Daniel Gawthrop: Adam & Steve Forever
How far have we come? Well, I’ve gone from closeted to queer opponent of gay marriage to preparing my wedding.
By Daniel Gawthrop
Posted on thetyee.ca on December 10, 2004
When I first heard the news that the Supreme Court of Canada had affirmed same-sex marriage rights—thus paving the way for Paul Martin’s Liberal government to formally legalize queer marriage—the fact it was all happening on December 9 seemed oddly poetic.
Twelve years ago to the day, federal Justice minister Kim Campbell had tabled an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act that would include “sexual orientation” as prohibited grounds for discrimination. But Bill C-108 also restricted the definition of “marital status” to opposite-sex couples—a fact that caused some activists to respond as if the Tory cabinet minister had just declared war on gay rights, rather than trying to extend them.
Within hours of the announcement, lesbian lawyer Barbara Findlay and a handful of other Vancouver activists formed a coalition to fight the Campbell amendment and push for full equal rights under the law. At the time, the decision to name the group after the date Bill C-108 was introduced seemed arch and pretentious—as if December 9 would go down in history as “a day that would live in infamy”, like December 7. A liberation milestone on par with Bastille Day in France. Or the Stonewall riots in New York City….
Wedding bells weren’t exactly high on the gay agenda in 1992. Only 25 years after Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality, people were still fighting for basic rights in areas like housing and employment. Homophobes were gaybashing with impunity. There was no such thing as gay sitcoms. And queer bookstores like Little Sister’s, when they weren’t being bullied by Canada Customs, were the victims of occasional bombings.
Marriage was for ‘assimilationists’
Personally, I thought marriage was an issue best left to the kind of milquetoast assimilationist whose eagerness for mainstream acceptance was chronicled by the Christian American conservative Bruce Bawer in his clarion call for tolerance, A Place at the Table. Marriage, I thought, was bourgeois hetero mimicry of the worst kind.
So when Barbara Findlay cried “shame” at Kim Campbell for introducing a gay rights amendment that preserved the traditional definition of “spouse”, I couldn’t feel the same righteous indignation I had no trouble conjuring up when it came to things like censorship, AIDS funding or bathhouse raids. Besides, what did Findlay expect from a government led by Brian Mulroney—a corporate thug and gladhanding good ol’ boy who once had Nanaimo Tories rolling in the aisles with his mincing impersonation of Svend Robinson?
Some activists, sighed Stan Persky at the time, “don’t know when to declare victory.”
As it turned out, Bill C-108 never passed first reading. It would take another three years, and a new Liberal government, to finally entrench sexual orientation in the Act.
But yesterday, Barbara Findlay must have enjoyed the irony of reclaiming December 9 as a milestone. For the Supreme Court decision, far more than extending marriage rights for a sexual minority, has redefined how Canada chooses to see itself as a nation. And that may be the biggest gay rights victory of all.
A generation’s progress
It’s hard to explain the significance of yesterday’s announcement to the younger generation of gay and lesbian youth who’ve grown up in a world of “Queer as Folk”, Gay-Straight Alliances, gay sport clubs, lesbian talk show hosts and virtual chat rooms. Taking it all for granted, many have no idea how quickly laws in this country have changed after years of bureaucratic gridlock and hard work by a few unheralded drag queens and leather men, bull dykes with attitude, pissed off people with AIDS, lone-wolf renegades like Svend Robinson, and all kinds of other just plain folks who took considerable risks and compromised their careers and health for the sake of equal rights for all.
For ten years, I watched a good deal of that change unfold from a closet of self-loathing brought on by a Catholic upbringing. By late 1990, when I had moved to Vancouver and was finally Living the Life, the city’s landscape was changing forever in the aftermath of the Gay Games. The world’s largest sporting event that year, “Celebration ’90” offered heterosexuals the novelty of feeling, at least for a week, that they knew what it meant to be in a minority. And that was empowering for those of us who actually were the minority.
Even with AIDS sweeping through the city, I managed to capture a bit of the old Seventies magic during the Nineties. Rampant sex (albeit with latex) seemed a perfectly legitimate way to assert one’s individual authenticity—to say nothing of catching up for lost time. And it was. Throughout my late twenties and most of my thirties, marriage was the last thing on my mind. I preferred the stance of Frank Browning, author of The Culture of Desire. “Because homosexuals have resided outside the law,” Browning wrote in a New York Times article in 1996, “they have invented family forms that respond to late 20th-century needs, while formulating social and moral codes that provide love, freedom, and fidelity.” (By “family forms”, I assumed he meant a circle of lovers who knew each other.)
Two years later, in a column for Xtra! West, I ridiculed same-sex marriage with an almost smug homosexism. “I think weddings are best left to heterosexuals,” I wrote. “They’re so much better at mushy sentiment.”
Ready to go the distance
That was the ACT-UP stage of my gay consciousness. Six years later, I have scheduled my own nuptials with a young Burmese man I met while living in Thailand two years ago. After more than a decade of serial monogamy sprinkled with lengthy periods of slutty abandon, I have finally met someone I want to go the distance with. How did this happen? Am I just getting soft and old? Perhaps. But I suspect it’s more than that. Gay marriage has turned out to be neither the assimilationist sell-out that gay activists feared nor the ruination of society that American evangelicals and Stephen Harper still fear. Full legal rights do not necessarily mandate kitschy décor, “The Wind Beneath My Wings”, or bad drunks. My own nuptials, for example, will feature a mix of Western jazz and folk music, Burmese dancing, and lots of spicy Thai food, served up in a lush, private garden on Bowen Island filled with Rhododendrons. A small party of family and friends, but not God, will be invited.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision and the Martin government’s legislation in January, churches will retain the right not to perform gay weddings. And that’s just fine with me. After all, if queer folk can retain the right to marry who we want to, then why shouldn’t the religious retain the right to choose faith over knowledge? It seems the perfect Canadian compromise, does it not? Besides which, why would any self-respecting gay or lesbian couple—having finally won the right to marry—seek to have their relationship blessed by one of the most homophobic institutions on the planet? No disrespect to Bishop Ingham, who seems willing to fight endless battles with dinosaurs on our behalf, but I’d rather park my wedding fee with a Justice of the Peace.