New Zealand's gay community gears up to celebrate legalisation of gay marriage

WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand's gay community is gearing up on Wednesday to celebrate the legalisation of same-sex marriage, which would make the country the first in the Asia-Pacific region to approve the measure.

Parliament will vote late on Wednesday on a bill to amend the 1955 Marriage Act to describe marriage as a union of two people regardless of their sex, sexuality or how they choose to identify their gender.

The change is expected to pass after receiving a clear majority in two previous votes, including backing from Prime Minister John Key, as opponents launched last-minute lobbying against the move.

"There's going to be parties everywhere," LegaliseLove Wellington co-ordinator Joseph Habgood told AFP ahead of the vote.

On the capital's Cuba Street entertainment strip, gay venues such as the San Francisco Bath House and S&M's were planning to hold parties while screening Wednesday night's debate live.

With parliament's public gallery booked out due to overwhelming demand, a big screen was erected in an overflow room near the debating chamber to accommodate hundreds of extra onlookers.

The conservative lobby group Protect Marriage continued an online campaign against the change, saying same-sex unions undermined the traditional concept of marriage.

"We will be using the word to describe something else, not naturally or traditionally created but conceived by politics and political correctness," it said.

Should the proposal pass, New Zealand will become the 13th nation globally, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Australia rejected a similar proposal last September and the issue has prompted heated debate in the United States since President Barack Obama made support for same-sex unions a prominent part of his second-term agenda.

Habgood said Obama's actions had put the issue of gay marriage in the political mainstream, speeding up moves toward legalisation in countries such as New Zealand.

"I remember the day when he did that (announced support for gay marriage), from then on everything changed," Mr Habgood said. "I'm sure it would have happened here eventually but that made it come around a whole lot quicker."

Britain and France both appear set to adopt gay marriage in coming months after rancorous scenes in Westminster and protests on the streets of Paris by both supporters and opponents of the measure.

Opinion was also divided on Cuba Street ahead of the vote, which is expected to take place at about 9.30 pm (5.30pm on Wednesday, Singapore time).

"I think marriage is pretty stupid in and of itself but if some people are allowed to do it, then all people should be allowed to do it," Ms Christina Hroch told AFP.

"I haven't met anyone that would be against it."

But Ms Suzy Prime was "totally opposed" to the change, saying she was concerned about the impact on children raised in same-sex marriages.

"I don't think there's a need for marriage," she said. "We already have a law that they can be together with their civil rights. I don't have a problem with that but I don't think it's right to go beyond that and allow marriage."

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