On Wednesday night, the Western Australian town of Port Hedland announced it would endorse a Relationship Declaration Register to formally recognize the relationships of the town's same-sex couples. Seven out of eight council members voted in favor of the move, and they expect around 100 people will eventually join the Register. While not a legal equivalent to marriage, it will add another level of formality to a couple's relationship status. It will also make it easier for partners to have a say on legal issues like wills and medical treatment involving their significant others.
But beyond practical considerations, it's a gesture of inclusion from the town to its gay and lesbian residents. In 2012 the City of Vincent, also in Western Australia, established the state's first Relationship Declaration Register. Port Hedland's mayor, Kelly Howlett, believes that the sense of responsibility smaller towns harbor between residents can make them more active in taking practical steps to support same-sex couples. VICE spoke to Howlett about why the town decided it was time to take on marriage disparity.
VICE: Hey, Kelly. Congratulations on the register. What will it actually mean?
Kelly Howlett: While making a Relationship Declaration does not infer a legal right in the same way marriage does, it's important that it can be used in legal proceedings that involve interpretation or application of legislative provisions.
What does that actually mean?
It's another way evidence can be provided that there is a formal relationship. It's a way of providing evidence that two people—whether they be heterosexual or same sex—are in a committed loving relationship.
How did it come about?
The Port Hedland Gay and Lesbian Society approached the town and asked us to consider it. We put it out for public comment, and then based the policy on that. We were aware The City of St. Vincent has done it, so we mirrored them.
Does Port Hedland have a large gay and lesbian community?
We do. That being said, we are a modern vibrant town. We're on the cusp of being a city with 20,000 people. Any regional center with 20,000 people would have our makeup and composition.
Obviously it will have a practical impact, but how do you think publicly getting behind something like this will impact the town in a broader sense?
I think it will be very positive. It's certainly something everyone sees in terms of inclusiveness and equality. And whilst there has been emphasis on same-sex relationships, it's applicable for heterosexual relationships. There are people who aren't considering marriage, but are considering something along these lines. It's important in terms of wills, medical treatment, and even burials and cremation. If people aren't recognized as being a partner, their say in those things can be lost.
How much of this was practical, and how much a show of support?
In the end this is about recognizing love and being inclusive. Our council has a wide mix of different professionals and expertise—one of our members is a pastor—so it was also good for everyone to have that debate and discussion. This isn't changing marriage, but it's good that people are able to work through some of those issues and points. Love is love, and people saw it as that and not something that was threatening their definition of marriage.
Was there much pushback?
No, not much. We had some people in opposition come and speak to the council, and even when I'm at the shopping center people approach me. The healthy discussion was interesting to see.
Did those discussions lead to any people changing their minds?
Yeah, I have seen that on a really close personal level. One of my good friends has pretty well gone full circle. It was interesting to see them discuss it, review it, and then change their mind. Rather than be caught up in the hype, when they un-peeled the issue and saw its raw elements they recognized this is just about people who love each other. And how can that be so bad?
It's interesting that we're seeing smaller cities leading the way in making these proactive efforts. Why do you think that is?
Maybe you're more connected in a smaller community? You know everyone, you know people's circumstances, you know what's happening, that connection is stronger. When you're 20,000 people in a remote city, you want to be inclusive of everyone, and recognize everyone.
So the smaller population makes the realities of the issues more visible?
I think so, and you can't help but know the challenges people are up against intimately. You do get more exposure to people's personal challenges. We're at that stage in the national discussion, where you're a smaller community and you're talking about it more and more, and you start thinking of the things we can do to make residents lives better.
Do you feel proud of the town tonight?
Yes. What surprised me was the people and radio commentary asking, why is Port Hedland doing this? I don't think Port Hedland is that different to any other regional center with 20,000 people. Everyone is having these discussions, but maybe they're not as bold in wanting to have a say and make a difference.
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