Hark, the Herald Angels Sing: Welcome to Post-Gay

By Stan Persky | December 21, 2006

Okay, I didn’t expect that there would be a blast of celestial trumpets when parliament a couple of weeks ago decisively voted 175-123 against re-visiting and challenging Canada’s 2005 law that legalised same-sex marriage. Nor was I anticipating that the parliamentary gallery would rise as one and belt out a chorus of “Hark, the herald angels sing.” So I wasn’t disappointed by the absence of triumphal horns or hearty chorals.

What I expected was pretty much what happened: a 48-hour minor political wonder, sandwiched in between the early-December selection of Stephane Dion as the new leader of the Liberal Party and the full tide of Xmas shopping. Equally predictable was a smattering of mainstream media stories about the gay marriage issue almost entirely devoted to speculation about the tactical maneuverings of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the new leader of the opposition, Monsieur Dion, followed by the inevitable slide into collective amnesia.

Apart from members of parliament, about the only voice permitted by the media to comment on the matter was that of the pustulant moralist, Charles McVety, president of the Canada Family Action Coalition, who assured the press that his side wasn’t going to abandon the fight against gay marriage. “We are going to continue to lobby members of Parliament, to raise up grassroots and to engage in the democratic process,” McVety declared in a garbled bit of rhetoric, but one felt that his presence on the tube was merely designed to satisfy the media’s leaning-Tower-of-Pisa notion of journalistic “balance.”

Harper’s strategy

Before getting to what should happen in a society not afflicted by instant forgetfulness, let’s dispense with the micro-politics. The media angle on the issue was the discovery of a paradox: it was “A vote Harper doesn’t want to win,” as a Globe and Mail analysis (Dec. 7, 2006) by Ottawa Bureau Chief Brian Laghi was headlined. Why would an anti-gay marriage government sponsor a motion against gay marriage if it didn’t want to win? There are two reasons.

The first is that Harper had promised not only the public but especially the “social conservative” members of his party that the issue would be debated in parliament if he became head of government. It was a promise he made on the first day of the campaign that brought him to power. Fulfilling the promise, Harper was proving that he is a politician who doesn’t renege on promises, a point he was happy to make to the general electorate. As well, formally raising the issue, even if there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the vote, would demonstrate to an important sector of his supporters that he had not forgotten the issues by which they had “brung him to the dance.” As it happened, most right-wing members of the Conservative Party were not all that happy with Harper’s fulfillment of the promise. What they wanted was not a debate in this parliament, but for Harper to wait until after the next election when, they presumed, he would have a majority that could actually reverse the law on same-sex marriage and much else. Hence, the grumpiness of people like McVety.

The second reason that Harper wanted to lose the vote is because, as analyst Laghi put it, “a same-sex defeat blunts a Liberal arrow from the campaign quiver” of the next election. Hence, Harper’s declaration after the vote that the issue is now dead or, as they say in Ottawa, the file is closed. “The result was decisive,” Harper told reporters. “I don’t see reopening this question in the future.” Because the point was obvious, Harper didn’t have to explicitly say that the opposition could no longer make it an issue in the next electoral contest. He even declined to indulge in the bad idea of a law exempting public servants from performing same-sex marriages on grounds of religious conscience.

What was odd about the mainstream reportage/commentary was that it contained a tone of blame and disappointment that Harper wasn’t really interested in reversing the same-sex marriage law. Since most of the commentators themselves wanted to “move on” and “put the issue behind us,” as people like to say these days, their disappointment was puzzling. Since they too wanted the anti-same-sex marriage motion to go down to defeat, they ought to have welcomed Harper’s willingness to do the same. Perhaps they think the punditry and reportage business would be easier if Harper really is the reactionary ogre that he’s often been portrayed as being.

I regarded Harper’s evident disinterest in reversing this bit of Canadian history as a good thing. I took it that his handling of the same-sex marriage issue was a signal that he doesn’t have the intention of pursuing a “social conservative” agenda (even with a majority) and that he is bringing his version of the Conservative Party back into the traditional spectrum of Canadian politics, and moving it away from the wingnut fantasies of the former Reform and Alliance configurations. I like the traditional Canadian political spectrum because it’s committed to a large degree of social democracy and public good, which is what makes it distinctive from the American political spectrum. It was the Reform-Alliance’s entrance onto the scene in the 1980s, with its emphasis on grim morality, religious fundamentalism, and indifference to a notion of public good, that made Canadian right-wing politics so disturbing. So, if Harper’s conservatism is focused on taxes, property, free market capitalism, military matters, and the rest of the standard conservative positions, that, if not a good thing, is at least better than the alternative. You don’t have to agree with any of those views to see that focusing on them would be a “normalization” of Conservative Party politics.

