No decisive shots
Xtra! hosts a public forum: one smooth operator
Gee, can't imagine why....
Gee, can't imagine why....
Star of the show
In September 2002, I heard that Xtra! was planning a public forum on the tiresome question of gay marriage. I had no idea how they might frame it: the paper's editors had been occasional doubters of the latest gay correct line; its reporters diligently toed it. So: familiar marriage mavens taking a break from "mainstream" press scrums? A few of their mostly obscure critics? The usual media set-up? Loony A vs Loony B, a nice moderator sitting smugly between?
Imagine my pleasant surprise when its theme was finally revealed. An ad three weeks in advance suggested skeptics ascendant: "Shotgun Wedding? A just fight for equality, or a misplaced grab for approval of our relationships? Do queers belong in civil marriage, or should the state get out of marriage altogether? What do we win and lose by fighting for gay marriage?"
So did the cast, among them Tom Warner, with the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario since its founding (then just "Gay") in 1975. We'd sat down to talk a few weeks before, after I got a CLGRO newsletter saying the venerable group had veered from the correct line. Their August 2002 statement began: "Marriage should not be a relationship that is legislated at all by the government." It reflected not a change of heart but a long-standing position, adopted in 1989:
They had meant all meaningful relationships we define for ourselves -- not just conjugal coupledom. The next year, under internal pressure, CLGRO had put a reassuring toe to the spousal equality line:
The group joined with EGALE and the Campaign (later Foundation) for Equal Families in the struggle for same-sex spousal rights -- soon finding their radical preference swamped by demands for equality of conventional coupledom. Though bored to tears by years of slog -- and wary of being set up as lightning rods for sanctimonious wrath -- some in CLGRO felt it was time for a bid to get liberationist ideals back into a "debate" dominated by assimilationist rhetoric.
Among gay groups, they stood alone in that effort. And nearly unheard. But in 2002 we'd hear their ideas anew -- in Beyond Conjugality. Or rather, mostly not hear them.
Xtra! had paid the Law Commission's report little more attention than it got in the "mainstream" media. But its panelists included lawyer Bruce Ryder, profiled in its June 29, 2000 issue as "too cute to be straight" and, with Pink Triangle Press board member Brenda Cossman, among those who wrote Beyond Conjugality.
Bruce told us he is indeed married with children, "proud to be accused of being a gay activist bent on destroying the family as we know it, but when I am it's kind of funny." I had said that report might have been written by gay liberationists in 1972; I was wrong only in the year, Bruce then just 13. But his presence on the panel would fail to make up for the fact that few in the audience had ever heard of his report or its radical ideas. Even in a medium whose parent paper had been born of gay liberation.
Rachel Giese, former Xtra! staffer still writing for the paper, has a column in the Toronto Star, once a stint with Pridevision TV. I wasn't sure what her take on The Tedious Issue might be, but figured it would be smart. In a 1999 Xtra! editorial she'd fretted the focus on "the struggles of (usually) one couple, as opposed to creating broader change."
Pam Shime, teaching in the U of T's law faculty, was a panelist unadvertised; I knew her take not at all. She would turn out another pleasant surprise: a lawyer warning us not to turn our fate over to lawyers.
Yes, he's ubiquitous.
And then there's John. No one had to guess what take would be taken by Egale's executive director -- if some were maybe surprised that, on that panel, he would stand alone. His bravery was lauded even by his opponents. I was more impressed with his lawyerly smoothness: John Fisher could, I'm sure, talk his way out of Purgatory.
His talk was laced with the mantra of "Choice," using that word or its option, "options," more than 30 times before I lost count. David Walberg (to his credit not playing "neutral moderator") asked about forced common-law status. I don't recall John's answer exactly -- but that Egale is "open to options." And that once we've secured the right of same-sex couples to marry, we might "explore options."
Rachel Giese asked: Why not at the same time? Once people think they've "won" the right they wanted, they'll likely forget about anyone else's lives. What about relationship rights outside of marriage? As Pam Shime asked: "Why are we aiming so low?"
When the audience got to ask questions I asked John, so fond of "choice," how he would define it. He began: "Well, it depends on where you mean. Let's say Quebec" -- going on about civil unions, registered partnerships, etc etc in lawyerly detail -- all his "choices" conjugal. And voluntary. "How many people here, " I asked, "know that if they've lived together for a year they're already married in common law?"
A man behind me called out: "Three years. It's three, I know." (He turned out, usefully, to be a family court judge.) Bruce Ryder clarified. There is no clarity: the limit differs among jurisdictions, even among different laws; in Ontario you can lose benefits after just three months of living in a relationship "consistent with cohabitation."
The federal limit is one year. I'd asked John if Egale would back a Charter challenge to the Income Tax Act, forcing people coupled for a year to file joint returns. Only when I sat down from that flight of details did I realized he had managed to evade an answer.
Telling tales out of church?
