As the support for same-sex marriage grows stronger I'm realising what a great treasure civil unions are. Central to their value has been the ability to subvert thinking about how and with whom we can be intimately bound to one another.
To point out that loving relationships are many and varied. To show that same-sex relationships can, like any other human bond, be about profound love, unquestioning support in times of trouble and deep friendship until death.
The added strain for same sex relationships is the institutionalized oppression of the society in which the relationship is played out.
Lisa See's book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has forcefully reminded me of this. Lily, one of the central characters, is worthless because of her gender, unable to improve her life unless she marries well and produces sons.
Crucial to this enterprise is the size and shape of her feet. Big, natural feet will mean no husband. Tiny, bound and deformed feet will be seen as exquisite, changing her value and ensuring a worthy husband to do 'bed business' with.
Lily is seven years old when her foot binding begins. Her little feet are progressively bent, bruised and quite literally broken by her mother who is intent on furthering her daughter's chances in life. The pain is excruciating and relentless, but Lily will now fit the expectations of her society. Expectations built on erroneous beliefs that have been firmly institutionalized and used to oppress.
Just a palanquin ride away Snow Flower is also having her feet bound. They become friends, sharing everything, clothes, gossip, hopes and dreams, the struggle of being born a worthless girl, the physical and psychological pain of foot binding and when they are together, a bed.
This is no ordinary friendship; instead they're part of an exclusive sisterhood, the laotong, often called 'old sames'. They are bound to each other for life through a formalized contract negotiated by a matchmaker. Their relationship will be close, passionate, loving and more enduring than marriage.
I found myself laughing and crying at this delightfully subversive antidote to the physical and emotional pain of bodily torture and forced marriage. After all, it was provided by the very culture that had done the oppressing.
Sometimes the need to get rid of injustice paired with the need to belong can mean we buy into the very structures that oppressed us in the first place. The push towards same-sex marriage has something of that ring about it.
Civil unions with their inclusive hospitality to all-comers have given soulful breathing space to reflect on a system that has oppressed, to wonder about marriage and even what we mean by love and commitment.
In a way they have been our laotong by offering us a more spacious way to live and the potential to see life from many different angles. What a blessing.
Tim Barnett and Ramon Maniapoto at Waitetoko Marae, Taupo during their Civil Union in 2009. Tim was the New Zealand MP responsible for the daunting but rewarding task of shepherding New Zealand's Civil Union legislation through parliament. I was delighted to be one of the Anglican priests who celebrated their union with them.