So, personally I think that I don't want to live in a world where the majority gets to decide how the minority live, and I don't want to live in a world that marginalizes people based on who they love, so that's why we do what we do.

Gareth: Where does that drive come from for you?

Joseph: For me? I think... Okay, well I mean back in high school I had a few friends who eventually sort of came out to me, one in terms of his sexual identity and one in terms of her gender identity, and both people I could see personally went through a lot.

But the real kind of impetus, I suppose, was at the beginning of 2009 I went to the Kaha Youth Hui put on in Wellington, and it became clear to me then I actually went to a very liberal high school. You know, back when you're in year nine no school is liberal enough for you, but in national terms I went to a pretty liberal place. And I won't say that homophobia and transphobia didn't exist; of course they existed, but the kind of stories I heard at that hui in Wellington with people from all around New Zealand were utterly heartbreaking.

And at one moment I was kind of like in this position where I could look into everyone's eyes at once – I was in front kind of addressing the crowd – and I looked into the eyes of this one cisgendered gay couple who were obviously and beautifully in love, and I had a weird sort of internal transformation because it was at once the most beautiful and the most sad thing I'd ever seen in my life. It was beautiful because obviously you know that this couple were in love and it was wonderful, and it was unmistakable, that like any couple you can kind of tell. And that was my first reaction.

My second reaction was: This is the first time I've seen this. Why is that? And the answer came to me – I guess I can think of any manner of clichés to say how this came to me – but it was that this is being suppressed, people are afraid to show this, and that was terrifying. It was tragic because, you know, it seems trite to say there isn't enough love in the world, but any couple and any people that are truly in love should not be forced to hide that, ever. And the fact that people are not only forced to hide it, but also if they don't hide it receive terrible sanctions, disgusted me; and yeah, I guess that's the drive for me is to make sure that people like that couple I saw in the front row can be as public as they want to just like the rest of us.

Gareth: Going back to 2011 and I was at the AsiaPacific Outgames Human Rights Conference and there wasn't a huge amount of talk about marriage equality. And I'm just wondering how did you rev up the communities to actually get them behind this?

Joseph: Yeah, that's a good question. I think, like I said, the real impetus in New Zealand was external. I think it was Barack Obama saying this was actually a possibility.

That said, the hui that I've been to there has been a lot of people that said I do want to get married and this is incredibly important to me. It's possible that maybe it wasn't envisioned as something that, you know, could happen this close after civil unions, maybe it needed to wait a little longer for that memory to fade, but I think that that's been proven to be false and I think that now it's become clear that the modern era is a time for marriage equality across the world, including New Zealand, regardless of our status with civil unions. And I think it's high time for that.

And in terms of revving up, revving people up for marriage, I think it's split between people who see it as a civil human-rights issue and who passionately believe that laws should be equal, and also those who are driven basically by their passion for fighting transphobia and homophobia and who see the obvious link between an incredibly unequal law and the message that that sends to 14 year old boys and girls, and everything in between, in high schools coming out, and the government saying basically that the bullying you're experiencing now is going to be replicated in adulthood by unequal laws. And I think that personally that that is one of the worst parts of not having marriage equality is the message that that sends to young people.

Gareth: There is law change, but there are other ways of changing people's behavior and thought patterns. Do you have any thoughts about what are other things that we can all do to make it a better place?

Joseph: Okay. I think I guess the most obvious response is at the moment there's a tendency to use the word gay as a pejorative term, and I think that's one of the first things that we can try and get rid of. I know that my high school, Nayland College, in some classes has... we used to have "swear jars," now people have to give a contribution if they use the word gay as an insult, which I think, you know, is quite a clever say of dealing with the problem.

But yeah, I think apart from law change it's really just... I mean, the answer is simpler than a lot of us care to realize; it's every time we encounter an incidence of homophobia or transphobia, and even if it's not intended – especially if it's not intended, actually – basically catching the person out and saying, you know, we're not saying you're a terrible person but that behavior you just demonstrated is not good and not acceptable and please stop. And I think it seems petty and it seems like it's not a huge response, but it actually is. And if everyone started doing that and if everyone, you know, actively kind of showed that they were not accepting of homophobia and transphobia I think the bigots – the true bigots, not the ones who demonstrate this behavior but the ones who are actually proud of it – would realize what a small minority they are.

I think a lot of us are implicit allies of homophobia and transphobia without even realizing it; even if you don't sort of casually and unthinkingly use the word gay, I would assume that a lot of us stand by while that happens. So sort of not standing by is I think the biggest thing that most of us can do, and just practicing equality and practicing that acceptance in our day to day lives actively instead of passively.

