It was only a photograph, but it was the thing that caused the strongest negative reaction from readers in the editor's seven years in charge of the Waikato Times. It was late 2004 and Helen Clark's Government had just voted to allow civil unions in this country. The local paper in Hamilton marked the significant societal change with a front page picture and story.
The shot showed two men puckering up, about to kiss. They were from a small town in the Waikato, and were celebrating what they said was a milestone in their lives: the right to be treated the same as any other Kiwi couple legally.
The reaction began almost the minute the paper came off the press sometime after midday (the Times was an afternoon paper then). By 5pm that evening, dozens of people had rung to cancel their subscriptions. Letters to the editor went on for weeks. The editor's pedigree was called into question several times. He can still recall one of the most bizarre phone calls from that day.
"Are you there," a woman yelled down the line.
"Yes I am," said the editor. Having taken several calls already, he knew what the angry person was calling about. "Are you calling about today's front page?"
There was a loud but garbled reply and he assumed the lady was driving. "Would you mind pulling over, I can't understand what you're saying."
After a pause, she came back on the line. "Okay, can you hear me?"
"Yes," he said. "And I guess you're ringing about the front page photo?"
"I am. And you know what I'm doing?" she screamed. "I'm on the front lawn, burning your newspaper."
She had been so incensed at the picture of men about to kiss, she'd dropped the paper on the lawn after picking it out of the letterbox, got her lawn mower out of the shed, and tipped out its petrol over the newspaper, setting it on fire.
Yes indeed, some people are passionate about same-sex relationships.
With that level of vitriol not even 10 years ago, it is a surprise that anyone could be shocked by polls which show public support for Louisa Wall's gay marriage bill slipping. Opposition is 48 per cent.
If it was put to the vote at a referendum, there would be little chance of it passing. Too many people are uncomfortable about it and believe that marriage is for a man and a woman. Some are only speaking up now because they've been scared of being labelled homophobes, or worse. How is it the gay community doesn't like being marginalised, yet it labels or shouts down people's heartfelt opposition? People are entitled to their view.
The bigger point in this debate, of course, is that those against gay marriage would continue to discriminate against the civil rights of their fellow New Zealanders if they got their way.
We vote governments in to make hard decisions for the good of the citizens, and the likelihood of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill being passed into law at its third reading is high, bearing in mind it got over the second hurdle at 77-44 in the voting.
That's as it should be. It is the right thing to end the discrimination. It's too bad the majority are a little uncomfortable.
The encouraging thing has been the higher level of tolerance of the gay cause. No newspapers burned in vain this time. That's progress.
Footnote: Bryce Johns, the former Waikato Times editor, is now Herald on Sunday editor.
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