4 min

Traditions old and new

Queer traditions shouldn't change over marriage

“Traditional” is a word we’ve been hearing frequently this year, or maybe this decade. After the apocalyptic fears of the new millennium, it’s no wonder that people who were never quite comfortable in the 20th century are fleeing the 21st, becoming refugees in the camps of tradition.

Yet as millions of refugees could have explained, the safety provided by such camps is uncomfortable, lacking in amenities and only marginally more secure than their place of origin. Undoubtedly part of the Conservative Party’s problem is that such camps are not selective. People from the wrong and right sides of the tracks are not only forced to mingle, they end up sharing tents and blankets with those who were happy to have a bedroll under the railroad bridge.

The Conservatives – ardent proponents of segregated bedrooms – have discovered this effect, much to their own chagrin. Advertisements promoting “traditional marriage” have backfired in communities with good enough memories to know their own religious traditions (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and others) included and blessed many types of marriage.

My own attitudes towards traditions are changing now that middle age – a period described as one in which your waist becomes wider as your mind becomes narrower – has me firmly in its grip. I am as horrified by the fashions of the day – surely you can afford enough material to get waistband and shirttails to overlap – as my elders once were by my artfully ripped jeans. And along with my changing tastes come new appreciations of traditions. My winter season is not complete without the traditional Caribbean New Year’s celebration inherited from my Trinidadian father. Nor do I know spring has finally sprung without spending days planning and digging the garden. The sandy soil of the maternal prairie is nothing like Ottawa’s clay, but embedded under my fingernails that clay ties me to family farming traditions.

Much as these and other family traditions attach me to my ancestors, there are also traditions that connect me to the queer communities. Some – attendance at Pride or potlucks – function as positive links, reminders that we are a people of many commonalities. Others – like the annual midsummer Michigan vs Transfolk flame fests – are attempts to create commonality through exclusion. Communities, and families, need both types of tradition – those that tell us who we are, and those that encourage us to contemplate who we are not.

One of the advantages that families often have over larger groups is that unless we are remarkably oblivious – or choose as partners only those so similar to ourselves that we should be worrying about incest – it quickly becomes evident that, in detail at least, traditions are things that evolve and mutate. It is part of what makes relationships interesting: learning that the earth will not dissolve into chaos if presents are opened at brunch time on Dec 25 rather than right after midnight mass, or discovering that for some people music is a participatory activity rather than something only professionals perform.

Frustratingly enough, as communities get larger and more diverse, we tend to blur the fact that our traditions differ, and rely instead on broad strokes of theoretical commonality to keep people together. It works, but also limits the possibilities inherent in understanding tradition as mutable. This willful blindness to variety allows politicians to squint at human history and claim their traditions as universal. They do not acknowledge that in differentiating themselves from other communities, boundaries were drawn widely and have been redrawn over time. Many – if not most – of the western religious prescriptions passed down through Torah and Old Testament are reactionary: do not do this, it is what Assyrians do; do not do that, it is what Greeks do, or the Egyptians, or….

Millennia ago, a bunch of desert nomads did their best to distinguish themselves from the civilizations around them by inventing new rules and customs. Now we are left listening to the “traditional family values” folk ranting about how marriage, based on those new rules and customs, is an eternal and unchanging sacrament. Eternal and unchanging, at least as long as you ignore the patriarchs behind the curtain – those difficult exemplars with their numerous wives, concubines and Davids loving Jonathans.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against marriage, D and I did it the day it became legal. It is a great way to say, “I love you and want to spend the foreseeable future with you.” It is also a cheap way to furnish a home if your friends and family are into “traditional” gift-giving. Marriage is even a fast way to obtain some nice legal perks – and some nasty legal obligations. And, at the moment, it’s a grand occasion for queers to party while enjoying the thought of fundamentalists expiring from apoplexy at the sight.

That said, this is an unprecedented opportunity for queers to examine our needs and traditions and form marriages that work. Wedding vows can be adapted – on the fly if needed. D inserted “faithful to all we choose” when the minister “forgot” our half-hour discussion of polyamory. If you’ve been together for the last 10 years and always hit the bathhouse once a month (week, day), don’t assume that a ring and a licence will turn off that desire. If every relationship you’ve had ended when you came back from a trip with another girl’s lipstick on your clothes, negotiate non-monogamy and let it be something that strengthens your marriage rather than an excuse for divorce.

For some of us, marriage may be just another step in becoming Stepford families. If, instead, we approach the ceremony holding firm to our queer traditions, we can hope to create a new marriage tradition based on equality, loyalty and joy rather than property, fidelity and duty alone.