VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – If you’re a Canadian, as I am, it’s fascinating to watch the United States struggling with the question of marriage equality; if you’re a liberal, as I am, it’s bewildering to realise that the US, which sees itself as “the most free country on earth”, still can’t get solidly behind a basic human rights issue that the rest of the developed world sees as essentially a no-brainer. Progress is being made, but marriage equality – the right of people to marry the person they love, regardless of their genders – is still a profoundly contentious issue south of this border.
The US Supreme court has just agreed to hear two cases that deal with the issue, so a decision as to the constitutionality of same sex marriage will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, Canada was the fourth country in the world and the first outside of Europe to enshrine marriage equality in national laws. It was done without fanfare or even much discussion; after all, since the last century, Canadian same sex couples have been legally entitled to all the legal benefits enjoyed by traditionally married couples, so it was only a question of formally acknowledging the relationships as marriage in every other sense. But then Canada and the US have always had different outlooks on human rights.
Canada never had slavery, never had segregation, never even had to pass civil rights legislation to redress an uneven treatment of people of different skin pigmentation. It is odd, but the United States, which prides itself on its own mythology of rugged individualism, is far more inclined to impose the will of the majority on the minority; is far more inclined to ferret out “deviant” behaviour; is far more inclined to demand conformity in lifestyle, religion, and politics than are Canadians. Non-conformity and individuality are far more readily tolerated, even celebrated here in bland, homogeneous Canada than they are in the “freest country on earth”. Canada’s paradigm is that of a mosaic; the United States is a melting pot. Canada, far more than the United States of America, nurtures a live-and-let-live social contract.
It is therefore bemusing to Canadians that so many citizens of the United States become so exercised at the very thought of a gay or lesbian couple having their union described as “marriage”. It’s even more bewildering when one considers that the desire for gay and lesbian couples to legalise their unions as marriages is not merely an attempt to find acceptance or to proclaim their love publicly – both perfectly reasonable desires – but to become eligible for the approximately one thousand legal benefits from tax breaks to veterans’ compensation available to married partners in the United States. The wish to have their marriages legally recognised is not a frivolous desire nor is it a demand for intangible advantages; moreover it does not impinge in any way on those who are already married, or intend to be married to a partner of a different sex.
Nevertheless, some people actually claim that to allow loving couples of the same sex to enjoy the legal status of “married” is to destroy the institution of marriage. This homophobic faction has attempted to pass federal legislation under the name “Defence of Marriage Act” (DOMA) that would declare same sex marriage unconstitutional and therefore illegal even in that handful of states that have embraced marriage equality. That is one of the cases the Supreme Court will hear. Rationally, one would expect the decision to be favourable to freedom and equality, but given the preponderance of conservative justices, that is by no means a foregone conclusion.
If we look at the state of human rights in America 150 years ago, we are appalled. But it was less than fifty years ago – within my lifetime – that the seminal civil rights battles were fought in the southern US. Rosa Parks, the freedom riders, the march on Selma; all these resulted in the elimination of the Jim Crow laws and, in theory at any rate, cleared up any question that people of all skin intonations have the same rights under the law. Nevertheless, miscegenation (a crime of which I am proudly guilty) was illegal in many states while I was in school, and the laws against mixed race marriages were enforced until relatively recently. The idea of legal segregation or systemic racial discrimination is horrifying today (perhaps more to Canadians than to people from a country that had historically accepted it).
Without doubt, the denial to gay and lesbian couples of the right to marry will be seen as a similar travesty at some future time, and everyone will be similarly congratulating themselves for having eliminated another human rights abuse. The question that remains is: why don’t the homophobes, if they can’t actually get behind this obviously reasonable and just redress of historical abuse, just stop fighting it? Just shut up and save their energy for a serious battle? Although they might score a few small victories, it’s not a war they can ultimately win; theirs is a mean-spirited, bigoted position; and the longer they drag this on, the more they hurt others and diminish the already tarnished respect in which the US is held by the civilised world.