As for the tactical challenge faced by Dion in the attempted revisiting of the same sex marriage issue, that can be dealt with in a sentence or two. It was Dion’s first public test as leader and he passed it with flying colours when he immediately defined same-sex marriage as a matter of constitutional equal rights, period. He also deftly sidestepped potential pitfalls by permitting his Liberal caucus a “free vote” on the issue, thus avoiding the danger of the new leader being accused of autocracy, even though a dozen or so troglodyte Liberal MPs would oppose same-sex marriage.

Desperately Seeking Substance

Insofar as the debate was a possible matter for public reflection, the media’s reduction of it to the usual horserace treatment of politics, which was pretty much about all there was, is sad. It would have been nice if space in the public forum could have been found for at least one representative of the country’s sexual preference minority. He or she might have noted that the decision not to re-visit the gay marriage issue marked the de facto and maybe even de jure end of a more than 30-year campaign to provide equal rights to homosexuals. He or she might even have cheerily said, “Yo Canada, welcome to Post-Gay!”

There are two things on my mind in the effort to locate some substance in this obscurely-Xmas-positioned, quickly-passing event. First, I’m troubled by our inability to mark public events and processes that have come to a meaningful conclusion. My vague idea is that if we had the ability to declare such issues resolved we’d have a better idea of who we are as a society and where we are in relation to history. Second, if the vote against further wrangling on same-sex marriage is the anti-climactic conclusion of the debate about homosexuality in Canada (and I think it is), then we have to define Post-Gay.

Within living memory (if you’ve lived long enough), three or four genuinely important political-social “struggles” that emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s have, some three-and-a-half decades later, produced significant transformations in Western societies. The struggles I’m thinking about have to do with race/ethnicity, feminism, homosexuality, and the environment. Homosexuality is perhaps the social issue most conclusively settled, followed by the status of women, ethnicity, and ecology.

Yet, I’m unable to think of an instance in which anyone has stood up and said, as people do at the end of decisive wars, “We’ve done it! It’s over. The world is changed, however slightly.” Part of the problem is that no one seems to know when or how to declare victory. Since the participants are still caught up with tending the wounded or worrying about whether they’ll continue to receive grants now that it’s over, you’d think the media would make the announcement. But the media’s attention-deficit-disorder is as severe as that of the multitasking, iPod-listening, cellphone-chatting citizens whose doings they’re allegedly reporting. Instead, the change is muted, then gradually forgotten, or the former combatants lose their minds and engage in excesses modelled on the Terror of the French Revolution.

I think the partial but substantial transformation wrought by feminism provides the paradigm here. Without reprising the whole story or the statistics, I think it’s fair to say that a young woman’s possibilities in the 2000s are significantly expanded from those of a young woman in the 1950s. First, it’s possible today, if you’re a woman, to conceive of oneself as an equal citizen and person; second, there is legal equality for women inscribed throughout Canadian law; and third, public attitudes about women’s rights and opposition to sexism have shifted considerably in favour of women. There’s still plenty of sexism and existing disparities to provide a full program of political activity, but we ought to be able to recognize that a fundamental battle has been won, and though the gains might conceivably be reversed, it doesn’t look likely. I rather regret that at some point in the last couple of decades, we weren’t able to pause long enough to observe and declare that there was a victory, and that it was a pretty good thing. Even raising a glass and proposing a toast would have been preferable to the mere fizzling out into post-Post-Feminism.

The situation regarding race, ethnicity, and saving the planet are all still very much in media res and we’re obviously a long way from resolution on these matters. Canada has done surprisingly well in fashioning a multi-ethnic society. No bloodbaths, no French-style riots in the burbs. Too much tribalism perhaps, not enough constitutional patriotism. Still, a remarkably successful-so-far experiment. The same can’t be said for Canada’s portion of the planet. Although we’re going to hear a lot more about climate change, global warming, sustainable environments and sundry other catchphrases in the next election(s), I’ve yet to see anything resembling a program from New Democrats, Liberals, or Greens that will make a difference. I don’t even think much fundamental thinking about these issues has been initiated, outside of think-tank organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation and similar still-marginal outfits.

So, what is Post-Gay?

When it comes to the much simpler question of homosexuality, we’ve reached a circumstance close enough to Post-Gay to be able to ask for a definition of it.

