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 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
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