Better thoughts

Cries in
the wilderness

Perceptions lost: Earlier takes
on the tedious issue



Well before the world ever heard of "gay marriage" (but for rare and mostly ignored peeps in the '70s), gay people have been going on about the wisdom of pleading for the right to be just like everybody else. The excerpts below span decades: from the late liberationists days of the early 1980s, through Ontario's lost spousal rights battles of the 1990s, to our federal "modernization" in the year 2000.

In 2003, these voices seem straws in the wind, their ideas largely lost in the rush to respectable sameness: rights for some of us, but not for everyone. Read 'em and weep.


Ken Popert:
"Public sexuality & social space"
The Body Politic,
July 1982

"Promiscuity knits together the social fabric of the gay male community; the imposition of widespread marriage-like coupling inevitably goes hand in hand with the abolition of that community. sex cannot be understood simply by making analogies with heterosexual institutions and practices."

Chris Bearchell:
at a conference of the Coalition for Lesbian & Gay Rights in Ontario (likely 1989), trying to find a liberationist position on same-sex spousal benefits.

For their stand then -- & still, nearly alone among gay groups -- see: Submission to Federal Consultation on Gay Marriage, Aug 2002
on CLGRO's website.

"Have you ever been in the situation where some well-meaning het is trying to be supportive, so makes the argument that we have stable, long-term relationships too, just like normal people do? Doesn't it make you want to cringe?

"The notion of spouse doesn't fit well with the reality of lesbian and gay relationships. Because our relationships haven't been defined by religious and legal traditions (except to be condemned by them), as a community we have been free to develop a much wider array of ways of relating to and living with one another. We are, I think, often tempted to represent our relationships as 'just like everybody else' -- just like 'normal' people. It's an impulse that, while understandable sometimes, denies the value of what we have created for ourselves.

"It is true that we get very little support for our loves and lifestyles and that we deserve to celebrate our relationships, sexual and otherwise. But this society doesn't exactly do justice [in terms of social benefits] to straight relationships and families either. Maybe we should be striving for something better than, rather than mere equality with, the straight status quo."

Patrick Johnson:
"Breaking into jail"
Xtra!, Apr 17,1992

"Does spousal rights deserve to be the driving force of our movement in the next decade? Has the heterosexual experience been so successful that we should mimic it? If we are concerned about other people receiving economic advantages for which we are not eligible, perhaps instead of petitioning for the right of marriage, we should be lobbying for the abolition of heterosexual marriage. (A modest proposal.)"

Garth Barriere:
"Who decides? The state shouldn't provide spousal benefits to anyone"
Xtra!, Oct 16,1992

(After Ontario Crown Attorney Michael Leshner won a spousal rights fight -- & poster-boy status)

"I don't like spousal benefits, or any other kind of legally sanctioned benefits for couples. I don't want the state anywhere near the definition of an emotional relationship. Rewards and privileges should not be handed to individuals simply because they have decided to couple.

"The outcome of the Leshner case is not gay-positive. What we have instead is our own kind of special pleading. We are desperate to be recognized, to be called equal, to achieve the highly questionable status heterosexual coupling has."

Brenda Cossman:
"Family Inside/Out"
University of Toronto
Law Journal
, Jan 1994

(Taking off on the tag of a
same-sex spousal rights group:
"We Are Family")

"We find ourselves increasingly having to decide whether we believe that we are family, or not. We have to take a side. The choice is constructed as one between two mutually exclusive categories -- between family and its opposition, not family. ... And also like most dilemmas, its construction as a dichotomous choice, as an either / or, represents a false polarization.

"...not all discourses are equal in power; some discourses are institutionally inscribed in ways that others are not. ... The claim that We Are Family, while pushing at the borders of this dominant image of the family, does no more to question or challenge this 'sacred, timeless and so natural' institution. Indeed the claim makes sense only in the context of the continuing hegemony of this ideologically dominant discourse of the family."

Tracey Clark:
"Outing spousal benefits"
"Rude Girl," Capital Xtra!,
Jan 27, 1994

"Those liberal thinkers (and possibly men!) who dominate the debate on relationship recognition and spousal benefits would have us believe there is a consensus of opinion within the gay / lesbian community. There isn't.

"Can rad-gals and queers, in good conscience, support the heterosexual model extended to gays and lesbians as an appropriate moral and legal model? Can anti-poverty activists, in good conscience, support expanding relationship recognition [including, Tracey noted, rules limiting social benefits for people deemed a couple] to include gays and lesbians without calling for other reforms?

"I challenge gay / lesbian rights advocates to link with feminists, queers, and anti-poverty activists to form a consensus position, and fight for more just social policy."

Rick Bébout:
at "Family: Queer Values?", a forum held at York University, Feb 15, 1995, after the Jun 1994 defeat of Ontario's Bill 167 on same-sex spousal benefits.