The best way to become able to recognize Post-Gay when you see it is to begin by comparing the situation in Canada to the rest of the world. My conceptualization of Post-Gay is based on an old Marxist notion, one usually applied to economic affairs, and known as the “Law of Uneven Development.” I think the Law of Uneven Development also can be applied to cultural circumstances, such as the status of homosexuality. The idea is simple: what we find in the economic world at one and the same time are completely different ways or modes of producing things, such that feudalism, raw capitalism, social democracy, and other forms of production, all exist simultaneously and can only be explained by examining the specific historical circumstances, cultures, and power structures of particular nations. I think something similar holds for how we might think about homosexuality.

What I see, and I’m intentionally over-simplifying, is a tri-partite global situation. In various countries, which I’ll call Pre-Gay, homosexuality is still illegal, often punishable by death, and cannot be spoken of much less named. There, homosexuals remain intellectually puzzled by their own sexual passions; the subject is forbidden in public discussion; and the activity is completely proscribed by law. Yet, in all of those pre-gay places, there is a considerable amount of homosexual activity despite the peril.

In other countries — the United States is a prime example — they’re still in the midst of gay struggles. Religious denunciations of homosexuality, referenda banning gay marriage, rollbacks of sexual preference anti-discrimination laws, all jostle with gay characters on TV, commercial gay pornography, increasing and/or declining public sympathy for various gay causes. But the U.S., in the midst of a strange period of religious revivalism, to say nothing of bellicosity, is clearly still in the Gay Struggle mode. Other countries — I’m thinking of Thailand — present a more hybrid situation that combines traditional pre-gay modes with a vigorous debate among homosexuals themselves about the conceptualization of modern gay identities.

Third, there are countries like Canada, as well as various European nations, which I would describe as Post-Gay or Post-Queer. What I mean by that is that being gay is no longer a contested identity; legislation has been passed that protects gay human rights up to and including same-sex marriage; and public sentiment has clearly moved to the side of people who identify themselves as gay, if they feel the need to identify themselves in sexual terms at all. Indeed, in post-gay societies, work on self-identity tends to move in directions that make the notion of gay somewhat obsolete, as reflected in the discussions of the last decade over the use of the term “queer.” One’s sexual identification no longer requires priority in a list of identifications that may include everything from vocation to musical talents to left-handedness.

All of these modes of homosexuality exist simultaneously in the world and, using a loose notion of the Law of Uneven Development, can be traced to specific cultural histories. Post-Gay, however, is a term that makes some people in post-gay societies, particularly those who have been involved in the history of gay struggles, uneasy. People working in gay organizations or gay-oriented businesses may worry that they’re going to be done out of a job or a program of activism by success. But I don’t think that’s the case, even if we recognize a notion of Post-Gay.

First, it really is important to know when to declare victory, or else one tediously lives in a past that no longer exists, or worse, persists in a tribalism that is already all too prevalent in the world. Second, the Law of Uneven Development applies not only to entire cultures, but operates differentially within countries. So, while Post-Gay clearly obtains in places like Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, in various other specific communities and provinces, the issue of being gay or queer remains problematic, and “coming out” is still a major personal event.

Third, and finally, the condition of Post-Gay doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do. Post-Gay doesn’t mean, as many wrongly assume, the End of Gay. Athough gay politics becomes less vital, crimes like gaybashing continue to occur; anti-gay organizations such as the U.S.-based Canadian branch of Focus on the Family continue to press for repeal of rights; and the plight of various individuals, such as teenagers in regressive school board districts, is an abiding concern. Furthermore, having achieved a Post-Gay condition doesn’t mean it can’t be reversed.

And one more practical point: given that homosexuality looks like a more or less permanent minority preference, in which there are ongoing concerns about finding like-minded or like-desiring people (the ubiquitous Internet notwithstanding), or finding support in the development of one’s own identity, whether as a teenager or as an adult in particular communities, all of that ensures there is no End of Gay in Post-Gay. There’s still space for vigilant organizations, vigorous lobbies, and even the annual parade. So, no sleeping on the last watch of the night. Although the Love that dare not speak its name, as Oscar Wilde meant it, is perhaps relegated to history, the Love that just won’t shut up, as we jokingly dare to describe it today, will continue to be heard, but at lower volumes.

Some of this should have been said at the time that parliament concluded the gay debate a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t. However belatedly, then, consider it said now.


Vancouver, Dec. 21, 2006


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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