5 min

Unhappy union of marriage and queerness

Egale's calculated framing of marriage debate short-sighted

Credit: Joshua Meles

When Ontario began issuing gay marriage licenses on Jun 10, 2003, Toronto attorney Michael Leshner said, “The argument’s over. No more political discussion, we’ve won, the Charter won, it’s a great day for Canada.”

Leshner, one of the so-called “Two Michaels” who is now married to Michael Stark, had good reason to celebrate. The Ontario Court of Appeal had just redefined marriage as being between “two persons” instead of “a man and a woman,” giving gay and lesbian couples across the country (and visiting citizens from the United States and elsewhere) legal grounds to apply for marriage licenses.

Hindsight shows Leshner’s proclamation that the political discussion is over to be a bit premature. Couples in Canada still have to face resistance at the provincial level everywhere but British Columbia and Ontario, and, in Parliament, a Canadian Alliance motion to preserve the traditional definition of marriage was barely defeated. In the US, President George Bush has vowed “to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.” Thus, there’s no doubt that gay marriage will continue to be a major subject of debate in the coming months, despite this initial victory.

But a funny thing happened on the way to city hall. It turns out that queer communities themselves offer some of the most compelling and legitimate critiques of gay marriage. You’d just never know it from watching the evening news, because the debate has generally been portrayed as a civil rights issue.

In fact, pro-marriage organizations like Egale Canada have been careful to frame the issue in those terms. The typical pro-marriage perspective as set forward by Egale and others is succinctly expressed by BC litigant Jane Eaton Hamilton, who married Joy Masuhara last summer in a double ceremony with Tanya and Melinda Chambers Roy in Toronto: “Whatever one thinks about marriage, there is no question that it is a powerful and portable institution that tells a public story about love. Every citizen should be able to avail himself or herself of every civil right.”

However, framing gay marriage only as a battle for civil rights excludes critiques that examine the issue in a broader social context – critiques that are central to queer theory and queer politics, and are currently dividing queer communities over the issue.

Karen Andrews is well-known in Toronto for her involvement as a successful litigant in the influential 1988 Andrews versus Minister of Health case to get same-sex health benefits. Despite her own struggle for equal rights, however, Andrews remains adamantly opposed to marriage. “It’s as if the feminist critique of marriage doesn’t exist. And you know feminism is near and dear to the hearts of lesbians. It’s as if it’s all been forgotten – and it’s a very legitimate critique that marriage is an institution that is beyond rehabilitation.”

For evidence that she is not alone, Andrews points to the number of same-sex marriage licenses issued so far. According to Legislative Services at the City Clerk’s Office in Toronto, for example, 883 same-sex marriage licenses were issued between Jun 10 and Oct 31, 2003. Of those, 311 were issued to US couples and 34 to international couples, leaving 538 marriage licenses issued to Canadian same-sex couples in the Toronto area. To Andrews, this is clear evidence of a hesitation on the part of Canadian gays and lesbians to get married. “There are over tens of thousands of us, so I think it is being rejected overwhelmingly,” she says.

“I think people don’t want to air their laundry in public, so they’re reluctant to criticize what has been characterized as an advance but I think you’re going to see most lesbian and gay people not getting married, and most of us thinking that it’s an old, anachronistic way of thinking.”

It could also be argued that mainstream discourse may be less likely to include queer critiques of marriage precisely because, for all of the Christian Right’s outrage over the issue, 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. Marriage – even gay marriage – “is intrinsically conservative. At its core, it is built on an idealized notion of the traditional family.”

Jean Bobby Noble is the president of the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Studies Association (CGLSA) and assistant professor of critical theory and cultural studies in the Department of English at McMaster University. Although the CGLSA doesn’t make statements on policy, speaking as an expert in queer theory, Noble cautions that, “This inclusion of same-sex spouses could be construed as a way to attempt to stabilize this socially constructed notion of the family, not just as a supposedly emotional centre but also as one of the success stories of capitalism.”

In fact, according to Noble, the issue has not necessarily come to the forefront because of an overwhelming demand from queer communities. In her opinion, it has become an issue “because gay organizations like Egale who have tremendous resources have made it their primary issue. But also because those who are permitted to marry are, to a certain degree, presenting types of sexual relationships which do not fundamentally challenge the idealized construction of relationships. Many other folks whose sexual practices are deemed ‘inappropriate’ or ‘crossing the line’ are left out of this hegemonic bargain where legitimacy is offered at an afforded price.”

On this point, Noble has the agreement of Jillian Sandell, assistant professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at San Francisco State University and author of several papers on queer politics. Sandell explains: “There’s a certain anxiety about a perceived decline of the so-called traditional family but really there isn’t necessarily a decline. It’s not that there ever was a traditional family of mom, dad and two kids – the sort of idealized family that sometimes people associate with the 1950s.”

As Sandell also points out, there have been all kinds of extended families and kinship relationships throughout the historical period and the nuclear family has never necessarily been predominant. It also seems relevant to note that currently even heterosexual couples may often choose to remain unmarried, since many people are now aware of divorce rates and our more secularized culture is slowly opening up to alternative arrangements. Sandell is also careful to point out that the traditional conception of family is tied heavily to capitalism. “Family is the site of social reproduction that supports the market economy,” she says. Whether that family is heterosexual or homosexual, it serves the same function.

While both women are reluctant to criticize the choices made by individual gay and lesbian couples, they remain concerned that too little attention has been given to larger social critiques of marriage.

Noble’s point is also that, while important, gay marriage is by no means the end of the struggle. “My concerns are that there is a perception amongst gay activists, or at least the ones who make the news clips, that somehow ‘we’ are now liberated. It’s just not true, and marriage is hardly the end of an oppressive sexual system which is violently policed,” she says. “If anyone’s going to be married, then everyone should. I fully support inclusion of same-sex spouses. That said, I am tremendously concerned that the gay marriage issue has become a kind of flagship issue, one which is perceived to mark the liberation of all gay peoples from oppression.”

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this emphasis will shift in the coming months as the debate over gay marriage is raised once again as an election issue in both Canada and the US. It may be that the only way to expand the debate at this point is to put grassroots pressure on groups like Egale to pursue not only equal civil rights, but to challenge an entire system that excludes both queer communities and heterosexuals like single mothers who do not fit into the idealized definition of “family.”

Otherwise, in the rush towards being accepted as normal, queer communities 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.

* Susan Thompson is a freelance writer who concentrates on social and political issues. This article has appeared in Canadian Dimension.