Everyone’s talking about the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms and how good it’s been to gay folks. It’s absolutely true: we have done better under the Charter than virtually any other equality-seeking group.
But let’s talk about another anniversary. It’s been 10 years since Ellen uttered her famous words, “Yep, I’m gay,” which flashed across the US and the world on the front page of Time magazine.
It’s easy to make light of this coming out. It was oh-so ’90s. And who didn’t know she was gay anyway? What difference did it make?
It was April 1997. We still hadn’t had a major Supreme Court Of Canada victory. We had gotten close in 1995 when a majority of the Supremes said that the federal government’s refusal to give Jim Egan and his same-sex partner an old age security spousal pension violated the equality rights of the Charter. But the majority also said it was okay for the government to do so.
The first clear victory only arrived with Vriend in 1998, where the Supremes said sexual orientation was protected by the Charter and that Alberta’s refusal to protect homos from discrimination violated the Charter.
Then in 1999 we got M versus H, where the majority of the Supreme Court said equality rights under the Charter also protected same-sex couples. It was the beginning of the end of discrimination against same-sex couples, paving the road to same-sex marriage, which arrived in Ontario in June 2003. By 2005, the federal government passed the Civil Marriage Act, which officially made same-sex marriage the law of the land.
The story in the US is a bit more complicated. The year before Ellen’s coming out had seen two major developments: a Supreme Court decision saying that Colorado’s law allowing discrimination against gay folks was not constitutional, and the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) by Congress. It was fairly typical of the deep bipolarity American society exhibits on gay rights issues.
In the intervening years, there has been progress. One state, Massachusetts, allows gay marriage. Three states recognize civil unions (Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut) and one more is on the verge of doing so (New Hampshire). Many more have or are extending some domestic partnership rights. In 2003, the Supreme Court (finally) decided that criminal bans on sodomy were unconstitutional.
There’s also the regressive side. Twenty-seven states passed DOMAs and many states actually amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. The Bush administration floated a Federal Marriage Act which would have amended the US Constitution to do the same, but it was (narrowly) defeated.
A country deeply divided, sure. But, like Canada, the divide is largely generational. A recent New York Times/CBS poll shows that 39 percent of young Americans support gay marriage and another 29 percent support civil unions. The support for gay marriage and civil unions steadily declines as the age of Americans rises.
Younger Americans, like younger Canadians, have grown up in a post-Ellen generation. It is the world where Will And Grace and The Ellen Degeneres Show have come and gone, and has since seen the likes of Queer As Folk and The L-Word. Ellen now has a popular and very mainstream talk show (even Oprah has been on it). It is a world where being gay just isn’t a big deal, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Just this last week, Washington’s governor signed a domestic partnership bill, the New Hampshire governor stated his intention to sign the civil unions bill, the Colorado governor stated his intention to back a gay adoption bill and the Oregon legislature approved a gay rights bill. They may have a long way to go, but progress continues.
Can we give Ellen’s coming out credit for all this? Of couse not. Twenty-five years since the Charter, sure. But the real action has been in the last 10, in Canada and beyond, and changing popular culture has to get some of the credit.