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June 26, 2003
Podium

Same-sex marriage ruling
Out from under the covers


By Katharine E. King
In 1967, then justice minister Pierre Trudeau proposed the decriminalization of homosexuality, stating that “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” For this, he is endlessly congratulated. He also said, “when it becomes public it is a different matter.” Thus, it is only in the past week that the federal government has acknowledged that when gay couples emerge from their bedroom, they want equal participation in societal institutions. This includes the legal protection and social recognition that is conveyed by marriage. Scholars call this sexual citizenship. Citizenship is a founding concept of western society; in this instance, it means being able to participate fully in society regardless of sexual orientation.

For the past two weeks I have been reading Canadian and American coverage of the same-sex marriage issue, as well as talking to friends and colleagues and, of course, listening to the radio phone-in shows. I have jotted a few reflections on the issue as they emerge.

The polls
The point of having a Charter is that the interests and opinions of the majority will not infringe on the rights of minorities. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note reactions. Ipsos-Reid found that 54 per cent of Canadians support same-sex marriage. This statistic has been presented in different ways. In Canadian media the “almost even split” is always highlighted, while much American coverage doesn’t report on the actual numbers, but simply states that a “solid majority” are in favour. American media also emphasizes “lack of organized resistance.”

What is sometimes ignored is the considerable generational divide; when the polls look at people under 40, approval for same-sex marriage in Canada is 71 per cent.

I walked into my Sociology 2000 class the day after the Ontario Appeal Court made its decision, and told my students that same-sex couples could now legally marry in Ontario. A young woman in the front row furrowed her brow. “You mean, they couldn’t already?” Two powerful influences on our students – academia and pop culture – have put the gay community front and centre in the last five years. This has shaped their world view. Just as an example, in 2001 the census counted same-sex couples in Canada, for the first time. Since the data was released I have been putting this question on my final exam: what percentage of Canadian couples identify as same-sex? Students — the ones who didn’t study — will routinely guess anywhere between 10-25 per cent. (The answer is 0.5 per cent).

For youth, gay relationships have never been the “love that dare not speak its name.” It is aired on prime time. Our students watch Queer as Folk. They watch Will and Grace. We’re here, we’re queer. They’re so, like, used to it.

Gay marriage may also re-popularize marriage for youth. If, in a class of 100, there are four students now inspired by the realization they can marry a same-sex partner, there are about 96 straight ones who are skeptical about their marriage prospects. We’ve seen the phenomenon of gay gentrification. The gay community – I’m not kidding – could make marriage trendy again.

The gay rights movement
For the past two weeks, supporters of same-sex marriage have made comparisons to social movements like women’s suffrage and civil rights. Of course, there are important differences, since those movements weren’t led by affluent, well-educated white men or backed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Legal equality is, of course, the first goal of any social movement, and this is when a movement is most unified. For those of us who missed the first wave of feminism and the desegregation of schools, it is exciting to feel, as the media puts it, that history is being made. Once gay marriage is a reality in Canada, hopefully the gay movement won’t lose focus and become fragmented. Rights, once achieved, must be guarded vigilantly. The same day that Chrétien announced the drafting of the same-sex marriage bill, our neighbours to the south heard a legal challenge to Roe vs. Wade (It was unsuccessful).

Many supporters of same-sex marriage vow that it will not affect the institution of marriage, but I am hopeful that it will. As we move farther away from “husbands” and “wives” and adopt a language of spouse and partner, gender could potentially become less salient for het couples as well. There is evidence that gay couples are more apt to choose consciously; they negotiate power and privilege within their relationships. They have to, since they have no gender scripts to follow. Het couples choose by default; division of labour, childcare, and the giving and receiving of emotional and material support are predicated by gender. To abandon these learned roles could be challenging, but also liberating. Scholars have a term for this as well; they call it the queering of heterosexuality.

A queerer society would also be good for bisexuals, who are caught between two polarized identities and marginalized by both. Extending legal rights and recognition to same-sex couples may open up the continuum between gay and straight. If we are freed from the pressure to construct sexual identities that remain consistent throughout our lives, then sexuality becomes only the sum total of sexual choices we make, rather than a fixed and essential aspect of our self. And isn’t that a good thing? For one tenant of all equality-seeking movements is that difference should not be an identity, on its own. Rather, difference is a normal part of living in an inclusive society.

Katharine King is a lecturer in Social/Cultural Studies at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, with an interest in equality issues.


 


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