Last edited: February 14, 2005

I Want an Apology Too

New York Press, June 11, 2002
333 7th Ave, 14th Fl., New York, New York 10001

By Michelangelo Signorile

It’s not every day that a tiny nation like New Zealand—for the most part, two islands sitting on the bottom of the planet—can make a country like the all-powerful, supposedly sophisticated United States look backward. The frumpy, reserved little sister among the siblings birthed by mother England—including the cocky Australia and the flashy America—New Zealand often struggles to have an identity and to even be recognized among the other mostly white Anglo-Saxon countries. Its television news and entertainment are overwhelmed with cheaply sold product from the mother country as well as from the U.S. and from Australia, while its small market often makes homegrown projects cost-prohibitive. As an isolated island nation of fewer than four million, its teeny economy is always precarious; the New Zealand dollar has plummeted over the past few years, beaten up by both the U.S. and Australian dollars and the British pound.

But one area where New Zealand leaves its mother and sisters in the dust is on human rights. The reparations made to the Maori in New Zealand—where Maori is now even an official language—make the supposed amends that the U.S. has made to Native Americans look even more paltry than has often been charged, while the Australian treatment of aboriginals is positively abysmal.

And last week New Zealand, a place at the end of the Earth that no one ever talks much about, made them all look pretty pathetic when its prime minister, Helen Clark, offered a formal apology "on behalf of the government" to gays and lesbians for the past harsh treatment against them at the hands of the state. "People have put up with the most appalling discrimination, stereotyping, people have been criminalized," she said.

On the surface, few would think that on gay rights the U.S. is actually closer to a Muslim fundamentalist society like Egypt—which, only under international pressure, recently released a number of men who’d been arrested because they are allegedly homosexual—than its Anglo-Protestant sister New Zealand. But consider that there are gay-specific, biblically inspired sodomy laws still on the books in a number of states, including Texas, and that those laws continue to be used to arrest people; in Texas in recent years, people have had police barge into their homes and haul them into jail.

Also consider the fact that the current president, as well as the previous president (when he was attorney general of Arkansas), have both been on record supporting such sodomy laws, which no doubt goes a long way toward locking up the South in the primaries. Though the penalties may be far less severe, much of the U.S., like Egypt, criminalizes homosexuality for religious reasons. We’re certainly not anywhere near offering a formal apology to gays and lesbians for harsh treatment. (Hell, we can’t even get conservatives in Congress to offer an apology to African-Americans for slavery!)

I lived in New Zealand for two years, during those heady we-can-do-anything days of the Internet boom. Actually, I lived both in New York and New Zealand, shuttling between the two every couple of months, using every kind of high-tech communications device imaginable so I could be everywhere all at once. (You’ve heard of "bi-coastal"—I brought new meaning to the term "bi-polar.") My film-professor boyfriend had taken a position at a university in New Zealand, and I was mostly writing for online sites, reporting in my travels. We lived in Dunedin, a Scottish-settled city on the bottom of the South Island—nicknamed the "Riviera of the Antarctic."

It was an interesting time to be there since the country had for several years been transforming itself, ending the failing social welfare state—which had in decades past made New Zealand a model of social democracy that surpassed even the Scandinavian countries—and opening its markets dramatically. New Zealand had basically been an isolationist country with little class disparity.

Those years of isolation took their toll and the scars are still apparent, particularly when it comes to architecture and fashion (lots of cinderblock buildings and no stiletto heels, anywhere). It’s not easy keeping up when you’re living on a couple of rocks at the bottom of the Pacific, and the utilitarianism of the welfare state didn’t help. But I was always intrigued by how far racial equality, women’s rights and gay rights had come in a short time there. Homosexuality had been decriminalized completely in the 80s, a national antidiscrimination law was put in place in the 90s and foreign-born gay partners of New Zealanders and of immigrants to the country are afforded the same visa and citizenship status that the spouses of heterosexuals are offered.

During the last national election campaign both chief candidates running for prime minister were women. Their differences on gay rights? The "conservative" National Party candidate, the then-incumbent Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, marched in the gay pride parade in Auckland and supported full equality for gays and lesbians, but, unlike her "liberal" opponent, wanted a different name for same-sex unions from the word "marriage." (The liberal Labor Party candidate, Clark, won.) That same year, the first transgendered member of Parliament—of any parliament in the world—was elected. Georgina Bayer [sic: Beyer] had been a TV soap star—as a man—and then later became a film star—as a woman. (In between she spent some time as a prostitute in Sydney.) Then she moved to Carterton, a small farming community, where she was elected mayor; later she went on to run for a seat in Parliament.

In context it’s thus not so out of the ordinary that Prime Minister Clark is apologizing to gays and lesbians for the government’s historically brutal treatment of them. And actually, you’d have to be familiar with the New Zealand penchant for self-deprecation to understand how utterly predictable an apology—any apology—is in New Zealand. (Anyone living in the shadow of flashy and more famous big sisters is always apologizing for her mere existence.) Just two weeks ago, Clark apologized to the Samoans for New Zealand’s having seized their islands and wreaked havoc more than 70 years ago. One member of a small far-right party accused Clark of apologizing to everyone except straight, middle class, white men, who are "vilified and made to feel guilty for every wrong."

Clearly, such apologias are the kind of thing conservatives of every stripe will seize upon as the ultimate in political correctness—and they are a bit hokey. It’s also true that actions speak louder than words. I’d be happy enough if laws in this country criminalizing people’s private sexual activity were stricken, and if gays were protected against discrimination and had full equality in all areas, including in marriage and adoption. Still, after all of that is done, in the name of all of those who’ve been fired, jailed, beaten, attacked and killed for decades, you better believe I’d want an apology, too.

[Home] [World] [Editorials]