Gareth: But doesn't that really put yourself in the firing line for a lot of crap?

Joseph: It can do. And understand that I'm not for one second saying that everyone has an obligation to. As a straight person I don't have to worry about constantly defending myself from homophobic and transphobic attacks. It seems to me that if we, with our cisgendered and heterosexist privilege, because that's what it is, it's cis and hetero privilege, don't have the courage to kind of take some of that – and not in every case; not when you know that the retaliation is going to be violent – but if we don't have the courage to sort of stand up for that then how can we really expect like our friends and our allies and our brothers and sisters to do the same? And it's sort of as heterosexuals and as cisgendered people there's only so much we can do, but that's something we can do, and I think that we have an obligation to do that, really.

Now, the way I see it I would like to jump into my friend's skin sometimes and fight their personal battles for them, because that's what friends do, they defend each other. But you can't sort of jump into their heads and help fight their depression and help fight the homophobia internally, so I think the reaction is if you can't do it internally you have to actually do it externally. You have to go out and maybe not seek out people who are homophobic, or are knowingly or unknowingly homophobic, but at least we're like dealing with it when it happens.

And I'm not saying that I've done that every time, and I don't think there's anyone who really does because there are circumstances in which you think maybe this isn't wise, maybe this actually would be dangerous to me, and I'm not for a second encouraging people to put themselves in harm's way. But I think that fearing some sort of social rejection for standing up for your friends... I don't know, I think people would actually be surprised, to be honest. Like, it's incredibly uncomfortable to put yourself in that position and, you know, there are some people who would be like physically unable to put themselves in that position, people with social anxiety and anything else, and I'm not for a second condemning that, but people who feel themselves able to I think should.

Gareth: Do you think your sense of social justice came prior to going into law or was it something that happened after going into studying law?

Joseph: This happened before. I think it was actually the other way around. I think I went into... well, every law student says this I suppose, and I guess it's pretty arrogant to say it, but I think law, at least in part, was out of a desire to enact change. But again, like I say, most students – pardon me, most law students go into it wanting to make change and go out wanting to just make money. So, you know, we'll see. Ask me again in two years [laughs].

Gareth: So where to now for you? You're studying law at the moment; where do you think that will lead you?

Joseph: Well I'm not entirely sure. I guess just from a pragmatic perspective as well as being involved in campaigns I do want something that will give me a steady income in life, but I also think that law can be used for good and I think the ideal situation would be to join with a sort of social group that stuck up for people in unfortunate legal situations and gave sort of advice to them. Like, I know this is just a hypothetical, but I know as a high schooler I had absolutely zero information about what my rights were, or what my obligations were for that matter, and I would have really appreciated – not necessarily a lawyer so that I could sue my high school, I liked my high school – but it occurred to me sometimes: You know, I don't know what my rights are. I know what I think my rights are, but I don't really know precisely what I'm entitled to do.

And I think a lot of response to that, because I think it's more people than me that just think that, there are two kinds of responses to as a student not knowing your rights:

The first is to kind of bow down and go, oh well, you know, it's not worth it.

And the second one is to just openly and aggressively rebel, which I'm not going to comment on whether I did or not, but it's sort of like if you know exactly what you're entitled to but also know exactly what your obligations are, like if you know your rights and responsibilities I think you can make change in a more effective way, and you can deal respectfully with school boards and you can deal effectively with school boards because you know where you stand. And, you know, I'm not saying that'll end in lawsuit, but I am saying that if both parties are kind of dealing with each other on equal terms it will possibly lead to a really good outcome.

So, yeah, in terms of a job I don't know how else to really address where to. I don't have a 10-year plan. My plan at the moment is to fight for this Bill, get it through Parliament and then party for 10 weeks.

Gareth: If you had something to say to students going through high school now that maybe don't have the support networks that are in larger centers or in schools that aren't necessarily as friendly, what would that be?

Joseph: All right, there's a group called QSA Network Aotearoa, which is setting up in Wellington and has already had one national hui – seek them out. And this is mainly for queer and straight alliances within high schools, but even if you want to set up your own sort of just student support network, regardless of whether it's queer friendly or not, seek advice from them, but especially if you're trying to start a QSA. Or even if you're not trying to start a QSA, even if you just want support personally, seek this group out because they do a lot of good. The group started this year but the people responsible for organizing it transformed my life personally, and I know that they have the power to do that to anyone.

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com