6 min

Same-sex marriage is not enough

Marriage amounts to privatizing our sex lives

Credit: John Crossen

It’s not like I don’t have it all planned, from the feminist Anglican priest with punky hair who will officiate at the wedding ceremony, to the authentic Ukrainian polka band that will play at the reception.

My youngest brother, the flaming metrosexual, will fly in from overseas just to walk me down the aisle, and he’ll cry more than I. Friends and exes will come from all over the country (they promised to do so long ago). Everyone will be there except my mom. I’ll invite her, and she’ll deliver Catholic doctrine over the phone. I’ll shed a few tears, and bravely carry on. Whoever the husband is, she’ll be in a tux and I’ll be in a dress, great hair, high femme, belle of the ball.

And just like that, my fantasy of a same-sex wedding ends. Like the dream that stops right before you’re flying, arms extended, through the sky, I have no idea how this story concludes. I tell myself it’s because I’m too feminist, too lesbian-feminist, really, to be taken in by all the wedding glitz and glamour.

As the first anniversary of legalized same-sex marriage has come and gone, I’m still trying to make sense of this latest queer obsession, an institution I once jokingly nicknamed a “heterosexual reward ceremony.”

On June 28, 2005, a historic vote in the Canadian Parliament made same-sex marriage legal in every province in the country. Canada became one of only four countries in the world to legalize queer marriage. But the struggle doesn’t end there, of course, because our card-carrying evangelist prime minister Stephen Harper has said he will introduce a Parliamentary motion in this fall’s sitting of the House, re-opening the same-sex marriage debate.

Most legal experts claim that Harper will never succeed in overturning same-sex marriage law. However, the Conservative government’s very attempt to do so could be seen as an extraordinary infringement of human rights. While I’m only too happy to oppose our new reactionary regime on almost every front, I’d like to see this particular battle broaden its political scope.

Just like my ma, I’ve got my own share of doctrine to contend with, a pastiche of Marxism, feminism and queer theory. Marx and Engels were decidedly gloomy on the topic of marriage. According to them, marriage is a property relation, with its roots in slavery. It’s perfectly designed to work with capitalism, existing as both a unit of consumption (from wedding showers to funerals) a unit of production (partnerships produce more productive workers), and a means of state regulation of sexuality. Same-sex marriage, from a Marxist perspective, isn’t just a one-way deal: lesbians and gays get protection and legitimation from the state. The state benefits too. In other words, same-sex marriage plays into the hands of a government hell-bent on privatizing everything from pension plans to healthcare.

And just so we’re clear: you don’t have to get married to acquire most of the benefits and protections that already exist for cohabiting partners in this country. Moreover, many of these are private benefits, obtained through employment
(an extended company health plan, say). But if, like most people in Canada, you have little or no benefits, your surviving spouse doesn’t have them either. In any case, many workplaces have had same-sex spousal plans available for years. If marriage changes anything in an economic sense, then, it does so primarily for people in secure, well-paying jobs. Another legal benefit of marriage, the right to sponsor the immigration of a same-sex spouse to Canada, affects a very small number, since the Immigration Act recognizes only marriages conducted in Canada. This small but important gain also means that married queer immigrants get priority over those who, single and persecuted in their countries of origin, have no hope of such sponsorship.

As a private arrangement between two individuals, same-sex marriage can also be seen as taking a bite out of what we used to call “the community.” It amounts to turning over to the state conventionally packaged, tiny chunks of queerness, and leaving out the rest. For it’s a truism of this whole marriage mania that in terms of legitimation, social acceptance, and economic benefits, single queers are left out in the cold. In a thoughtful essay called “The Right to Be Lonely,” Denise Riley implies that the struggle for same-sex marriage creates new hierarchies. “One unhappy by-product of striving for enlarged acceptability is to push the resulting residue of everyone else further into the backwoods of an unspeakable deviancy. This, ironically, is a concomitant of promoting new family forms.”

