With less than a month remaining now before our civil union, I thought I would share what I have learned.
There is a lot of confusion about what these are, that they are non-binding or a lower grade of commitment, that they are only for gay people, that anyone can administer one. The legal commitments and protections in New Zealand are in fact the same as with marriage, although they are not recognised in some countries. It is all too easy to call it a wedding, but we have been training ourselves not to do that, because that defeats the point. The point is, as a straight couple, we had a choice and we chose a civil union. We chose a commitment ceremony on our own terms, and one of those terms is that we not participate in something from which some groups are excluded. There has opposition to civil unions and their “separate but equal” status, with Marilyn Waring commenting for example:
Marriage is a civil and political right and civil and political rights are not negotiable. You can’t have half a right. If it’s a civil or political right in international law it’s immediately enforceable. It’s not something that progressively – you know – as it depends on what you can politically get away with you might get there. So my submission is focused very much on the fact that civil union was a separate but equal approach and we’ve seen separate but equal approaches throughout history. Apartheid is a separate but equal approach. Segregation in the American south was a separate but equal approach. [Source]
Although I agree that marriage should be open to everybody, I disagree on tactics, but it’s not my fight. Also, she loses me at the point where she makes the inflamatory comparison with Apartheid.
Fundamentally, we believe there is value in the concept of a public commitment, and that a union is a product of a community, not just of two people. Also, is a lot of fun to bring together all the people in your life, and there are all too few opportunities to do this (and for one of those opportunities you have to be freshly deceased).
Incidentally, we have discovered that the details of weddings are very different around the world, even in Western countries. For example, In Germany, one has a registry office legal wedding followed by a celebratory wedding. In the UK, you may only marry in registered premises. Here, you may marry or engage in a civil union anywhere but you must have a registered celebrant, and the numbers of these are tightly regulated. In the US, it is straightforward to become a celebrant temporarily so you can marry your friends, or you can choose a Quaker wedding where there is no celebrant at all.
How to apply
In Christchurch, post-earthquake, the process of applying for a civil union (or a marriage) licence has become a mysterious and secret journey — ten months after 22 February and there is still no information online. Here is the process. Visit the Internal Affairs website and print and complete any forms you need. Drive to the airport and park in the short term airport parking. Walk back to the roundabout and turn right along Orchard Road. Turn left onto Perimeter Road. At this point, the footpath runs out, the buildings look like they are for aircraft maintenance or in-flight catering. Continue on foot to the Customs building on your left, and you will see a sign pasted to the wall explaining that it is also the temporary offices for Births, Deaths, and Marriages. The address is 26 Perimeter Road, there’s no parking outside, and if you arrive after 4pm you will have to go home and come back later. Don’t just follow these instructions though: email them first to confirm they haven’t moved!
It is difficult to find information about celebrants, particularly civil union celebrants. Our celebrant is an Anglican minister who gay and is in a civil union herself. We found her through the advice of a marriage celebrant friend of ours. We met another celebrant first who would have would have worn a nice floral hat and done whatever we wanted. She would have been perfectly fine. The second celebrant we met had very clear ideas on what a civil union meant, she understood why we chose one, and she had her own rules and values that she brought to the occasion. We chose her.
We have found Offbeat Bride particularly useful. It is a community of people all doing their own thing to a greater or lesser degree (and their own thing very often involves Star Trek). Weddingbee is also quite useful. I have been subscribed to a local Facebook group, which has provided some striking insights into how self-centred people can get about their “special day.” For example, some people feel that everything must be perfect, and that therefore precludes the presence of small children, and that guests who have a problem getting their children looked after all day should stop being so selfish. Well, I believe that the selfishness vector should perhaps be pointing in the opposite direction. At the very least, friends with children should be treated with understanding instead of bitchy comments on a closed group. Fundamentally, we believe small children are part of the community and are of course welcome. Another hot topic has been partners and whether it is OK to invite one person and not the other if you don’t know them well or don’t consider them to have a meaningful or valuable relationship. This is a reasonable discussion as these events can be expensive, but there is no need to excoriate guests for their selfishness in wanting to bring a partner. I think the hypocrisy is pungent: expecting guests to honour your relationship while disrespecting theirs.
