When lesbian writer Jane Rule published her landmark novel Desert Of The Heart in 1964, all gay sex was still illegal in the eyes of Canadian law. When Rule’s partner Helen Sonthoff died in 1999, Rule had to fight with the funeral home to be considered the next of kin. After living together for almost five decades, Rule had to face the fact that their relationship remained invisible and irrelevant to people in positions of power.
You might expect Rule to favour the privileges that come with legalizing same-sex relationships. You’d be wrong. The iconic lesbian novelist is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, calling it “a terrible diversion that has invited an irrelevant and silly backlash.”
Even before the official debate over Bill C-38 began Feb 16 in Parliament, opponents lined up to condemn gay marriage as the biggest threat to the nuclear family since the invention of divorce. Christian groups have been mobilizing US citizens to call Canadian MPs and lobby against marriage equality. Focus On The Family – which is to the US Christian right what Greenpeace is to whale lovers – is pouring $1.5 million into an ad campaign fighting the Canadian legislation.
Federal Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper has been orchestrating what critics call a campaign of fear among ethnic communities, claiming that the legalization of same-sex marriage could restrict their religious freedom by forcing them to sanction gay and lesbian unions.
The rhetoric coming from gay marriage opponents has walked the thin line between legitimate debate and outright homophobia, with talk of “protecting Canadian children,” and shielding church-going people from the immorality of gay and lesbian relationships. Vitriol surrounds us. The Christian Right has literally set up shop on Parliament Hill over this bill and they’re not likely to leave – no matter what the outcome.
Meanwhile, gays and lesbians are sitting this one out in droves. Grassroots participation in this battle does not reflect its status as the highest-profile gay-rights battle in Canadian history. There are exceptions. Money poured into Canadians For Equal Marriage (CEM) headquarters in the days after Canada’s Catholic Church leaders mixed politics with religion.
Leaders of the fight for same-sex marriage say many in the community are missing the point. Even if you disagree with marriage rights, they say, the time has passed when individual gays can sit this one out. Too much is at stake. If this bill gets defeated in Parliament, then it’s back to the courts for perhaps a decade. And the courts may choose not to overturn a democratic vote on the issue. And meanwhile, Stephen Harper and his ilk are likely to try rolling back the rights we’ve already won in this country.
People like Harper and leaders of the Christian Right “want to defeat this bill in order to keep this issue alive for years to come,” says Alex Munter, CEM’s national coordinator. “They want to use a defeat of the bill as the platform for a concerted attempt to roll back the clock on human rights. They know that passage of the legislation settles this question in Canada.
“If they win this fight, the American religious right and their allies in Canada will have the opening they need to step up their campaign to question the very place of [gays and lesbians] in Canadian society. People like James Dobson and Focus On The Family want to promote second-class citizenship [for queers].”
Trouble is, many people just can’t get excited over marriage rights. Health studies in several provinces show that the central commitment of marriage ceremonies – a relationship “to the exclusion of all others” – does not reflect the real lives, the flexible sexual arrangements made by most gay men and many lesbians. While many queers, after wrestling with the issue, have decided they support same-sex marriage rights for those others who want it, they don’t intend to exercise that freedom themselves. And it’s hard to get excited enough to fight for a right when you don’t understand why a small number of other gays and lesbians seem to want it so very much.
For Rule, the presence of right-wing opposition to gay marriage is not a good enough reason to support the notion.
“If we panic on this, we give the lunatic right more power,” says the veteran of past battles with a history of writing brave commentary on topics others often avoided. “This amounts to nothing more than another state interference in our private lives. We should be trying to free our heterosexual friends, not asking if we can join them in the same cage.”
Rick Bébout agrees. The Toronto-based writer and gay activist is sad to see that queer leaders are seeking equality, rather than universal justice.
“We’ve given up the chance to give something unique to the world,” he says. “The gay community has long been the champion of unconventional relationships that work for us. We spent decades with the women’s movement critiquing marriage, and now we’ve been railroaded by our peers into accepting a fundamentally problematic institution.”
Munter couldn’t disagree more. It’s not about buying into an oppressive institution, he insists. It’s about being recognized as full citizens.
“The institution of marriage has evolved with society,” says the former Ottawa regional councillor.
“There was a time in Canada when women could not vote. When aboriginal people were not citizens. It was only a couple of generations ago that a Chinese man could not marry a white woman,” he said at a recent equal marriage benefit concert.
“There’s no compulsory marriage here,” he tells Capital Xtra. “The suggestion that we invited right-wing backlash by fighting for gay marriage is an astonishing statement. It suggests that we shouldn’t fight discriminatory laws.”
According to Munter, the fights for equality and social justice are not mutually exclusive. With groups like Focus On The Family “carpet-bombing the media” with anti-gay messages, Munter sees the passage of Bill C-38 as an important step in holding back the tide of fundamentalism and fighting for universal access to health and social services for queers.
Prue Craib is well acquainted with the arguments against gay marriage within the queer community. The retired university professor has lived with her partner Pat Hill for almost three decades. The two got married this summer, on the day of their 27th anniversary.
“We know that there is a wide range of opinions about same-sex marriage, and some of our closest friends view the whole institution as regressive and basically abhorrent,” said Craib in a recent e-mail interview. “But we felt that we wanted a legal union of the same kind that is available to society at large.
“In our 27 years together we have lived an intentional life with our three children. We have been committed to living out the guidelines in the conventional marriage service – to support one another in all circumstances life has presented us with, with the intention, always, of being together until death us do part.
“We believe that we have a right to the same broad social and emotional recognition and support that the state of marital commitment creates for opposite-sex couples. And we think that a majority of Canadians believe that this recognition is only fair.”
At the crux of this debate are the notions of citizenship, equality, state control and societal recognition. While Rule and Bébout don’t support the institution of marriage, they would like to see our relationships protected by individual legal contracts. And while Munter is committed to fighting for gay marriage, he doesn’t think that the gay rights movement should close up shop after winning this battle.
“Gay and lesbian relationships are just as valid, and just as worthy of respect, as heterosexual relationships,” he says. “It’s time to mobilize people, not to cower in fear.”