7 min

Why most Canadian gays and lesbians are choosing not to marry

Too many risks, few incentives

Credit: David Ellingsen photo

Legalized same-sex marriage recently celebrated its third anniversary in Canada. Yet the majority of Canadian gays and lesbians are still choosing not to get married.

Despite initial predictions by some same-sex marriage advocates that gays and lesbians would flock to the altar, the 2006 census found that only 17 percent of homo couples in Canada are tying the knot  — compared to about 80 percent of straight couples.

Of course I maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about these statistics which were measured only one year after the national legal switch-over. That percentage might not include queer couples who are not same-sex (such as transfolk or bisexuals), and might skew information about poly and non-monogamous folks. Also many queers may be reluctant to confess their gay partnerships to the census bureau.

Irrespective of these potential statistical inaccuracies, the numbers are still low.

It seems many queers are reluctant to join an institution that has so long excluded us.

To some, same-sex marriage is a radical act. To others, it’s an assimilationist strategy.

Having been excluded from the expectation of marriage for most of our lives, queers have a distance from which to critique it, as well as freedom to create the relationships we want.

“I do not think that the church or the state should have any part in validating my relationships,” says Erica Hirshberger, a local queer woman. “It will be valid without their consent.”

“Personally, until I need some of the rights entitled only to married people I prefer to stay in an unmarried state of commitment with my current partner,” says Caro Moffatt, “because I find it very romantic to wake up every morning and choose to be together instead of staying together because of legal bonds.”

“I think owning property or having a pet is more of a commitment than a marriage,” adds Gloria Edith Hole.

Partly out of necessity and partly out of desire, we have built cultures and communities independent of the straight world, developing and adopting our own creative alternatives: chosen families, open relationships, multi-parent families and domestic partnerships, just to name a few.

Given these options, for many queers there are too many risks and not enough incentives to tie the knot.

Let’s face it: same-sex marriage offers more symbolic than practical value.

For starters, inviting the law into one’s relationship also means bringing the law into one’s divorce. Let alone the cost of divorce, breaking up is hard enough without having to justify separation to an outside authority.

“Divorce takes the break-up into an entirely new stratosphere of trauma,” says local queer organizer Laura Boo:

Lesbian lawyer barbara findlay questions the need to marry at all these days, given the almost identical benefits available to common-law partners.

“Because we have all the same rights and responsibilities as common-law partners that we would have if we married, there is no need to marry,” she says.

Indeed, in Canada, common-law couples, gay or straight, are entitled to survivor benefits, post-breakup financial support, input into partner care, family and medical leave, adoption opportunities, immigration sponsorship and inheritance rights.

Gay lawyer Ken Smith points to another disincentive to legalize vows. With marriage rights come obligations; you can’t opt in or out at will. For example, if you are common-law or married, you are expected to support your spouse and this changes access to welfare and social support, such as disability benefits. Income tax is also calculated differently for couples.

“Many queers regard marriage as an oppressive patriarchal institution and have no interest in participating in it,” findlay notes. “My partner and I, for example, decided that we would not marry unless there was an important political reason to do so. As my partner says, ‘We’ve been living in sin for too long to change now!'”

Queer culture has flourished not in spite of but because of our outsider position.

For anti-assimilationists, same-sex marriage represents a reform movement that seeks to prove that queers are ‘just like everyone else.’ But many of us are not like everyone else – and unapologetically so.

As Randy Morris, a Vancouver gay man, says, “I believe that many of us still believe that just by being gay, we have accepted unconventional perspectives on relationships. I actually have revelled in the idea of my relationship being unconventional. Marriage, to me, seems to signify an effort at conformity.” 

Many queers worry that the cultural adoption of same-sex marriage will lead to a domestication of queer culture.

But does our vibrant queer culture depend on marginality? Hopefully not. And, as Dan Savage has pointed out, marriage rarely meant monogamy for hets, so why would it make us sexually exclusive? 

According to Craig Maynard, BC co-organizer of Canadians for Equal Marriage, there are three central components of marriage: legal, cultural, and personal. The legal aspect is now resolved. The cultural aspect is somewhat resolved depending on geography and context. “The personal is where the statistics come from.” 

Maynard argues that the decision to marry comes from seeing examples. Most gays and lesbians did not grow up with representation of same-sex marriage, so we are following suit. As examples of married queers emerge, more queers will follow, he predicts.

