It’s coming up to Pride Month in June, and this summer also marks 15 years of marriage equality in Canada, so I find myself in a particularly pensive and reflective mood. This is especially true with the lockdown in the UK at the moment which affords my brain ample time to run amok. This is also not much of a sciencey post.
Last weekend was the 30th International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), and in some reflections on Twitter, Shaun O’Boyle flagged this 45-minute documentary he co-produced on the 2 years since the equal marriage referendum in Ireland for Newstalk Radio (and it’s now been five years today, as it happens). In it, they interview folks that they spoke to during the campaign in 2015, and see how the experience had affected them. It’s brilliant and you should go listen to it.
And I found myself thinking about my experience in Canada. The situation was different; we had several years of provincial governments passing legislation until the 2004 Supreme Court Reference Re Same Sex Marriage (wiki page here) and then things slowly swept across the country, either through legislation or provincial court cases (marriage is a provincial rather than a federal matter). But in the intervening 15 years, there’s been, well, not a lot of public reflection like Shaun’s piece about Ireland. And what defined a cohort of queer activists (and queer bystanders), all those experiences and more than a decade of fighting, might be lost, like so much queer history in Canada. This feels particularly the case outside the big cities, and most acutely on the east coast.
But perhaps this isn’t all that surprising. Unlike the UK did in 2017, we didn’t mark 50 years of decriminalization in 2019. Talking with younger queer folks today, few know the landmark pieces of history: Vriend v Alberta (wiki), Egan v Canada (wiki), M v H (wiki) or Hall v Durham Catholic School Board (wiki). Now, I’m not trying to be the “old man yells at cloud” kind or be all “when I was your age…”, but these cases defined the national equal rights agenda for much of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. It’s what I read about in the newspaper every morning at breakfast (because I was a nerd, even from a young age). It’s what was on the 10:00 news on CBC.
And then equal marriage in Ontario in 2003, and nationally two years later. I still remember hearing on CBC radio when the decision for New Brunswick came through from the Court of Queen’s Bench in June 2005 (Harrison v AG of Canada). I wasn’t yet out, struggling greatly with that burden and also the first field season of my masters, and wondering what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks I was doing. I felt relief (though given the wave of other provincial decisions and the reference question at the Supreme Court, the chances that it wouldn’t happen in New Brunswick were slim), and though I couldn’t really celebrate (being closeted and all), it was an indication of where society was going. That decision by Justice Judy Clendenning (and the positive media coverage around it) was part of what ultimately prompted me to come out 4 months later, because I could see something that would make life easier, even a little.
At the national scale, marriage equality was such a unifying issue (though not entirely) for the LGBTQ+ community because it had such a broad relevance, and it was a big win in Canada, Ireland, Australia, the UK, the US… in many places. And now, 15 years on, we often say “the fight doesn’t stop with equal marriage” because there are so many other challenges that LGBTQ+ folks face, in science, in research, in academia, in society more broadly. But in a way, it HAS stopped. Or it seems like it has. What are we collectively fighting for with the same fervour and determination of 15, 20, 25 years ago? We can’t, as a community, point at something and say to someone “This. This is what we need to do because…”. Maybe we’re all tired, maybe we don’t care as much, maybe the problems are too nebulous to use the old tools and tactics, maybe the challenges are perceived as too “niche”. But it feels a bit like we were a light going through a prism – before, we were focused, unified, together, united, and after though we were a beautiful rainbow, we spread out, going everywhere, divided. Or maybe I’m stretching this analogy too far.
When I look at Canada, even though it’s now 6 years since we lived there, there doesn’t appear to be a leading queer advocacy organization with the same power and pull that Egale had in the early 2000s. Yes, Egale still exists, but one rarely hears them in the national press (and certainly not when I dip in and out of Canadian news coverage from the UK). In the UK, there is Stonewall who do amazing work, but we’re not all rallying around them leading the charge on The Next Big Thing For Queer Rights. Perhaps that’s because there’s also been a shift in activism to smaller local, grassroots organizations who do not have a media presence. Their work is no less important, it’s just outwardly less visible. And that lack of public visibility in the way we had in the early 2000s could be interpreted by some as an implicit license for their discriminatory behaviour or hateful acts.
And I come back to Shaun’s documentary about Ireland, and how that very public fight for validation, equality, and basic rights affected people, much as it did in Australia in their 2017 postal survey. And I look at Canada, and the experiences (and aftermath) I and my peers had, which is largely a story untold. It’s a bit of a gap in stories about queer folks – there are more and more films, documentaries, and reportage on the AIDS epidemic and aftermath (I highly recommend How To Survive A Plague, Pride, and 120 BPM for starters), and a recent flurry of contemporary takes on queer life (Love, Simon, God’s Own Country), but that in-between period that means so much to me is absent (the contemporaneous Queer As Folk notwithstanding). I can’t help but wonder if that is also at least a partial function of the aimlessness in the shadow of marriage equality, but also how we can become focused again, fight the fights that need fighting, and tell the stories that need telling.
With thanks to Shaun O’Boyle and Landon Getz for their critical feedback and inspiring discussions; opinions and errors remain my own.