Essay

GAY AND READY TO MARRY

Isn’t legal sanction for same-sex unions a fundamental right?

SUNEEL KHANNA May 5 2003
Essay

GAY AND READY TO MARRY

Isn’t legal sanction for same-sex unions a fundamental right?

SUNEEL KHANNA May 5 2003

GAY AND READY TO MARRY

Essay

Isn’t legal sanction for same-sex unions a fundamental right?

SUNEEL KHANNA

“SEE WHAT an Indian wedding looks like?” My mom is pointing at a photo of herself and my dad taken on July 17, 1963. I’m sitting at the kitchen table with her, my sister, and my boyfriend, Fadi. My dad has retired to the family room, in keeping with his post-dinner ritual. From time to time we can hear a muffled snore escape him. He’s obviously fallen asleep watching CNN again. It makes us giggle.

Now that Fadi and I are well into our relationship, I have the courage to bring out our oldest photo album so that I can give him a peep into my family’s past. As we enjoy our chai tea, I get a kick out of watching Mummy—yes, that’s what I still call her— flip through the pages of images shot in New Delhi 40 years ago. As Fadi examines each photo, Mummy leans in toward him to explain the elaborate Hindu rituals taking place the day she and my dad started life together. Each shot glitters with the fabric of saris and the twinkle of gold jewellery.

My parents have a uniquely naive yet regal look in these photos that is, to me, striking. They seem almost surprised at their fate— yet it’s clear they were both proud to be the focal point of two families coming together. I wonder how Fadi and I—two gay men raised in, respectively, Hindu and Islamic families—will continue this sacred tradition if and when our day comes.

Regardless of what we choose, whether our marriage-to-come will be recognized under Canadian law depends on what the courts and government decide in the next few years. Across the country, gay men and women are seeking recognition of their right to marry. Recent rulings in the three most populous provinces, Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, have found that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage violates the equality rights section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, although the B.C. judge held that the discrimination was justified.

Last week, federal lawyers asked the On-

tario Court of Appeal to overturn the decision in that province. But Ottawa was also exploring other approaches. Federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon has presented his cabinet colleagues with a range of options to deal with the issue. Three ministers— Allan Rock, Bill Graham and Sheila Copps— have publicly supported same-sex marriage legislation. But in the absence of cabinet consensus, the matter has gone to a Parliamentary committee for study—an age-old delay tactic to move issues off the frontburner. The committee began its public sessions in Ottawa on Jan. 28, hearing deputations from groups in favour of and opposed to same-sex marriage legislation. Then came town-hall style hearings across the country—Vancouver, Halifax, Iqaluit, Toron-

THERE’S a very simple argument for same-sex marriage: it’s good for gays and lesbians. It provides role models for young gay people.’

to, etc.—with the committee expected to present its findings late this year.

Leaving aside the bizarre notion that consensus is required for formalizing equality in our laws, there is something admirable about a travelling same-sex road show. While Fadi and I would be happy to win our right to marriage equality in court, if necessary, there’s also a glimmer of hope that the federal government could pass legislation giving us that right even before being forced to by law. In symbolic and emotional terms, that would be great news for us and for other gay couples: recognition of our right to marry would come from our country’s elected officials, rather than our appointed nine rulers in the Supreme Court. We’d see that outcome as bottomup validation from our families and peers,

rather than a top-down decree.

In a way, that hope reminds me of the way I saw Mummy, on that visit home, gently patting Fadi’s back as she eagerly turned a page to another set of images. I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat. The last time I brought a guy home for her to meet, she had to excuse herself continually as she tried to hide the water pooling up in her eyes. Drama queen. But there she sat this time, showing her potential son-inlaw her cherished photos, easily throwing around the term “beta”—or son—when talking to him.

While Fadi may have won Mummy’s approval, we don’t hold our breath waiting for the federal government’s. Asked his opinion on the matter in a recent media scrum, Jean Chrétien wouldn’t say. “We want to have a committee to consult Canadians and experts on the matter,” he said. “If I want to listen, it’s not for me to tell you what I think before I listen.”

But are you really listening, Mr. Chrétien? Not that equality rights should be subject to a popularity contest, but even if they were, it’s clear that public support for samesex marriage legislation is growing. In last year’s Maclean’s year-end poll, 49 per cent of respondents said yes when asked if gay marriages should be legally recognized, while 46 per cent were opposed. Sure, that’s a close call—but when you consider that the number of supporters was highest among people under the age of 40 (60 per cent in favour), you can see that a wave of support is building.

Marriage is a basic right in any civil society; a fundamental mark of citizenship. Without turning to complex legal arguments, there is an intuitive method of grasping this point. What would be more objectionable to people who believe in the institution of marriage—to be denied a vote in the next federal election or to no longer have legal attachment to their wife or husband? Not a close call.

When such a basic right is involved, the burden of proof should lie with those who want to deny it to a small minority of citizens, not with those who seek to extend it. So far, the opposite has been the case—both in our courts and in Parliamentary hearings. I was horrified to read the minutes of the Feb. 11 appearance of Rita Curley, “Chris-

tian Family Life chair” at St. Ignatius Martyr Catholic Church in Ottawa. “To redefine marriage to be more inclusive of homosexuals,” said Curley, “is to create a new morality in which homosexuality is not merely tolerated but is normalized and would branch out into sexual activity with babies, children of both sexes, and with animals.” I

Prove, the opponents say, that marriage will not collapse, that this reform will not lead to polygamy and incest and bestiality, that the world will not end and that we won’t see the fall of Rome.

There’s a very simple argument for samesex marriage: it’s good for gays and lesbians. It provides role models for young gay people who, after the trauma of coming out, can easily lapse into short-term relationships and insecurity without a tangible goal in sight. I would guess that those of us who would choose to embrace such a goal— with all the responsibilities it entails—would do so with more commitment than straight people. That’s because we recognize that we are pioneers, and as such are the standard bearers for a new idea. Legal samesex marriage could also help bridge the gulf between gays and their parents: it could bring the essence of gay life—a gay couple—into the heart of the traditional straight family in a way the family can most understand.

The only way gays and lesbians will achieve equal status in Canada is if we’re given the right to marry. It’s the only one of four options tabled by the justice ministry that is fair and just. The others are: maintaining the status quo by legislating the “oppositesex” definition of marriage; retaining that definition while introducing registered partnerships or civil unions for same-sex couples; or leaving marriage to religions, effectively abolishing it as a legally recognized civil institution.

Creating a second class of marriage only perpetuates our second-class-citizen status. Leaving marriage up to individual religions would infuriate far too many Canadians. And most provinces and territories have already begun the process of legislating samesex partnership benefits and civil unions. So undoing the process of moving toward fairness will simply not be accepted by most Canadians, straight or gay. It’s already clear how the future of same-sex marriage in Canada will unfold. What remains to be seen is what side of history the government will find itself on.

In the meantime, back at my house, my sister gets up from the table and puts her hand on my shoulder. “More chai?” she asks. “For sure.” Fadi and I will need our energy for the road ahead. fi

Suneel Khanna is manager of public relations for Maclean’s.