Love, justice and dirty socks
Have queer people or their communities been changed by legal same-sex marriage in Canada? Zosia Bielski in conversation with three leading thinkers
"The heterosexual cage of coupledom." That's how the late lesbian author Jane Rule described matrimony in 2001, four years before same-sex marriage would be legalized across this country.
Today, Canadians see marriage equality as a given, so many might be surprised to hear that not everyone in the LGBTQ community cheered the 2005 legalization.
Some queer activists worried that an emphasis on long-term, monogamous relationships would create a hierarchy of love in the gay community where none had existed before. The massive investment in lobbying for same-sex marriage – arguably an unthreatening, wholesome topic – was controversial, with accusations that it sidelined more complicated issues including queer sexuality, sex work, poverty and health care for transgender people.
Others viewed same-sex marriage as unwelcome state intrusion into their relationships. "With all that we have learned, we should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prison, not volunteering to join them there," Rule told Daily Xtra.
Twelve years after that hard-fought victory, what does same-sex marriage mean to the LGBTQ community? In the lead-up to the Toronto Pride march – and summer wedding season – The Globe hosted a roundtable at the city's iconic Glad Day Bookshop to discuss the current state of queer love.
The panelists included Lee Airton, who uses the pronoun they and is an assistant professor of education at Queen's University and founder of the No Big Deal Campaign promoting transgender people's right to have their pronouns used.
Writer and speaker Kim Katrin Milan, 33, married her transgender husband, Tiq Milan, in 2014: In a recent Ted Talk, the two spoke of their marriage as a "a model of possibility for the millions of LGBTQ folks who have been sold this lie that family and matrimony [are] antithetical to who they are."
And Mariana Valverde, 62, is a University of Toronto professor with a long-standing research interest in law and sexuality and author of the book Sex, Power, and Pleasure.
Kim, in your Ted Talk, you pointed out that many LGBTQ people are denied love from their families. Marrying and forming new, loving families can fill a big void.
Kim Katrin Milan: This was huge for us. Tiq comes from a big family that has been loving, supportive and accepting of the person that he is. My family is a little bit different than that. I've always been on my own. Being bonded into a family that loves me and accepts me is important. That's true for many queer folks, whether their family, religion or community rejects them. Creating a culture of love within these imperfect institutions is something we have always tried to do for ourselves and each other.
Lee and Mariana, have you contemplated marriage?
Lee Airton: I've been with my partner for six years. We will probably never get married. We like the idea that we don't have anything keeping us together apart from our decision to be together. Every day, I make an active choice in my life to remain in this relationship.
Mariana Valverde: My partner and I are old feminists. We're not married but that doesn't mean anything in Canada because the state has decided we're a common-law couple. People don't ask if we're married because we've got all these other signifiers: a house, a cottage, two kids and we've been together 25 years. Marriage wouldn't add any respectability.
The baggage of marriage – fixed gender roles, lifelong monogamy at all costs – has any of it been remade by queer spouses?
Airton: An interesting piece that was purportedly related to heterosexual couples went viral in my Facebook network recently. It was about "mental load," the way women take on responsibility for planning, organizing, scheduling, preparing. When their partners say, "Let me know if you want me to help you," that's not helpful. What's helpful is remembering to buy stuff and not being asked.
My partner, Tamara, identifies as a woman and I do not, and we realized that this is playing out in our relationship. I'm not shouldering the mental load. She's the one remembering the cat food, toilet paper and toothpaste while I get strange extra credit when I remember things. But we don't have any recourse for excuses: No one gets to say, "This is just the way it is," or, "This is what men are like."
Kim, how do gender roles play out in your marriage to a transgender husband?
Milan: To people who don't know us personally, we visually represent as a heterosexual couple but neither of us identifies that way. Both Tiq and I identify as queer so that complicates and adds another layer to it.
We don't have the same attachment, inheritance or traditions from marriage as an institution. For us, there was no cultural norm that made us feel we had to get married. We didn't do it because it was the next appropriate stage or because Tiq "had to make an honest woman out of me." What we were creating was brand new and we didn't feel beholden to any standard. We got married because we loved each other. It feels substantially more freeing than it does limiting.
But you did complain in your Ted Talk about your husband's balled-up socks and sports games on TV. That sounded pretty hetero.
Milan: When I noticed all the balled-up socks on the floor, I said, "Tiq, I'm not into gender roles. I don't feel like cleaning up after you. That's important for me as a woman. I don't want to fall into this existing trope of being the little wife who picks up after you." When I expressed it to him, he got it.
Tiq is doing everything: cooking, cleaning, groceries. We've noticed that straight men feel they can't do these things because it makes them feel like less of a person. When Tiq's cleaning up for me, he doesn't feel like he's ruining the man he is.
On my end, there's an awful lot of learning about what it means to be supportive with a partner who is trans. The few times that I've not been present when he's going for his doctor's visits, I've recognized that it's really not okay. There's a lot of unlearning that I have to go through to be affirming of his gender.
