Adovcacy News - To dare to say "I do"
July 30, 2004
dare to say "I do"
In AD 342 the Roman Emperor Constantius II added male homosexuals to the list of criminals to burn at the stake. On April 1, AD 2004, I married René LeBoeuf in a civil ceremony at the Palais de justice de Montréal. For us, 1,662 years of social exclusion, marginality and murder ended with the simple phrase "Oui, je le veux" ("I do" in French).
But the battle for full social and civil equality is not over. On October 7, the federal government's reference on the "equal" Marriage Bill will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. Although the Court's decision will be binding on no one, we will be there to argue that we have the right to equal treatment under the law, that our couple is no different from an opposite sex couple, that love is love is love.
When we initiated the struggle in Canada for full citizenship on September 14, 1998, we were, to say the least, naïve about where our desire for access to civil marriage would take us. What we did know was that we would face vigorous, mean-spirited opposition from the homophobic fringe of Canadian society and that some homosexuals, calling themselves "queers", would oppose us out of principle. The unknowns were how the court system would deal with us and how the general public would react.
True to form, the homophobic fringe went ballistic and has stayed there. The fact that the sky did not fall on Montreal on April 1, that God did not "smite" Canada, and that no heterosexual couples have sought asylum in the American Embassy has not silenced them. The queer side of the issue was well summarised in the April 29, 1999 ICI cover story "Les gais sont-ils devenu trop straight?". That hasn't changed either. According to them, we are aping the dominant society, destroying "Gay Culture".
The Canadian court system turned out to be a delightful surprise. Of the 16 judges who have heard our arguments in three provinces, 15 have granted our request with strong support; one judge in the British Columbia lower court ruled against us. Now all that remains to be seen is what the Supreme Court has to say. When we arrive before them in October, we will be supported by solid decisions from the highest courts in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, signed by 11 judges (5 from Quebec).
The "general public" in Canada has also been very positive. In December 1997 an Angus Reid poll found 48% support for same-sex marriage in Quebec. By September 2000, after our story had been thoroughly covered by sympathetic media, a SOM poll found that support in Quebec had risen to 67%. The latest poll (CRIC, June 2004) shows support in Quebec at 66%, with national support at 57% (77% among Canadians under age 30)!
However, there is more to the issue of same-sex marriage than court hearings and dry legal arguments about the Canadian Human Rights Charter. As a political question, we had a glimpse of how provocative this issue is during the recent federal election. While the leaders of the smaller federal parties, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, openly support access to marriage, the campaign started with neither Paul Martin nor Stephen Harper even mentioning it. But once in full swing, the extremists in the Conservative Party could not resist bringing gay rights issues, along with access to abortion, out of the closet.
Suddenly, Harper found himself on the defensive, while Martin was forced to wrap himself in the Charter like a flag and preach "Canadian values" and equality for all. At the last minute enough voters in Ontario, apparently spooked by the retrograde social vision of Harper's gang, switched votes, giving Martin a slim victory. "Gay marriage" has become a weathervane for social progress and positive change.
But the acid test is yet to come. At some point the Liberals will have to present their Marriage Bill to Parliament for a vote. Judging from the last two debates in the House of Commons on same-sex marriage (1999 and 2003), we can expect the cesspool of human ignorance will once again overflow. At this point, it is not even sure that the Liberals will be able to muster their full caucus to support the bill. Some on our side think that it will finish with no national law like capital punishment and abortion. For the homosexual community this will mean expensive, time- and energy-consuming court battles in each of the seven provinces that still refuse to marry same-sex couples even though the Quebec Appeal Court ruled on March 19, 2004 that equal access to civil marriage is the law of the land.
What is really intriguing is to see how this issue is playing out in gay and lesbian communities here and in the United States. Back in 1998, we were doing nothing original in petitioning for access to civil marriage. There were already cases in the courts of a number of American states and we simply emulated them. As it turned out, all of the American challenges except Massachusetts failed while all of ours succeeded. Public support in Canada grew and has remained significantly higher than in the States.
Faced with their losses, American gays and lesbians have turned to civil disobedience. Thousands of same-sex couples have "married" in public but illegal ceremonies with the support of local (mostly heterosexual) politicians. Meanwhile, here in Canada, homosexual couples from anywhere can marry legally in one of the three liberated provinces [or the territory of Yukon].. Yet only a few thousand have and many were Americans crossing into Canada to register their resistance to things back home.
René and I do not think that marriage is a one-size-fits-all solution for same-sex couples. Actually, we expect that Canadian homosexual couples will behave like Canadian heterosexual couples and see marriage as one of many conjugal options, each with its benefits and drawbacks. For us, marriage is a means of settling our financial affairs before death does us part (relatively soon since we have already lived 30 years of "marriage"). As gay liberationists of the old school, i.e., those who will never surrender until we are totally equal on our own terms, we feel it is a necessary foundation for the next step in our community's historic and continuing struggle for social equality and recognition as Persons. We have always believed that we could never convince the Canadian education system to include gays and lesbians in the social equality curriculum until we can prove that we are, in fact, equal before the law. And, without a constant program of inclusion starting in the earliest years of schooling, like for visible minorities, homosexuals will never be able to overcome the stigma, prejudice and violence left by 1,662 years in the desert of criminality.
We are also looking forward to how this new liberty to marry will effect our community. The queers say we are "main streeting" gay life, putting white picket fences around our couples. The conservative wing of our community says that marriage will finally force us out of the backrooms and alleys into the daylight of "normality". René and I laugh a lot about all this conjecture. Who knows what will happen when the next generation of gays and lesbians arrives at adulthood never having known a time when fags and dykes were forbidden to form the most common of social units, the legally recognised family?
One thing is sure: never again will our enemies be able to portray us as simple delinquents. And the next generation will have the choice of being just plain ordinary if that is what they wish. And somewhere down the line our community will finally find out if the so-called "Gay Culture" of the last century is real or if it is just an artefact of oppression.
We dared to say "I do" because we think, as a community, we have nothing to lose and a future to gain.
This piece was originally written for the Montreal Mirror and appears here with permission of the author.