Toronto
2 min

The politics of not quite belonging

Ticking the 'other' box

Things have changed a lot from our outlaw days. Once upon a time, not very long ago, gay sex was criminalized and our relationships were conducted in the shadows.

Now, not only is our sex more or less legal (there are still those pesky laws about where folks can have sex), but our relationships are entitled to full legal recognition. Straight folks aren’t allowed to discriminate against us anymore, protected as we are by human rights commissions and the Criminal Code. Formal legal equality has pretty much arrived.

But there is still a lingering sense that we don’t fully belong.

There’s the Census 2006 controversy. Seems as if the folks at Statistics Canada just didn’t have enough time to fix their forms since same-sex marriage was made legal in Canada last summer. So in the box where you have to tick off how you are related to the person you live with, same-sex spouse was not an option. Statistics Canada directed individuals in same-sex marriages not to tick off “husband or wife,” but instead to tick off “other.”

Even though the census actually recognizes the existence of same-sex marriage — a first in Canadian history — it treats same-sex marriage differently from opposite-sex marriage. The denigration, as lobby group Egale Canada calls it, comes in the language of otherness.

It is a politics of not quite belonging. Almost. But still a little bit other.

The problem with the politics of not quite belonging is that it is relatively subtle, at least in comparison to the days of outright outlaw status. It was much easier to rally the troops around the denial of formal legal equality. But marching in protest over ticking a different box on the census form? Not likely.

This politics of not quite belonging is everywhere. It is about being the only queer at your workplace. Sure, you can be out and everyone is totally cool about it. But maybe a little too cool, because if it really was cool, they just wouldn’t have to be so cool about it.

It’s about being able to bring your same-sex partner to work events, but knowing that you will be the only same-sex couple. It’s about being the token same-sex family at every school and extracurricular event with your kids.

The thing about the politics of not quite belonging is that it runs the risk of turning into not belonging at the drop of a hat.

Case in point: Lindsay Willow, the Nova Scotia school teacher who was accused by two other teachers (one now dead) of sexual impropriety with a female student. The allegations were based on a teacher seeing Willow and a 17-year-old student coming out of a locker room together at the high school; the student looked embarrassed. Based on that — and nothing more — Willow was investigated by the police, who cleared her of wrongdoing.

But the suspicions continued to haunt her. Someone was always looking over her shoulder. Her favourite courses disappeared. Her prep time got cut. Willow brought a human rights complaint against the living teacher, the principal and the school board and won. The board was ordered to pay her $27,375 in damages and to issue a full retraction and apology.

Sure, she was vindicated. Formal equality says they just can’t treat us like that. But they still do.

Formal equality doesn’t get rid of cultural stereotypes and biases which percolate beneath the surface, producing that intangible feeling of just not quite belonging.

Maybe it will just take time. Or maybe, if we look to the experience of other minorities, it is just the way it is. Sure, we’re equal. Sure, they have to let us join their golf clubs. But they don’t have to like us, make us feel welcome or ask us in a direct way on the census about our relationships.

Subtle? Maybe. Significant? Yes. A rallying cry? Probably not.