Maynard suspects this is an evolutionary process rather than an abrupt change, following the culture, not the law.

“It’s evolving, not a stroke-of-midnight change,” he says.

“This begs the question: in four years, when examples are visible, what will we see?’ he asks.

If seeing examples of marriage is part of our decision-making process, then equally significant is the number of divorce and break-ups we witness.

Local queer performance artist Kira Schaffer says, “I don’t know if I’ll get married because of the high incidence of divorce. Marriage is not the way I want to commit.”

Schaffer also sees marriage as more of a religious institution than a legal one, making her less inclined to take part.

At the same time, many religious queers do not want to get married until their religion legally recognizes their marriage.

“Unfortunately, too many religious groups are still offering ‘unions’ or other ceremonies that aren’t equal to the marriage ceremonies offered by the religion [to hets],” says Benjamin Maron, a Jewish scholar and educator.

Other queers reject the prospect of wedding to avoid coming out to their extended family.

“Many homos have made a break from their families of origin or do not receive the same relationship advice,” notes Amelia Pitt-Brooke. “For that matter, there is probably substantially less financial support for homos from their families for one of the most expensive once-in-a-lifetime events ever.” 

Heterosexuals rarely consider the cultural aspects in their decision to marry and they have more social and family pressures to marry. Queers rarely have these pressures and many are discouraged from getting married from both family and friends.

Though there may not be enough incentives for some people to get married, there are still benefits to having same-sex marriage legally recognized. 

When conducting informal interviews about marriage, I found that many people started by telling me all their political critiques of marriage, but would then amend their position to say they actually dream of getting married someday.

Some pointed to the presents, others the excuse to wear a fabulous outfit, host a fabulous party, flaunt a glorious partner. Others highlighted marriage as a way to include the community in their relationship.

Queer culture undeniably loves love and to many marriage is a damn good way of celebrating romance.

“And besides,” smiles Boo, “I love to wear the prettiest dress in the room.”

“While I was not overtly hostile to the same-sex marriage movement, I didn’t support it,” reflects queer SFU professor Ann Travers. “It was a low priority and politically problematic. I never expected it to be an option.

“But now that it is, it holds emotional resonance. Getting married was the ultimate form of commitment I could make.”

Despite his political critiques, Morris too is getting married because his boyfriend really wants to and because he can see them staying together for life.

Julie Guenkel and Bianca Garbutt saw marriage as an expected progression of their relationship and wanted to publicly declare their commitment and to build a secure base from which to raise a family.

Travers argues that the option to marry has changed the legal climate for queers. “Tolerance is codified,” she says. “Marriage represents the end of obstacles to full citizenship.”

Schaffer notes that, in this new climate, queers raising families is no longer an anomaly or culturally scorned.

But Nancy Polikoff, author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, cautions: “When marriage serves as the bright dividing line between those relationships that legally matter and those that do not, countless families suffer.”

It is for this reason that she advocates a “valuing all families” approach where “marriage as a family form is not more important or valuable than other forms of family.” 

Moreover, same-sex marriage will not automatically eliminate homophobia from our social landscape, especially in certain geographical areas.

According to Caelie Frampton, advisory board member of Upping the Anti, a journal about today’s radical left in Canada, “Queers need to challenge the ways in which the state actually works to marginalize us in other contexts. Marriage may be symbolic for some folks, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problems people face, nor does it challenge homophobia in a systemic way.” 

Even if the majority of homos are not getting hitched, the possibility of same-sex marriage is still important.

Citizenship has historically been defined by who can vote, who can work in politics or the military and who can marry. Throughout history this has excluded queers, women, people of colour, youth, certain nationalities and people with disabilities.

The human rights implications of same-sex marriage runs deeper than the household unit. The fight for same-sex marriage has helped queers win other rights, most notably a more equal interpretation of gay and lesbian relationships under the law. 

Personally, I follow the classic feminist argument: challenge the institution while supporting the decisions made by individuals.

While I fully support same-sex marriage for those who choose it, I believe that the more progressive political approach is for the individual to be the basis of social organization instead of the couple.

This means giving all people social security, guaranteed income, health benefits, child care, and parental leave, irrespective of their marital status.

A culture that values the individual instead of the couple as the base unit would offer more support for singlehood and single parenting, for starters.

I’d like to see more information, resources and support for all forms of relationships: single, polyamorous, coupled, friendship, chosen family or whatever our queer hearts can dream up.