In early January 2005, a DVD is passed like contraband pornography between two men standing in the parking lot of a busy south-central Oshawa garage. The garage’s owner, a white male in his late 50s, has asked one of his few black customers to sign a petition against same-sex marriage. The customer politely declines, but agrees to take the DVD instead.
I know the customer and so got to see the DVD, a 40-minute film called Gay Rights – Special Rights: Inside The Homosexual Agenda. It’s a skillful blend of footage from the black civil rights movement, images of scantily clad homosexuals at Pride in Washington and interviews with black leaders, all of whom speak out against gay and lesbian rights.
Neither the DVD nor the petition managed to persuade my acquaintance to abandon his armchair support for equal marriage. But increasingly this is what the front lines of the marriage debate looks like; the religious right and conservative politicos borrowing US strategies to rally racial minorities against same-sex marriage.
The strategy rests on the assumption that certain ethnic groups are more likely to be resistant to the idea of same-sex marriage. There’s an implication that sexual orientation doesn’t deserve the same sort of legitimacy as ethnicity.
Many ethnic community leaders in Canada aren’t impressed.
“I, along with a lot of other people, worry about the switch in focus of some politicians toward focussing on ethno-cultural and ethno-racial communities in this debate,” says Patrick Case, chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
Case is referring to remarks made by Conservative Party MP Monte Solberg last month on his official website. Solberg dubbed the prime minister, “Paul Martin Luther King” because Martin has begun to adopt the language of human and civil rights when talking about same-sex marriage, wondering if Alberta cattle farmers would be entitled to human rights protection.
“Paul Martin Luther King has now decided that same-sex marriage is a fundamental human right that is protected by the charter,” wrote Solberg. “It was all along. We just didn’t know about it until PMLK proclaimed it from the mountain top. Let freedom ring.”
Laurie Arron, political coordinator with Canadians For Equal Marriage, says Solberg’s comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what human rights are.
“He basically makes a joke of human rights,” says Arron. “He ignores the courts, he ignores the Charter; laughs at the Charter. And in doing so he laughs at the law.”
Solberg’s not the first Conservative Party member to apply racial overtones. Party leader Stephen Harper was chided for his remarks linking the internment of Japanese Canadians and anti-Jewish sentiment during the Second World War to the Liberal Party’s human rights message. Harper was subsequently accused of using “cheap political shots” by Audrey Kobayashi, former head of the National Association Of Japanese Canadians.
Minorities also spoke out against Harper’s comments that Canada’s diverse racial groups all share a “universal view” that marriage should be restricted to heterosexual unions.
“Throughout this debate, we have stated very, very clearly that it is incorrect to say all Chinese or other ethnic minorities are against equal marriage,” wrote Kristyn Wong-Tam, spokesperson for the Canadian Chinese National Council. Sikh and Muslim groups issued similar letters about Harper’s comments, arguing that minorities should not be set against each other for political gain.
“What was really gratifying was to see the number of members of ethno-cultural and ethno-racial communities who came out and said, ‘Don’t count me in. You’re not speaking to me and you’re not speaking about my community,'” says Case.
As well as politicians, conservative advocacy groups, many of which have never reached out to racial minorities in the past, have begun designing ad campaigns with the sole purpose of mobilizing racial minorities against same-sex marriage.
For example, the Canada Family Action Coalition, which runs Defendmarriage.ca, offers its brochure in four languages; English, Spanish, Chinese and Punjabi. These brochures are the only non-English material on the site.
One of the key implications is that homosexuality is a behaviour, which means gay and lesbian people are not entitled to the status of a protected minority. Granting homosexuals rights will therefore diminish ethno-racial minority rights.
There is also a sense that people in favour of same-sex marriage risk alienating other minority groups when they use an automatic equivalence between the black civil rights movement and gay and lesbian rights.
“Everybody has a right to love each other. It’s time for us to get off the back of the bus,” proclaimed one lesbian newlywed to the San Francisco Chronicle last year, referring to the civil rights hero Rosa Parkes, who in a 1955 confrontation on a bus refused to adhere to racial segregation rules. But there is large gap between life of a poor black women in 1950s America and the middle-class people who are getting married in 2000s Canada.
“We are aware that there’s a diversity of opinion and we want to be mindful of that,” says Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale Canada. “At the same time, we do see a parallel there [between the gay and lesbian civil rights movement and the black civil rights movement].”
About halfway through the Gay Rights – Special Rights DVD, the filmmakers really warm to their subject. Lester James, African American regional director of the Traditional Values Coalition in the US, appears on the steps of Congress flanked by a small group of frowning black faces.
“The high-handed attempt on the part of the gay and lesbian movement to hijack the 1964 Civil Rights Act in order to try to give national credence to their immoral lifestyle is an offence to black America,” James says in the video.
These arguments, says Patrick Case, rest on an assumption that the African American civil rights movement is the last word.
“There’s no question that the civil rights movement in the US arose out of 350 years of slavery,” says Case. “But the women’s movement in the US didn’t arise out of 350 years of slavery in the US, but was it any less legitimate? It arose out of its own historical conditions, had its own indicia of existence and still does. But it makes it no less legitimate.
“I think, the same thing can be true about people with disabilities. Their struggle is a different struggle. Because it takes a different shape, because the rights that are claimed and the rights that are argued are different than those that might be argued by blacks or other people of colour or might be different than women’s, does that make it any less legitimate? I don’t think so. And the same is true of gays and lesbians.”