For more savvy strategies exposed in those bann-&-Brent conjoined boys' account of their MCCT wedding, see:
Earlier ponderings among Egale members of "unfortunate side effects" can be found in:
John Fisher's claim that he's "open to options" served him well in a room filled with distraction. But Egale has paid no more than lip service to legal options beyond conjugality. Its lawyerly allies have even worked to make marriage the only option.
Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell, joined by "reading of the banns" and the Reverend Brent Hawkes in 2001 at Toronto's Metropolitan Community Church, offer a telling tale in their book Just Married: Gay Marriage and the Expansion of Human Rights:
Kathy Lahey is the lawyer who first suggested banns as a way to break into the House of Matrimony. Doug Elliott represented the Foundation for Equal Families' intervention in the famous case of M v H, anonymous lesbians on the splits. Martha McCarthy was counsel for M, suing H for palimony. They had already settled out of court; Martha pushed the case on to the Supreme Court anyway. To set a precedent.
Doug Elliott, asked in 1999 about that precedent's impact on paired PWAs dependent on social benefits -- one now deemed dependent on the other -- called it "an unfortunate side effect." "It is necessary to take the good with the bad. My heart goes out to people I see in my office." Working on Beyond Conjugality, Bruce Ryder told me, some lawyers had warned him: Don't you dare propose anything beyond gay marriage. That would just muddy the waters.
On taxes and Egale: In February 1999 Xtra! reported same-sex couples "ignored in this month's much ballyhooed federal budget" -- left out of the Income Tax Act. "Canada's national gay lobby group is disappointed." They would not be for long.
The waters were surely muddy at that October 24 public forum. The audience, it turned out, were mostly gay-marriage skeptics. Just one rose in defence of John Fisher, amazed that other panelists showed so little respect for the fine institution of matrimony. (Doug Elliott was there, but said nothing.)
Many had questions on vague and maybe fearful legal details. Some spoke of "second- class citizenship" -- not for couples bound by "Marriage Lite" but those not wanting to be bound at all. Were we heading down the road to respectably coupled "good gays" and "bad" renegade queers? Pam Shime said we were already there.
John Fisher begged to differ, citing "positive role models" and "public acceptance" -- in particular for people feeling isolated in smaller cities and towns. Tom Warner, having seen lots of them in years of research on his 2002 Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada, said that was not what he had seen. That family court judge noted a small-town case of legally assisted blackmail: a closeted older man, afraid he'd be outed, giving in to his ex-boyfriend's demand for palimony.
What most filled that room that night (it was Tallulah's, a cabaret in a queer theatre nestled in Canada's most securely gay nabe) was insecurity. And dither: It's all so confusing! What are our options? Do we have any?
This as everyone there was sitting on options. Very good ones: a fact sheet on Beyond Conjugality had been put on every chair (courtesy of CLGRO if put together by me; you can see it via a link below). For most, it was the first time they'd had a chance to see a full outline of its proposals and the values behind them. The media, mainstream and otherwise, hadn't bothered with details beyond the frame of "Gay Marriage Yes or No."
Early on John Fisher acknowledged that limited take -- if not acknowledging he'd had anything to do with it, saying he has no influence on how the media shape public issues. Rachel Giese backed him up. (It was, after all, be-nice-to-brave-John night.)
A master of the press release, the TV and radio soundbite scrum, the sober interview on CPAC and the CBC -- seconded by a successful columnist -- casually denied any culpability for media-created "reality." And, just as casually, we bought it: "Journalism" is an act of God; that's just the way it is....
John Fisher survived a crowd of confused skeptics, walking out at the end, like Daniel from the Lions' Den, without so much as a scratch. In Jane 2003 he will leave Egale, likely still unscathed, to work on "international issues facing GLBT people." The Ottawa lobbyists say they aren't "even going to attempt to embark on a journey to find another John." Or, one might guess, his subtle skills.
Most of us bought John's media line. Or seemed to. I was inspired to dig for evidence of how that media "reality" so comforting to gay marriage mavens has actually been created. Not least by "our own" media, and our host that very night.
Xtra! had promised "a lively discussion," asking "What do we win and lose by fighting for gay marriage?" What we got that night was less lively than lost: in dither, details, and nervous frets -- mostly over what we might lose.
And with that, the discussion died: "Shotgun Wedding?" went completely unnoticed in Xtra! The issue out a week later did not report it. David Walberg told me a piece was planned for the next one, due November 14. It did not appear. It has not since. Xtra! has never said a word in print about its own public forum.
That reportial lapse, even in the face of editorial desires, may seem surprising. But, as Xtra!'s record on The Tedious Issue amply illustrates, it was no surprise at all.
FOR THE RECORD
(With apologies to
Hugh MacLennan &
E M Forster)
Go on to:
Xtra!... Two solitudes
Spouse touters & spouse doubters play house.
(And play us)
An overview -- linked to lots of evidence:
Issue-by-issue details, Jan 1999 to the end of 2002.
Or go back to:
Ideas in play (List of contents)
What you can do (Get Informed / Get Talking / Get Heard)
Gay marriage? Wrong question (Lead page)
My home page
This page: http://www.rbebout.com/getfree/dither.htm