Marx and Engels, utopian thinkers that they were, believed that it was in community, not in private relationships, that true freedom existed. Ah, community! The second wave of the women’s movement – my feminist generation – took this stuff seriously. We set up food and daycare co-operatives, publishing, health, media and political collectives. From the housing co-ops we lived in to the books we read, produced by feminist publishing houses, there was very little about our lives that was private or privatized. There was, to be frank, also bickering, disappointment, irritation. But as for me, daughter of immigrants, recovering Catholic, I grooved to lesbianism’s outlaw identity, its disdain of marriage, its freedom, and its abundant sex. For a short period, I was living that utopian, Marxist dream. I was nobody’s property. Wedding dresses? Bridal veils? These were the last things I ever thought I’d see at a Dyke March or a Pride Parade.

These days, feminism is a lot more personal than political. In many ways, queer community has taken over where feminism left off. Words like “same-sex” and even “lesbian” don’t begin to describe the creative, rebellious and feisty ways we’ve rewritten the rules of sex and gender. The lovers I take these days are more masculine than feminine: not so much lesbian, as butch and queer. I’ve located an immense and healing pleasure in being femme; the days of androgyny, army pants and baggy T-shirts are long behind me.

I now use the words “lesbian” and even “feminist” carefully and selectively. Am I still a lesbian if I’m dating someone who uses the male pronoun? Am I still a feminist if I fantasize my big fat Ukrainian wedding? And what if I don’t get married? Does the new utopia of same-sex marriage create of my life a dystopia? Some days I long for family, for that stifling, secure construction. Riley asks, “Why do we ‘all’ want to be seen as a family – if indeed ‘we’ do? To be socially recognized also means to be tabulated, monitored and regulated.”

I now think of my lesbian, feminist and socialist background as a kind of archive. It may no longer exist in the same vivid, practical way it did in the ’70s and ’80s but it does inform and enrich my stance on many things, including marriage. French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote that archives are crucial to ethical existence. Archives are full of ghosts, and ghosts break binaries, living as they do between the present and the past. In Spectres Of Marx, Derrida encourages us “learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship … of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better.”

It may be feminism, then, that will allow queer marriage, still in its brash infancy, to develop into an ethical position. Can queers do marriage otherwise and better? Or is marriage still just a big ol’ sell-out? Susan Thompson writes, in a February, 2004 article in, “North American society is far more comfortable with marriage in any form than with a more radical critique of the family and its social functions.” In the same article, trans academic Bobby Noble describes same-sex marriage as “one of the success stories of capitalism.” Lesbian author Jane Rule concurs: “Policing ourselves to be less offensive to the majority is to be part of our own oppression.”

I watch a queer marriage ceremony on TV. Two affluent young gay men vow to devote their lives to their relationship. Private property, private concerns. I see a turning inward, a loss of community.

And now it seems, the political stakes are higher than ever. We have a new Conservative regime that is out to revoke many rights we’ve fought for. Same-sex marriage is just one item on a long anti-queer, anti-woman grocery list. Give those guys a broad enough mandate (say, re-election as a majority), and we could be looking at the end of legal abortion and Medicare. No hope for universal daycare. The renewal of anti-terrorism legislation. The erosion of civil liberties, and of hate crime protection. Susan Thompson worries: “In the rush towards being accepted as normal, queer com-munities may lose one of their great strengths: an ability to examine social structures from a position of difference and, therefore, to work towards greater liberation for us all.”

My marriage fantasy is so over. But my political fantasies soar. Imagine a queer movement that wasn’t single-issue: that fought for daycare, refugee and workers rights and same-sex marriage, under the same campy banner? It’s time to revive the retro 90’s notion of making the links, forming coalitions around the body politics of sex, gender and race. And while we’re at it, lets revive and maybe even rewrite the retro slogans. Keep your laws off my body. Fight the right. Hey ho, hey ho, Notwithstanding has got to go.

Now that’s a demo I’d wear a wedding dress to.

We have shaped richly varied ways to care for each other.
Why clamber for state-imposed rules? — Jane Rule