Toronto
3 min

Hate-mongers aren’t scared anymore

Politicians are kicking dirt for strategic advantage

NO GOING BACK. Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell finally had their marriage recognized this summer. Credit: Jan Becker

Though I have no interest in getting married, I have spent a tremendous amount of time over the last decade working for the right of lesbians and gay men to marry.



Why? Because when you travel outside urban centres, you realize something about same-sex marriage. It’s not about marriage, it’s about same-sex. Or more accurately, it’s about the place of lesbians and gay men in society.



For the last month, tens of thousands of conversations across this country have taken place about same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, because of the extremely effective messages of our opponents, many otherwise reasonable people have come to think of the “gay lifestyle” as a threat to basic traditions and values.



This perceived threat has allowed some people with a very clear anti-gay agenda to shift the public debate about lesbian and gay roles in society from an issue of human rights and equality to one of morality and fear, even in polite company. Gay marriage has become a hot button that makes many people believe they have to choose between being moral and being tolerant; it’s become a minefield for political careers.



We are at an historic, yet ironic, moment in our struggle. Historic, because Canada could become an international leader in human rights by being the first large western country to legalize lesbian and gay marriages. Ironic, because rather than being on the precipice of gaining our last frontier, the marriage issue may provide our beleaguered opponents their first successful organizing issue to take on our community.



Unlike our other recent advances, same-sex marriage is set to move from the domain of the courts, with their emphasis on logic and open-mindedness, into the politics of Parliament and likely a federal election, a realm focussed on naked power and manipulation.



Even before the next federal election has begun, we can see Members Of Parliament who support our right to marry are under attack. Institutions which traditionally have supported us are being deluged with letters, petitions and e-mails, the result of a finely tuned collaboration between the Alliance Party and churches, synagogues, mosques and communities strongly organized around the traditional family structure.



In 1994, I was the co-ordinator for The Campaign For Equal Families, which mobilized to ensure the passage of Ontario’s Bill 167, a bill which would have given full legal rights to same-sex couples. During that campaign, we lost the vote, but we won over many hearts and minds across this province with an extensive media and outreach campaign.



The lesson the media and the public learned from that battle was that the queer community could organize fast and mobilize public opinion. The lesson politicians learned came from the fate of former Ontario Liberal leader Lyn McLeod: You pay a political price if you flip-flop on the gay community. We had political muscle and going against us was dangerous. These were lessons that served us well for nearly a decade.



I’ve always found in politics that once someone realizes a tactic doesn’t work, they’re unlikely to try it again. On the other hand, once they learn it does work, they’re likely to push it even further.



Right now opponents of the queer community are having the same success regarding same-sex marriage that we ourselves had in ’94: Engaging people who would normally not talk about a homosexual issue. But this time, socially conservative groups are juxtaposing our “lifestyle” against the sanctity and uniqueness of marriage to convince people this is only a simple distinction which needs to be preserved. However, as blacks in the southern US found out, separate but equal is never equal.



Up to now our community has not mounted the kind of campaign our opponents have produced, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious we cannot afford to lose ground in the struggle for gay rights in Canada.



If we are able to convince Parliament to legalize same-sex marriage in Canada, our victory will be heard around the globe. We should not forget how isolated an incredible number of queers are in many parts of the world. Our example will open up space for discussion, and give hope to many isolated individuals.



Success will require the active involvement of our social, religious and cultural organizations. While I may never want to get married, I do very much want a society that is unflinching in making queers complete citizens, with all institutions of society open to us.



It is essential that we clearly teach a lesson: using prejudice against lesbians, gay men and bisexuals is not only wrong, it just doesn’t work.



* Bob Gallagher is coordinator of the newly formed group Canadians For Equal Marriage, which launched Monday; it’s at www.equal-marriage.ca.