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Did you know that since same-sex marriage became legal in New Zealand, only 2% of all Kiwi marriages have been same-sex, and our divorce rate is higher than straight couples? Michael Stevens ponders why.

I’m married, as are a number of my lesbian and gay friends, but many are happy to continue living together with no official ceremony or paperwork to mark it. I know people who have been together for decades and have zero interest in becoming officially united by the state.

In many cultures, marriage has historically been about handing a young female over to another family. Some cultures still practise arranged marriages, where the couple might only meet a few times before getting wed. It is, in many ways, a property transaction more than a romantic one.

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There have always been criticisms of marriage, and people in our communities arguing that we didn’t need the right to it. One argument was that we simply didn’t need to mimic the institutions of heterosexuality; we can build and form our own ways of being in relationships without the need for a licence from the state, church, or family.

Modern marriage in this country is something a bit different. It doesn’t make too much difference to your legal situation. After you’ve been living together for three years, the state sees you as a couple for all legal intents and purposes. So why add marriage to it?

But I don’t think this entirely explains the lower rate we see.

In my experience as a gay man, it’s much harder to meet someone you want to spend your life with. To start with, we make up only a small fraction of the total population. Most estimates put gay men at about 6% of the total population (lesbians, an even smaller percentage), and not all are out. This means that the chances of meeting someone in such a small group that you feel like standing up in front of your family and friends and promising to be with each other for the rest of your lives is necessarily smaller. There just aren’t that many of us, so the odds are smaller, and our relatively small population size only magnifies this.

The sexual culture of the gay male world also pushes against the idea of marriage. A highly sexualised culture is not necessarily a bad thing, but it might lead some of us to think that they’d rather continue in their independence and freedom. Many queer people are experimenting with other forms of relationships that they might not think aligns with marriage, such as polyamory, which has always been part of the gay world but it’s more explicit now.

For us, getting married wasn’t about wanting the state to sanction our relationship. It was using language and symbolism that the world easily understands to declare our love. It did feel joyful and serious to stand up in front of the people we love and commit ourselves to each other, good times, bad times, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.

For me, it also felt liberating. After so many family weddings, it felt great to claim something that I had been told for so long that I wasn’t worthy of and would never experience. Above all, it was celebratory. It felt so joyful to be surrounded by so much love and goodwill as we made our vows. Family cried. Friends cried. Because they were happy for us.

I suspect same-sex marriages will continue to be a low number percentage. The different ways to form and sustain alternative relationships are growing in publicity and acceptance, and the sheer chance of meeting someone you want to commit to in our world is smaller than for straights.

But when it’s right, it’s right, and it’s a joyous and happy thing.

Article | MICHAEL STEVENS.

Michael Stevens

MICHAEL STEVENS is a former chair of the NZ AIDS Foundation (now Burnett Foundation Aotearoa) and the founding director of the Rainbow Tick. He is a long-time community activist and social commentator.

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