The Battle for LGBT Equality in New Zealand Immigration

When I arrived in New Zealand, gays and lesbians who had a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident as a partner could gain permanent residency through a relationship visa.  This would have probably been the only way I could gain New Zealand permanent residency under the system as it was then.

There was quite a flaw in the system though, as gays and lesbians were treated differently under New Zealand Immigration’s rules.  Back in 1996, or even 1998 when I applied, the rules (created in 1988) were as follows:

Straight Married Straight De Facto Gay De Facto
When the non-NZer could apply for Permanent Residency Immediately 18 months together 24 months together
Wait for Permanent Residency Approval None 6 months 24 months
Total time Nearly instantaneous 2 years 4 years

Obviously, this was not fair.  How could Immigration determine that a gay relationship was at any more risk than a straight married one?  Why was there such a cool-down period for gay couples?  The difference of 2 years between de facto couples, totally dependent on their sexual orientation, was astounding.

Noel and I didn’t feel this was fair or right.  So we did what many LGBT people have done before us to secure what legal rights we did have; we fought.

The LGBT media (and, to some extent, the mainstream media) were extremely supportive with our fight against the New Zealand Government.  No one seemed to be able to answer why there were different categories based on sexual orientation, but the underlying current seemed to be the assumption that gay and lesbian couples were less likely to be stable or stay together than straight couples, so more stringent criteria were needed for gay and lesbian couples.

Remember, boys and girls, that to “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

Noel and I became sorta “poster-boys” for this campaign, especially when another couple involved felt they had been fighting too long and needed to get on with their lives; they sadly left New Zealand and the fight for equal rights behind.  One of the examples I could find was the 15 May 1997 edition of Express newspaper, of which the main story is about immigration rights in New Zealand.  The main tidbit read:

Christchurch couple Noel Turner and Scott Fack met on the internet nearly three years ago.  Fack, an American, wants permanent residency to stay with his partner in New Zealand.  He says the four-year requirement does put strain on the future of a relationship, making it difficult to plan ahead.

Openly-gay Labour MP Tim Barnett and his colleague Annette King helped with the fight.  Noel kinda pushed me to be the liaison with all these people: media, other couples, Tim (the latter of which made it difficult for me because I couldn’t always understand what Tim was saying with his British accent…).

It was difficult for me personally because, as a gay American who wanted to become a New Zealand permanent resident, I had to basically put my life on hold for 4 whole years.  I had to pick a visa and stick with it for 2 years.

If Noel had been a woman, by the time the first 2 years had passed, I’d be a permanent resident.  It made no sense.

Then Immigration minister Max Bradford repeatedly stated that changing the law to allow gay and lesbian couples the same rights under the law as straight de facto couples was too difficult and would need numerous changes all over the place to work.  He was skipping like a broken record: “Too hard.  Too hard.  Too hard.”  The tune was getting repetitively boring.  In the end, I think we kinda backed off because all we kept hearing was the same thing; it was very apparent the old buffoon wasn’t going to budge.

(In all my dealings with Bradford, he reminded me of an old goat, or even worse, a stubborn German.  I’m a stubborn German, so I know one when I see one.  He just. Was not. Going to. Budge. One bit!)

The problem with the marriage-certificate-gets-permanent-residency-immediately route was that, technically, people could marry and fool Immigration into thinking they were a legitimate couple.  The non-New Zealand would become a permanent resident, the two would live as a couple for a while, and then the now permanent resident could easily site problems in their relationship for the reason he / she was leaving.

Of course, LGBT couples didn’t have the right to marry.

We moved on with our life, trying to live as normally as we could.  We applied for permanent residency under the system in 1998.  It would mean I would have to wait until 2000 to know whether or not I could stay in New Zealand.  (It’s very hard living years of your life in limbo, not sure if you’re going to be able to put roots down or not.)

Bradford was replaced, eventually, and the new Minister of Immigration, Tuariki Delamere, took power.  Thank God for the LGBT media, because they revived the story and brought it to Delamere’s attention.  Delamere pretty much turned around and said, “I don’t know what the big deal over this is”, and, after a discussion with Cabinet, he announced the change to the policy on 22 December 1998.

The policy was changed to the following:

Straight Married Straight De Facto Gay De Facto
When the non-NZer could apply for Permanent Residency 18 months together
Wait for Permanent Residency Approval 6 months
Total time 2 years

I’m not sure when we heard about the policy change but it wasn’t implemented until 29 March 1999.  I do remember that we found out that all existing applications were technically considered under the old 4 year policy, and since I’d applied around February 1998, mine fell into that same category.

Back to the Minister of Immigration we went, with the full support of the LGBT media.

Again, Delamere waived his seemingly magic wand — it must’ve been a magic wand because his predecessor said this all couldn’t be done easily — and told Immigration to have those couples whose applications were under the old scheme to reapply, charge free.  Technically, the old application was cancelled and the new one was made under the new rules.  Smart thinking, that!  See?  It wasn’t that difficult, Mr. Bradford!

Immigration called us into their Christchurch city offices around this time, where we met with a lovely Immigration officer named Trish, to fill out the new application form and have a final interview.  Since we were well past the 24 month / 2 year stage of our relationship (Noel and I at nearly 38 months / 3 years, 2 months at this point), and we’d gone well beyond the 6 month waiting period, Immigration wanted to get our application done in one fell swoop.

An embarrassing confession: Trish asked us a question, and Noel started to answer it, but he had his facts all wrong.  I interfered to tell him the correct facts, and then we had a wee bit of a domestic in front of Trish.  A big smile crept across her face as she returned to her paperwork, and she told us she’d seen enough; only real couples bicker like that!  Amazing that such a funny little incident proved to Immigration that we were a genuine couple.

Thursday, 8 April 1999.  My birthday.  The post arrived, and I rushed out to the mailbox to get it.  There’s a letter in there from Immigration New Zealand.  With Noel beside me, I took a deep breath and tore it open.  We read the letter together.  My permanent residency had been approved; I started crying as Noel hugged me.

We’d won.  We’d won our fight to make things equal for LGBT couples where one non-New Zealander wanted to gain residency through their New Zealander partner.

Noel was taking me to Wellington for the weekend for my birthday.  It was a great birthday, and we had a wonderful time, knowing that our relationship was safe and my roots could be planted here in New Zealand now.

By Wednesday, 13 April 1999, my passport had the New Zealand permanent residency visa and permit in it.

Now, 17 years into our relationship, we’ve proven to the New Zealand Government that their choice to give equal rights to LGBT couples was the right one.  And, as always, I am extremely thankful for the help that the LGBT media gave us, especially Express newspaper and Queer Nation TV show, especially Andrew Whiteside, and to MP Tim Barnett and other MPs who supported us.  Of course, a huge thank you to then-Minister Tuariki Delamere for doing what was right by New Zealand and the LGBT community.