Shortly after our engagement, we spent a couple weekends driving around the countryside looking at community halls. We were struck by the high standard of many halls. Farthest afield was the Staveley Hall, in a beautiful spot but quite dark inside and rather far away. We looked at the Ohoka and Brooklands Halls but dismissed them both due to lack of outside space. We considered the Cust community centre, but it was too prosaic and too public. We dismissed the North New Brighton Hall as it is just too nearby and we wanted a fresh space. We chose the West Eyreton Hall, which has a new kitchen, a large hall with a polished wooden floor, pleasant grounds with native plantings, and a pretty little oak grove across the road, all for just $150 (we feel guilty paying so little and are considering making an additional donation). We have since discovered the Kainga Hall which has ample grounds across the road for photographs, but our choice is already made.
A community hall is not necessarily the cheap option though: you need to organise your own decorations, equipment hireage, catering. Everything adds up quickly: $50 for forks, $200 for linen napkins, and so forth.
First, a preamble: Sarah describes herself as vegan. I usually describe myself as “semi-vegan” which raises howls of protest from the carnivores. They question what that means, thinking that it means I’m vegan except for when I’m not vegan. That is literally true. But what people don’t understand is how incredibly difficult it is to be vegan in social situations. I can easily eat vegan at home, but if I am out at a bar or restaurant, there is often absolutely no food available at all, or it is not clear. As of Christchurch 2011, a choice to be strictly vegan would mean that I could eat safely at one Christchurch restaurant and nowhere else. I will also sometimes eat the non-vegan birthday cakes staff bring in to work. To me, that’s more important. That’s what semi-vegan means to me.
So anyway, with all that in play, we felt we wanted full control over the catering. We have opted for a combination of vegan and vegetarian dishes, and we will prepare everything in advance as best we can. We are very fortunate to have a friend of Sarah’s family taking charge on the day to cook, prepare, serve (he will hire staff for us). We were very impressed that he was willing to work with what we provide and to trust that we will do it right. Then he let us know that he catered his wedding over new year and he made the event last four days!
We have yet to finalise the menu, but we do have all the drinks sorted. I have conducted research into the credentials of wines and beers, and this is what I have found. Wines today are typically fined with milk and sometimes egg. Very few bottles are unlabeled. There are a few vegan wines, of which Wither Hills seems to be a well-known brand. Vegan beers and ciders are very common — in fact most brands are vegan. They tend to be either vegan or non-vegetarian as they are fined with isinglass. There is clearly a trend away from isinglass. Monteith’s is one of the few major brands that are not vegan (although apparently is is usually vegan). Many craft brands are also not vegan, although several are (for example, Moa, Stoke, and Tuatara). There is good information at barnivore.com.
Sarah found her dress almost immediately, using Etsy to locate a dressmaker who is in fact in Christchurch. This has been easy, fun, and affordable. I looked at a lot of online options for suits. Locally, only the most boring styles are available and I wanted something a bit different. A host of sites online will offer to make suits for you, but I read many reviews of these services suggesting that the quality was low. Ultimately, I selected a linen suit, which was quite affordable.
We have worked with Marcela, an Argentinian woman who is as friendly as she is small, to learn a choreographed first dance to a song we selected. This has been fun, although we have needed a lot of time to practice. Private classes are a much different experience from group classes: if you find something easy then you move on, if you find something difficult then you can stop and work on it rather than being left behind for the remainder of the class. The result was that we learned a four-minute routine in just three classes.
We are arranging every detail of this event ourselves and we are working with large numbers (around 110). In this context, we have found that the eight month timeframe has been a challenge. The organisation, on top of selling a house, working full time, and earthquake issues (dealing with contractors, insurance, breakages, picking bookcases up off the floor), has well-and-truly taken all our time. Wedding or union planning is complicated and stressful, and can include some delicate balancing and management of family. Anything and everything I might have wanted to do with my time has simply not happened. Sometimes I wonder who I am and why I am here. In retrospect, we needed a year.
That’s all I have for now, but I’ll probably add more notes as I think of them.