"What were we fighting for? Marriage and Family as the highest achievement of our rights? Entry to an institution historically meant to regulate sex as a way of protecting property? A model that long cast women and children as property? Some model. To claim rights on the ground that we are the same as those who already have rights is, effectively, to claim that those who are not the same do not deserve rights. Do we want to know our own diversity? Or are we willing to deny it in order to get 'a piece of the action'?

"During the battle for Bill 167, some of its opponents tried to take the high ground by saying it didn't go far enough, that it ignored relationships of mutual dependence and care that can't be defined as 'spousal.' In the moment that was ass-covering: a way to evade an issue that had come to be shaped as one of same-sex relationships, not one of human relationships in general. But it's a point that we -- the world's foremost inventors of non-traditional relationships -- should have been making ourselves.

"Instead we ended up fighting for classic, limited, identity-based 'minority' rights, not for any wider social justice. We let our enemies take that higher ground, ground that should have been our own. We got caught out. And we lost.

"But we also won a chance to take another look at where we might stand. I don't want us to win rights on such limited grounds. That's not because I don't care about rights -- but because I care more about how the battles for those rights shape us as communities. I care about what we teach. And what we learn."

David Walberg:
"Singles of the world unite!"
Editorial, Xtra!, Apr 8, 1999

(Awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of M v H, which on May 20, 1999 deemed same-sex cohabiting couples a co-dependent spousal unit. In a May 31, 2001 editorial David would warn of "Mad vow disease.")

"Some couples are cute -- especially when they wear matching outfits -- but let's not get carried away. The last time I checked, people still come in parties of one, barring the extremely rare case of Siamese twins. The powers that be, however, are trying to make Siamese twins of us all, soldering our limbs together with laws which expand the definition of spouse. and lesbian couples who live together may find their relationships interpreted in ways they did not intend and do not appreciate.

"But these decisions are especially troubling for single people or those in unconventional relationships. men and lesbians most likely to have financial needs -- those who are older or poorer -- are overwhelmingly without traditional spouses. So -- perhaps the state should acknowledge friends, multiple lovers and other unconventional relationships, including extended chosen families.

"If that seems too confusing, and if we're really concerned about those in need, perhaps we should reconsider the whole idea of doling out financial rewards by association -- so that getting your teeth fixed has nothing to do with who you know."

Steven Maynard:
"Modernization or Liberation?
Gay rights is about more than getting your teeth cleaned"
Capital Xtra!, Mar 17, 2000

(After the feds introduced Bill C-23, the "Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act."
It became law on Apr 11, 2000.)

"As respectable-looking lesbian and gay couples hugged on Parliament Hill, EGALE declared the introduction of Bill C-23 an 'historic day.' [Openly gay MP] Svend Robinson invoked a by-now familiar formulation, one that sets my teeth on edge. The legislation, Robinson proclaimed, recognizes that 'the relationships of gay and lesbian people are just as strong, just as loving, just as committed as those of heterosexual couples.'

"What about gays and lesbians whose relationships do not imitate those of married or common-law heterosexual couples? Those of us who have multiple relationships? Those of us who do not cohabit with our partners? Those who choose to be single? Why is legal entitlement to social and economic benefits tied to relationship status in the first place?

"Those are vital questions and they are being asked, but unfortunately not by leaders of our movement. In an editorial otherwise praising Bill C-23, The Globe and Mail pondered: 'What about friends, siblings, other relatives who choose to live together out of companionship, need or mutual support?' The question was echoed by Eric Lowther, a Reform Party MP, who pointed out that 'it seems a bit odd to make the sole criteria for extending benefits private sexual intimacies between two people.'

Now, I'm not fooled by how such rhetoric can work as a clever cover for a refusal to recognize lesbian and gay relationships. ... Still, I think we need to ask what it means when the Reform Party and The Globe at least try to appear to have a more expansive vision of human relationships than does the gay / lesbian movement.

Is it too much to ask that our national lesbian and gay lobby group support this legislation, but at the same time offer a vision of the world that amounts to more than claiming one's partner as a tax deduction?

"Don't get me wrong, same-sex benefits are important. I wouldn't be able to afford to go to the dentist if I weren't on my partner's dental plan. But by pursuing benefits for same-sex couples only, our movement misses the unique opportunity to demonstrate the power of nominally queer issues to speak to and embrace many people whose relationships and living arrangements do not conform to dominant models or even slightly modernized ones.

"And there has been far too little discussion in the rush to embrace state-sanctioned benefits and coupledom -- and ultimately the right to marry -- about how this will actually limit the freedom of many queer people by propping up punitive distinctions between those who will be deemed legally and socially acceptable and those who will not.

"Once upon a time, the lesbian / gay liberation movement struggled for things like same-sex benefits, but did so with a vision premised on setting free not only gays and lesbians but all those who lived in queer and unconventional ways.

"Liberation. The way the word seems so out of place now speaks volumes about how far we have travelled from those aspirations, how agendas have narrowed and dreams dwindled. I want a queer movement that fights for the benefit to get my teeth cleaned, but it's got to be bigger than that. Modernization or liberation? I choose liberation.

"Call me old-fashioned."




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April 2003 / Last revised: April 19, 2003
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