The Marrying Kind

By Stan Persky | January 25, 2005

Personally, I’m not the marrying kind, so this really doesn’t concern me all that much. But I’ve got a question about the same sex marriage debate currently exercising the snow-bound, rain-washed nation located slightly north of Jesusland. My question is: Does the opposition to gay marriage by the neo-Conservative Party of Canada, the Catholic Church of the True North Strong and Free, various Focus on the Family fanatics, and sundry other mostly religious groups (Christian Evangelicals, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews) really have anything to do with marriage?

I doubt it. I’ll get to the argument in a sec, but first the conclusion, so you’ll know where I’m going with this, and because this is an otherwise boring topic that quickly causes the eyes to glaze over. If the opposition to same sex marriage isn’t about protecting the sanctity/purpose/tradition/celestialjoys/etc. (choose one or all) of marriage, and in my view it isn’t, then what is it about?

It’s about, sigh, homosex. The opponents of gay marriage simply want to say/write-in-stone/legalise/enforce the idea that homosex ain’t okay. The opponents of gay marriage were also the diehard opponents of all previous measures suggesting homosex might be okay, from the Trudeau government’s decriminalization of homosexuality in the late 1960s to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2004 reference decision that legalising gay marriage is constitutional. They have a wonderfully consistent record, over a period of three decades, of battling every equal rights legislative measure, administrative order, and court decision that provided equal rights for gays. They believe that homosex is wrongwrongwrong, and same sex marriage is simply the latest soapbox from which to say so. It’s also one of the last soapboxes left, which perhaps accounts for the tone of desperation in the opposition’s rhetoric.

I think the cat was let out of the crypt when Catholic Bishop Frederick Henry of Calgary wrote in a pastoral letter to his diocese last week, “Since homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and pornography undermine the foundations of the family, the basis of society, then the state must use its coercive power to proscribe or curtail them in the interests of the common good.”

Bishop Henry isn’t worried about marriage, he’s worried about homosex. So are Conservative leader Stephen Harper, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, Cardinal Marc Ouellet and all the other princes of politics and pulpit who have weighed in on the debate. Well, maybe not Harper. It’s hard to tell if he believes in anything or is against anything — well, maybe taxes. And of course he’s worried about getting votes, though this wedge issue may not be a vote getter at all. At least, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, a self-declared small-c conservative, doesn’t think so, and shrewdly declares in a column this week that Harper ought to stop imagining that he’s on the stump in Texas.

I suppose the same thing about vote garnering and ambiguous beliefs might be said about Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose government will be introducing the legislation legalising same sex marriage in a couple of weeks. Or, well, sigh-some-more, maybe Martin does believe in something beyond wanting to be PM, but it seems very, very vague, whatever it is. Fortunately, Martin’s justice minister, Irwin Cotler, does believe in equality and did so even before he was elected to anything.

The opponents of same sex marriage, however, are primarily against homosex, it’s just that they’re too polite to say so, or think it politically inexpedient to say so, except for the frank Bishop Henry. Naturally, Bishop Henry has been roundly chastised in the saner segment of the press (Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, CBC). A Star editorial opined that Henry “went too far when he linked homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and pornography, and urged the government to curb them all . . . This can only inflame prejudice, encourage hate-mongering and undermine the church’s pastoral mission to reach out to every community.” The Star’s tart-tongued columnist Jim Coyle went a bit further, calling Henry’s letter “a froth of fundamentalism and bigotry . . . the last desperate shriek of a man who fears he’s on the losing side of a difficult debate.”

By the way, I should note that religious views on this issue aren’t uniform. There are lots of churches, such as the Metropolitan Community Church and the United Church of Canada that not only recognize gay equal rights, but are perfectly happy to perform same sex wedding ceremonies. The proposed legislation, in addition to legalising gay marriage, also recognizes that religious freedom is protected in the constitution, and therefore, no churches are required to consecrate same sex marriage, and any church is protected if it doesn’t want to perform gay marriage ceremonies. The churches more or less uniformly opposed to same sex marriage, whether religious or state, are the Catholics, various brands of Evangelical Protestants, Muslims, Sikhs, and most Jews. You probably need a scorecard to tell the players, but be clear that gay marriage opposition isn’t simply a religious thing.  

