New Zealand has changed a lot since I was a kid. When I was a kid, homosexuality was illegal, and those who engaged in “homosexual acts” risked getting locked up. Kids who didn’t fit gendered stereotypes were bullied mercilessly. There were no education programmes around sexual orientation in schools, and pretty much every kid thought “gay” was an acceptable insult. I did.
Thank goodness, society is changing. New Zealand’s growing maturity has been reflected in law changes: first through the legalisation of homosexuality in the 80s, and then with the introduction of civil unions. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to speak during the parliamentary debate in support of marriage equality — now law in our country.
I’ve been privileged along the way to have gay friends who took the time to educate me. In the 1990s, I trained as a church minister alongside lesbian women, and after that I worked alongside the (then) only out gay clergyman in the Presbyterian Church. Part of what made them terrific colleagues and friends was the prejudice they had encountered and triumphed over. That said, after hearing their stories, I wouldn’t wish their experiences on anyone. Despite a message of grace and acceptance — and plenty of interesting scriptural relationship models (think: polygamy for starters) — too often the church is a hard place for LGBT people to be.
The churches aren’t alone in harbouring contemporary prejudice. Recent news that New Zealand sportspeople are more likely to keep their sexual identity hidden than those overseas is a timely reminder if we needed one. There is work to be done across society to ensure every kid grows up comfortable in their own skin.
Casual homophobia needs to be challenged. On tertiary campuses, I seldom hear the racist slurs that were once a part of everyday language. Yet too often I still hear the word “gay” used in a pejorative sense — without irony. This must change.
So while things are getting better, there is still a way to go. In my view, acceptance of the right of all consenting adults to love whomever they choose can’t come quickly enough.