I was recently in Philadelphia, city of brotherly love, for a press junket put on by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. The weekend getaway, which included a handful of other Canadian gay media types, is just part of a new $300,000 campaign aimed at getting more gay and lesbian travellers to visit Philly.
Never having been on this sort of adventure before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Oh, I knew that we’d be wined and dined of course, and we certainly were, at a level I have rarely experienced and am unlikely to experience again any time soon. And I had seen from the itinerary that we would be touring the sights, of queer and historical interest alike. And, yes, it is a charming town. More like Toronto than any US city I’d visited before, Philadelphia was comfortably familiar and yet new and excitingly different at the same time.
What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the respect and gratitude heaped upon us as Canadians. While many of the local gay personalities may not have known a whole lot about their neighbours to the north, they all knew that we had the right to marry, and they were mighty envious.
Through the achievement of same-sex marriage, it appears that Canadian homos have put the country on the map where formerly there was only a vague, uninteresting hinterland. Now we’re the poster children for gay respectability, leading the way for the world, and more importantly, the States.
It was an awkward thing for me, to sit and listen politely to what at times seemed a never-ending stream of praise for our noble struggle for marital rights. First off, it was the last thing I expected from Americans. My previous excursions south had left me with the impression that they weren’t interested in talking about the rest of the world unless it was to say how they’d impacted it. For the better, of course.
(Although, browsing the program for Philadelphia’s upcoming Equality Forum conference, at which Canada is the featured nation, I did notice a seminar titled From Monarchy To Equality: “How did the legacy of the monarchists, who fled Philadelphia after the Revolutionary War, eclipse the US in its fulfillment of civil rights for GLBT citizens?” So I guess when you come right to it, it’s still all about them.)
Secondly, it made me feel like an impostor. I found myself trying to make it clear that if they felt the need to be thanking anyone for making Canada a stepping stone for their own grand gay plans, I was hardly the one they should be addressing it to. While I respect the dedication of marriage advocates, I’ve always been more of a sex workers’ rights kinda gal myself.
But my polite protestations didn’t seem to register. If anything, they may have made matters worse. Suddenly I was living up to multiple stereotypes, having unwittingly fallen into the role of the modest, self-effacing Canadian, without having effectively disrupted my assumed role as the bright shining example of respectable homosexuality.
That was usually the point in the conversation when I inquired after the local bathhouse culture, which seemed to shake their squeaky-clean perception of Canadians, at least temporarily. There would be a moment of confusion and then something akin to disappointment. Clearly I wasn’t quite the poster child after all.
Apparently there are at least two baths in Philadelphia, but no one goes there. Or if they do, they don’t admit to it in polite company. And it’s certainly not a stop on the gay-friendly Philly tour.
Now, I grant that this isn’t the sort of trip where I really expected to be introduced to Philadelphia’s resident sex radicals. I doubt any city, eager to entice the moneyed, marrying types that make up the $54.1-billion travel market, would be offering up anything less than upstanding citizens for media scrutiny.
But the experience really drove home for me the rift between queers who value formal relationship recognition over sexual liberation and those who would rather be themselves than be respectable. Like Toronto, I can only assume fair Philly boasts both kinds. And I hope that they come to realize that we do, too. Because, for my part, when the rest of the world thinks of Canada, respectable homosexuals aren’t what I want to come to mind.
Julia Garro is Associate Editor for Xtra.