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New Zealand legalizes gay marriage

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Hundreds of jubilant gay rights advocates celebrated at New Zealand's Parliament as the country became the 13th in the world and the first in the Asia-Pacific region to legalize same-sex marriage.

Lawmakers voted, 77-44, in favor of the gay marriage bill on its third and final reading on Wednesday night. People watching from the public gallery and some lawmakers immediately broke into song after the result was announced, singing the New Zealand love song “Pokarekare Ana” in the indigenous Maori language.

“For us, we can now feel equal to everyone else,” said bank teller Tania Penafiel Bermudez, who said she already considers herself married to partner Sonja Fry but now can get a certificate to prove it. “This means we can feel safe and fair and right in calling each other wife and wife.”

In one of several speeches that ended in a standing ovation, bill sponsor Louisa Wall told lawmakers the change was “our road toward healing.”

“In our society, the meaning of marriage is universal — it's a declaration of love and commitment to a special person,” she said. She added that “nothing could make me more proud to be a New Zealander than passing this bill.”

Most political party leaders had encouraged lawmakers to vote by their conscience rather than along party lines. Although Wall is from the opposition Labour Party, the bill also was supported by center-right Prime Minister John Key.

“In my view, marriage is a very personal thing between two individuals,” Key said. “And, in the end, this is part of equality in modern-day New Zealand.”

Since 2005, New Zealand has allowed civil unions, which confer many legal rights to gay couples. The new law will allow gay couples to jointly adopt children for the first time and will allow their marriages to be recognized in other countries. The law will take effect in late August.

“This is really, really huge,” said Jills Angus Burney, a lawyer who drove about 90 minutes to Parliament to watch the vote with her partner, Deborah Hambly, who had flown in from farther afield. “It's really important to me. It's just unbelievable.”

Burney, a Presbyterian, said she and Hambly want to celebrate with a big, traditional wedding as soon as possible.

The change in New Zealand could put pressure on its neighbor. In Australia, there has been little political momentum for a change at a federal level and Prime Minister Julia Gillard has expressed her opposition to same-sex marriage.

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