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The Gay Marriage Controversy: Some Slightly Confused Second Thoughts

Since a relatively unheralded Ontario court ruling paved the way for gays to get married on the same legal terms that heteros, er, enjoy, things quickly snowballed into a continental if not quite global controversy. It began as part of the general outpouring of common sense from Jean Chretien’s last years as federal Prime Minister. Chretien made a half-hearted attempt to render our marijuana laws less than totally idiotic, and then refused to join the Bush Administration’s military attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. For a while there, Canada was looking like the most sensible country on the planet, and it was fun to travel internationally again, particularly in France.

I’ve supported the universalization of gay marriage rights from the beginning. In Canada, which is where I happen to live, it marks a logical and just application of the Canadian Charter of Rights, which, in its most fundamental assertion, says that everyone ought to have access to the entitlements of normal non-violent behavior.

To put this into an accurate context, I think that everyone ought to also have an unfettered right to join, say, The Rotary Club—women, gays and religious, ethnic and racial minorities. But I’m not very interested in the activities of Rotary or the values it espouses, and I’d be mildly hostile if they decided they wanted to hold self-celebratory parades down Bloor Street or have their Rotary Club luncheons in High Park or in front of City Hall. This is because I’m not by nature or active choice of the Rotarian cast of mind or social predilection, and sort of wish the club would disband, or at least celebrate its values a little less self-proudly.

If I have a prejudice here, it’s that I have difficulty understanding why some gay couples want to practice the most dysfunctional of heterosexual social institutions—marriage. I’d feel the same way if some of my visual artist friends suddenly decided that they wanted to live in suburban bungalows, eat all their meals at Swiss Chalet and produce nothing but socialist realism labour pietas.

I happen to think that marriage is a senile institution. None of the good things about domestic couplings are supported in any productive way by it, and it has become a huge advantage-seeking arena within the male/female supremacy struggle that has been going on since the 1960s, not to mention a psychological burden for those who get married, one that little else in the culture offers substantive support to. Marriage is a really hard thing to succeed at, and the confused and damaged marrieds or ex-marrieds spilling from every doorway testify to this. Like everything else in this culture, marriage has to be learned by trial-and-error. The errors are excruciating, and the trials tend to be expensive, financially and otherwise. That’s why the revision of the legal paraphernalia of marriage in the last four decades has concentrated more or less exclusively on exit provisions, including improvements that prevent the kids from getting trampled in the emotional stampedes that invariably result when a marriage collapses.

So, sure, gay couples should have the right to get married. If the military veterans had the right to play catch with old, chemically unstable hand grenades, it follows that all consenting adults should have the same right to blow themselves up with them. Right?

Okay, I’ll be more candid. What has me worried is that the close supporters of gay marriage may be overplaying their hand. Notwithstanding the important principle at issue here, this isn’t quite the same thing as changing statutes to protect coal miners from unfair labour practices was a few generations ago. That was about keeping people from dying in collapsed mineshafts, or losing arms and legs in machinery. Beyond establishing an egalitarian principle, this is about Rotarian self-esteem, normalizing common sense, and getting rid of irrational historical prejudices. Those last two generally can’t be changed instantly by legislative fiat or via head-butting and face-slapping.

I think it’s accurate to say that the support gay marriage has gotten from heteros is principled, but isn’t profound. At the level of emotional commitment, which is where this culture wants to experience its fundamental values, this is more a “why not?” issue than a “this must proceed!” finger-in-the-air kind of deal. Most of the strong non-gay support comes from the under 35s, while most of the hostility comes from those over 55, and it might be wise to remember which demographic runs things once you get past street politics and popular culture.

I’m also aware—increasingly—that the rabid pursuit of marriage rights by so-inclined gays isn’t doing the gay community or any other element of the centre/left political and cultural spectrum any favours. There’s a wide diversity of opinion about its wisdom even within the larger gay population, particularly among the gay media, and the in-your-face public pursuit of what is ultimately an exercise of basic equality of access has made it an organizing focal point for the increasingly aggressive political and social program of the fundamentalist Christian movement, particularly in the United States. The U.S Republicans scared Middle Americans into voting for George W. Bush during the last presidential election by convincing them that the real threat to their well-being wasn’t bomb-toting Muslim fundamentalists from Al Qaeda but the homos and Jews and Muslims and all them other non-white non-church-goers invading the churches and neighbourhoods and shopping plazas of god-fearing missionary-position-screwing porn-downloading white America.

