Pauline Brock

MONTREAL (WOMENSENEWS)–Feb. 14 may be Valentine’s Day, but it’s also World Freedom to Marry Day, a movement initiated in 2002 by the Canadian advocacy group, Equal Marriage for Same Sex Couples.

Equal Marriage, based in Toronto, urges those who live in areas with equal marriage rights to celebrate and those who do not to demonstrate and demand equal rights.

This year that means equal marriage is more or less urging celebrations in most parts of Canada and demonstrations in its neighbor to the south. The U.S. initiative is led by Reverend Troy Perry, a moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches, a fellowship of Christian churches based in West Hollywood, Calif., that caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities. Perry is planning demonstration in Los Angeles for this day.

Here in Canada, demonstrations, are expected to be few and far between–if at all–because an overwhelming majority of the population already has the right to same-sex marriage by virtue of local rulings and the federal government has introduced a bill making it legal throughout the country. While reopening debate on the issue, the proposed law is widely expected to pass within the year.

President Bush, by contrast, is pressing for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Regionally, 11 U.S. states put forth ballot measures in last November’s election to ban same-sex marriage, all of which were approved, some with as much as 75-percent support.

Meanwhile, U.S. judges and lawmakers are tussling over the issue, with courts often finding regressive state laws unconstitutional and legislators either rebuffing those rulings or going to the opposite extreme of proposing outright bans.

Just look at New York City, which was on the brink of becoming a same-sex marriage Mecca after a New York judge on Feb. 4 ruled unconstitutional a state law barring same-sex marriage and ordered the Big Apple to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Instead of complying, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who declares personal support for same-sex marriage, has decided to appeal the ruling. (In saying he would rather see the matter handled by legislators than judges, Bloomberg tosses a very bare bone to same-sex marriage proponents considering the weak interest that legislators take in this cause.)

‘Kissing Off Bigotry’

Discouraging as developments may be for same-sex marriage in the United States, no one should get the idea that Canada offers a complete haven. Just last month, the lesbian communities of Montreal and Toronto felt compelled to organize a "kiss in" to "kiss off bigotry" in both cities. The demonstrations–in which dozens of couples gathered in downtown areas of both cities and smooched in as attention-getting a way as possible–were staged to protest an assault that occurred on a lesbian couple while they were kissing on a Montreal street corner.

But amid pockets of bigotry in Canada and seemingly impossible hurdles in the United States, it’s important to remember that big changes can and do occur and once they happen they seem, in hindsight, inexorable.

Interracial marriage, for instance, may seem like a given, but it’s startling to remember that it was illegal in some states, such as Virginia, as recently as the mid-1960s. Related actions by public figures that seemed normal at the time–such as Senator Trent Lott’s successful battle to prohibit black students from joining his college fraternity–are seen now as shocking.

Similarly, homosexuality was a crime in Canada until 1969 and a man was actually imprisoned for it as recently as 1967. U.S. states individually decriminalized it beginning in 1961 with Illinois. Anti-sodomy laws, however, persisted in 13 states until less than two years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged their approval of such laws was just plain wrong. Homosexuality was listed as a "mental illness" by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973.

So this movement has plenty of antecedents. And women are now playing a special part.

Without delving too deeply into the psychology of it, women may have a better opportunity to change public attitudes because–the recent Montreal attack notwithstanding–lesbian couples are more readily accepted by society. The relatively indulgent coverage given to the love lives of lesbian celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa Etheridge provides proof of this. Gay celebrity couples, by contrast–such as Elton John and David Furnish, or George Michael and Kenny Goss–don’t get the same cozy treatment.

Is this fair? Of course not. But in this case, I’ll take the injustice. Not only is it a departure from the norm–in which men get most of society’s benefits including that of the doubt–it will also help an important civil-rights cause.

Women Have Given Gusto

Women, meanwhile, deserve recognition for giving this movement gusto, in North America and globally.

In 1999, same-sex couples in Ontario received the same benefits and obligations as common-law couples as the result of litigation following the break up of a lesbian couple in Toronto. This ruling by the Supreme Court led to similar federal legislation within the year.

The first couple to marry after a favorable ruling on same-sex marriage in San Francisco last February was female; so was the first couple to marry after a similar ruling here in Saskatchewan last November. In Oklahoma two lesbian couples are challenging the new constitutional amendment there, which they claim violates civil rights. Recently an Irish lesbian couple who married in Canada challenged their government to accord them the tax benefits of marriage in Ireland, a first initiative for that country.

Breaking more new ground, a judge in Toronto last September granted the first same-sex divorce to a lesbian pair who had married in 2003.

But old prejudices and attitudes die hard.

Legislating and adjudicating them away–as Canada and a few U.S. states, such as Massachusetts are doing–is a good start.

In the meantime, as the struggle continues on so many levels, we all have Feb 14. Today’s our opportunity to celebrate same-sex couples and, in various ways, send them a special Valentine.

Pauline Brock is a freelance writer based in Montreal Canada.



For more information:

Same-Sex Rights, from CBC News:

Equal Marriage for Same Sex Couples–
Freedom to Marry Day:–
50 state rundown on gay marriage:

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