Once you’ve figured out that the gay marriage debate isn’t about gay marriage but is simply the prism through which to continue the homosex debate by other means, it’s hard to take the same sex marriage debate seriously. In fact, it’s been hard to take it seriously from the beginning. What gay marriage opponents have been unable to do, and this would be the crux of their case if they could bring it off, is to explain exactly how a relatively few same sex couples getting a marriage license from the state undermines the notion/ideals/virtues of marriage. That is, about the only support for the claim that gay marriages undermine marriage is the further claim that homosex is wrongwrongwrong and that’s what gay marriage opponents are no longer able to claim, excepting the occasional Bishop Henry.

So, gay marriage opponents have been boxed into the corner of saying something very convoluted. It goes sort of like this: well, we may personally not like homosex very much, or at all, but we recognize that homos ought to be treated nicely and not discriminated against, but they shouldn’t be allowed to marry exactly like us normal people because, er, uh, we guess it undermines the something or other of marriage. Maybe we can give them civil unions . . . and by the way, if one of them fuckin’ perverts molests my kids, I’m gonna grab a tire iron and . . . As you can see, it’s not a particularly coherent argument, and that’s why there’s not much of a debate.

Oddly enough, a dozen or so years ago, in 1992, the social and religious conservatives had a chance to forestall, at least for a while, the gay marriage juggernaut. Faced with a couple of court decisions recognising gay equality rights, the Progressive-Conservative government of the day, featuring Justice Minister Kim Campbell and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, decided to do something clever. They decided to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to recognize that sexual orientation (or homosex) should be a category protected from discrimination, along with all the other categories, like women, religious believers, left-handers, people with a limp, latte macchiato drinkers, etc.

However, the Mulroney government had a problem with their own caucus and with a lot of their supporters. So, in order to get the homo-hating “Family Caucus” of the Conservative Party and various religious groups onboard, the justice minister offered her colleagues a quid pro quo: if they’d support the amendment of the Human Rights Act to protect gays — something which they’d have to do in any case given the direction in which the courts were moving — the government would produce a human rights definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The justice minister made the same offer to a variety of religious and community groups with whom she was consulting. Their answer? We like the marriage thing, but we don’t like the equal rights thing, so thanks, but no thanks on the whole package. Despite the rejection by ultra-conservatives, the government went ahead, with caucus speeches by Mulroney, Joe Clark and the justice minister urging equality for gays. The bill was duly introduced, but died on the order paper, postponed due to the 1993 election, and the Human Rights Act wasn’t amended until 1996, by the Chretien Liberal government.

If there’s not really a marriage argument, is there a homosex argument? I’m not the marrying kind, but I’m the homosex kind, so here I have an interest. So far, I haven’t heard the argument, and I’ve been listening for a long time. The argument, given that we live in the kind of democracy we do, would have to show that homosex causes harm, direct and measurable harm of the sort that leads us to criminalize certain acts. (By the way, the bad news for Bishop Henry here is that it’s not clear that prostitution or pornography causes that kind of harm, either. I guess I’m willing to give him adultery, or at least non-consensual adultery, since I’m not the adulturous kind.)

So far, nobody’s been able to show that homosex causes harm or is unnatural or warps the fabric of society, or whatever. All that people are able to show is that some people don’t like it, and think that God thinks it wrong. They’re also able to show that statistically it’s a minority sexual passion. But that’s not good enough for winning an argument in a multi-cultural, democratic society committed to constitutionally protected individual rights. In such societies, you can do what you want as long as you don’t cause direct, measurable harm to others. Everything else is a matter of taste. As for maintaining tradition, a vague final cri de coeur by anti-gay conservatives, we’ve altered lots of traditions, such as not letting women or aboriginal people vote, without the country going to hell in a handbasket.

So, instead of an upfront discussion about homosex, we’ve been treated to an increasingly bizarre debate about same sex marriage. The opponents of gay marriage are now trying to get us to worry about polygamous marriage and sex with your goat. Meanwhile, the various politicians have been weaseling around everything from possible elections to invoking the “notwithstanding clause.” The latter refers to a last-ditch situation in which the Parliament, in order to overrule a court decision declaring gay marriage constitutional, would have to invoke a clause suspending certain rights provided in the constitution. Stephen Harper has been dancing around this possibility, only to receive a slap on the wrist this week from an unprecedented group of the country’s leading lawyers and law professors declaring that Harper’s fudgifications are bordering on deception. The problem with the debate, as becomes increasingly clear, is that there’s no substance to it.

I’ve read and listened to a lot of the daily blab about this topic over the last several months, but very seldom have I seen or heard anyone point out that the gay marriage debate is mostly a phoney debate, and that the real debate is about homosex. Consider it pointed out.

Berlin, Jan. 25, 2005


  • 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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