4 min

The polygamy threat?

Everybody's got a marriage monologue

There’s extremism and skewed logic all around when the same-sex marriage committee comes to town.

The travelling road show that is the parliamentary Standing Committee On Justice And Human Rights arrived in Toronto last week, after visitations to heartland bastions like Steinbach, Manitoba and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The committee is looking at whether to legalize same-sex marriage, create a separate system for homo partnerships, get the government out of the marriage business altogether or leave things as they are.

You’d think Toronto would be a haven of rationality after rural Canada, and the first presenters here, The Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO), are certainly earnest, well- prepared and reasonably calm. But their order is a big one. They want the state to eliminate marriage out-right and let brothers and sisters and fags and dykes and cats and dogs all become equal under one big domestic partnership law.

Not everybody thinks so abstractly.

“Marriage is rooted in heterosexuality,” counters Rev Gordon Pols, a witness from the Christian Reformed Church, who hasn’t noticed that CLGRO isn’t that interested in marriage. “As a church we believe that marriage is a life-long covenant between a woman and a man that is established by God.”

It’s a variation on an exchange that will be repeated again and again over the course of the day, and that has repeated itself since the hearings began last November: groups that support same-sex marriage argue about equality and inclusion, the conservative right reacts with measured outrage, often citing the Bible. Then it goes around again.

Since none of the opposing presenters seem to occupy any common ground – or even seem to speak the same language – the hearings are less a debate than a free-for-all for fanatical interest groups or individuals to say what they like about homosexuality. How exactly does one respond to people like Diane Watts, president of the group Women For Life, Faith And Family, who told the committee in February: “Do they really not know the difference between marriage and sodomy? Do they really not know? I’m advocating the survival of a nation that has a great history and we have survived this far.”

Presenters sit at long tables, facing each other and, after they make their short presentations, respond in turn to the questions of committee members.

The moderator, Liberal MP Andy Scott, reminds me on a number of occasions of Mr Carlson from the TV show WKRP In Cincinnati – either a vague Warholian genius or a bumbling half-wit. Scott has already come out of the closet as being sort-of against same-sex marriage, while fellow committee member Peter MacKay has suggested he’s not very interested in the topic at all (he didn’t attend the Toronto hearings).

Among the first presenters scheduled is gay teen idol Marc Hall. He’s absent, which is unfortunate because everyone is talking about his ongoing court case against his Catholic high school to take his boyfriend to the prom, and how it may or may not threaten the very foundations of organized religion.

“As if the Catholic church was some kind of democracy,” mumbles Philip Horgan, presenting on behalf of the Catholic Civil Rights League. His organization worries that same-sex marriage laws will entangle them in endless litigation as they fight against the government forcing them to recognize the sinful union of, say, a man and a man.

Horgan warns of a dark agenda to “redefine marriage in a way that does not reflect God’s ideal.” For emphasis, he raises to the heavens his copy of The Strategic Council For Focus On The Family, sending a small ripple of girlish titters among the four of five homos in the peanut gallery.

Next up is Toronto lawyer David Brown, who seems like a reasonable man. His comments on Canadian identity and national debate have all the trappings of a person who’s in touch with the benefits of diversity. His academic tone implies an objectivity, which, upon closer inspection, seems to dissolve in venomous family values rhetoric.

By widening the definition of the family, he says, the courts are ignoring the historical importance of heterosexuals as breeders and risk destabilizing the principles of democracy and the core of civilization itself.

It’s always surprising who will put themselves on the list to talk to a parliamentary committee. John McCash, speaking on behalf of no one but himself, makes his most notable statement near the end of his presentation when he mutters, “For the record, there is a link between homosexuality and paedophilia.” For better or worse, people have already started to go for a break and his comment goes ignored.

During this short break, I begin a pleasant conversation with my closest neighbour, a friendly woman with an off-kilter look.

“Are you presenting?” she asks me.

“Oh no,” I reply, “Are you?”

“Yes,” she begins, “I’m with the children.” It sounds like something Michael Jackson would say.

“May I have a preview of your comments?” I ask.

“I am with the Children’s Voice,” she says. The president, Bill Flores, couldn’t make it.

Her names is Maxine Brandon, and she says she’s here to protect the children, which is interesting because there are no children in the room. Her eyes glaze over slightly as she launches into an obviously rehearsed monologue.

“I live in a building near Church and Wellesley,” she says. “Many people in the building are gay and I just don’t see any long-term relationships happening there. Gay men come and go and so do their partners. Children need women in their lives.”

As she warms to her subject, it becomes clear that I am speaking to someone whose opinions amount to homophobia. And the worst kind – someone who thinks they know what gay is, who thinks they know what the gay community is all about.

Our conversation is cut short by chairman Scott, who has been engaged in a heated off-the-cuff discussion about polygamy with CLGRO’s Nick Mulé and Richard Hudler and a couple of homos in the front row of the gallery.

“I didn’t so much want to debate, as to understand your position,” says Scott as he walks away from the activists and calls the session back to order.

With all this miscommunication, it’s unclear what the government will glean from these hearings. They’ve certainly shone a light on gay and lesbian equality issues in this country. But one wonders if this earnest attempt to include all voices from all sides has skewed things. Would the Ku Klux Klan be invited to balance debate at a conference on racial diversity?

* The committee hearings continue in Montreal on Mon, Apr 28 and 29, with the tour wrapping up in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Wed, Apr 30.