That was at least a factor—the more or less total disorganization of the left was another among a list of others too long to enumerate—in getting everyone on the planet another four years of George W. Bush’s presidency along with a Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives. This in turn, will most likely beget a more right-of-centre U.S. Supreme Court, a full-scale assault on Roe-Versus-Wade, and the possible rejigging of the U.S. social security system to allow citizens the right to bet their pensions on the stock market, and given the climate, the gambling tables in Las Vegas.

In Canada, which isn’t near as nutty as the U.S has become, it could contribute to the election of a right wing government next time around, given the slue-footed issue-handling skills of Paul Martin Jr’s shaky Liberal minority government. The lead minister, Irwin Cotler, needs to keep playing the upcoming legislative vote as a Charter of Rights defense, and not an issue of multicultural tolerance. So far, so good, but support for the legislation within his own party is soft, which isn’t the case within the opposition Conservatives. Beyond that, as we saw when a Sikh politician tried to bullyrag Martin during his recent Far East trip over the male-female sanctity of marriage, or with the regular attempts-to-bully by conservative upper management figures within the Roman Catholic Church, gay marriage has become a symbolic issue and a prime organizational focus for social conservatives, one that is emptying can after can of hi-test gasoline on fundamentalist bonfires everywhere. These are fires that aren’t exactly short of fuel to begin with.

So, do I have a solid proposal to make here? Not really.

I’m sure as hell not suggesting that gays who want to get married ought to back off for fear of annoying the rednecks and fundamentalists. They’re not going to back off on my say-so, I’m not sure they should, and even if they wanted to, they can’t without reaffirming a whole raft of disequities civil libertarians have spent decades getting rid of. Canadians—all of us, are in this one until it’s decided. If it goes the right way, we won’t be alone. Belgium and the Netherland have already passed laws enabling gay marriage.

That said, I do think that establishing the right to marry ought to proceed as a sober human rights issue of equality of entitlement, and that it can do without the costume-heavy theatre that has kept it in the media to date. This isn’t about the fundamental right of gay men to wear wedding dresses or lesbians to wear matching tuxedos at the altar. Gay marriage—I’ll repeat myself on this because it’s that important—is an egalitarian issue, which is to say, gay domestic couples ought to have a legally sanctioned right to enter into the same civil contract any other domestic couple has, and to enjoy the benefits—such as they are—of related statutes pertaining to tax advantages, coherent succession, and the protection of the children that come from the relationship.

But in the hysterical arena of today’s public life, rational goals frequently get buried within the search for sanctioned sincerity. The mass media and the gay couples who are getting married are treating this one as an important spiritual liberation, and so it all starts to feel like a dismayingly bourgeois strain of celebratory social conservatism. Personally, I get nervous when people start asking the government to make them happy this way. The government’s job is to prevent social injustice, not guarantee our private or collective self-esteem or give us happy-faces.

I’m tempted to suggest that governments ought to just expunge all mention of marriage from our civil statutes, turn what used to be call “marriage” into some sharp-toothed statutes for protecting children and distributing common property equitably during and after the dissolution of domestic relationships, and let the churches have free rein to slather whatever non-legally-binding mumbo-jumbo their dumb-ass believers agree to—provided that they do it entirely on the private property of consenting co-believers. I can’t suggest that because of the strategic implications—i.e. we’ve all got to get through this—get the bills passed and the principle secured.

Once that work is done, though, we’ll have to deal with the side-effects: the energized fundamentalists, a horde of Gay Rotarians infused with an unproductive sense of their right to have legal spats in the courts, and the fact that the whole jamboree has irritated the shit out of the rest of us, including a fair portion of the gay population who can’t quite see what’s so great about normality. On that count, I agree with them wholeheartedly: Wasn’t the original goal to crowd a thousand strange camels into the courtyard?

Finally, I’m also wondering if this might not be another of those win-the-battle-lose-the-war situations that have characterized the slide to the economic and political right we’ve been on for twenty-five years now. About all the marriage-bent gays are bringing to this table is their Rotarian sincerity. And as one of my wisest colleagues says, people bring too much sincere feeling to everything these days, and it doesn’t guarantee them much else than the sincerity they arrive with—not truth, or social harmony, or civility that ought to be part of their calculations.

That’s what I think, self-contradicting and inconclusive as it is. At least I’m in tune with the rest of us.

1770 w. February 3, 2005

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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