Mariana, in 2006 you wrote that gay marriage had produced a new "respectable" same-sex couple: "Bank loans, florists' bills, joint bank accounts, renovated gentrified downtown homes and worries about the relatives…" What's wrong with all this?
Valverde: If people love to get dressed in a white wedding gown and gentrify a house and it's what they would have done anyway regardless of gender? Fine. The unfortunate effect is that a lot of people with social capital were really pushing for marriage as opposed to focusing on other issues like state censorship of sexually explicit material, sex work, stigma and harassment of trans people by police. Years earlier, all of those issues would have been on an equal level. We were all equally disrespectable.
Milan: Marriage has benefited a very particular part of the population. When same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., it was a lot of older, wealthy white gay men and lesbians who wanted to make sure they could pass on an inheritance. For a lot of queer and trans folks of colour, that isn't part of people's purview. The idea of even thinking about marriage is so far from it when they can't even walk down the street without experiencing violence.
Has there been pressure on LGBTQ partners to get married since legalization?
Milan: I've never felt any kind of pressure. I know so many people in interesting triads, or there are two dads and two moms and another gender-queer person who is part of the family: There are all sorts of different relationships in this community. I've never asked anyone, "When are you going to get married?" or "When are you having babies?" One of the blessings of being in a queer community is that I've never felt an expectation of what my life should look like or what ideas of success or normalcy should look like.
Airton: After same-sex marriage came in, I had to over-explain my own position on marriage. That's the thing that activists never thought would be a burden once we got this amazing right.
Valverde: When same-sex marriage was legalized in Ontario, there was a gay male couple who lived down the street from us. One day, they were telling our daughter who was maybe 5 or 6 that they were going to get married. They were so happy about this. We got home and our daughter said, "Why don't you two get married?" It was a question I never thought I'd have to answer. Our daughter wasn't trying to normalize us – not consciously. She had seen pictures of weddings and she's a very girly girl who loves fancy dresses. She would have loved a wedding for the party.
Fancy dresses and parties: Are queer couples buying into the wedding industrial complex as badly as straight couples, couples now saddled with massive wedding-day debts?
Airton: Absolutely. You get to reclaim the fantasy that you were fed as a child. You don't have a queer wedding without outfits producing a lot of conversation. There was a moment around what Ellen DeGeneres wore to her wedding to Portia de Rossi. Ellen wore a white outfit with a flowy white waistcoat and Portia wore a white wedding dress. The question became, to what extent are you going to do what Ellen did, or not?
At the same time, same-sex marriage has also inspired a lot of young people to queer their weddings. There are gender-segregated traditions like bridal showers and stag nights that force people to take on gender roles they don't want. The phenomenon of having a stag and doe instead: Queer people can take credit for loosening up some of those norms. Instead of "maid of honour" or "best man," we now have "best person." It opens up all these ideas.
Are there other nuptial traditions queer spouses are shaking up? Kim, you did not get a diamond ring but you took your husband's name. Why?
Milan: For me, the choice to take Tiq's last name was a very intentional one. My last name, Crosby, was my grandfather's name. He was a sugar plantation owner in Tobago where my family was born. He raped my grandmother. Choosing Tiq's last name was about stepping away from that colonial heritage.
Since I have feminist values, people wanted me to account for this decision. It's how sexism plays out: people don't recognize that women do things on purpose. I'm not confused. I know what I'm doing and when I make choices I understand why I'm making them. Even if we split up, I've told Tiq I'm not giving up his last name. I want it.
What about divorce? After 2005, some quipped that queer couples could now unite and later split up just like straight people do: the expensive way. Is that cynical or is divorce a relevant question for this community at this point?
Valverde: What I see is a great embarrassment to be divorced. I have lots of heterosexual friends who say, "Getting divorced was the best thing I ever did. That guy was so useless." Gay and lesbian couples are very quiet about the divorce, particularly if they had a fancy wedding.
A friend of mine was very proud of the fact that she and her partner were the first lesbian couple to get registered at William Ashley. Those of us who are more feminist and critical of the wedding industrial complex thought, "That's a big victory, that William Ashley takes lesbian couples?" We were pretty scathing, at least among ourselves. When she got divorced a few years later, nobody talked about it: She was so under the radar.
Airton: My partner and I are worried about getting married for these very reasons. Marriage requires that you make people invest in the future of your relationship, which then makes spouses accountable to their community in a strange fiduciary way: "I spent so much travelling and I bought them this $500 vacuum cleaner where they registered and then they got divorced five years later."
The fight for gay marriage galvanized many. What should LGBTQ activists fight for now?
Milan: Same-sex marriage or queer marriage is by no means the be-all end-all of everything that LGBTQ communities have been fighting for. It's important for us to prioritize the needs, rights and freedoms of people who are particularly vulnerable: trans folks, gender-queer folks, two-spirited folks.
These people have been at the forefront fighting for access for everyone but they've not enjoyed the same kinds of gains that gay and lesbian communities of a particular class have. We need to make sure these people can access health care and work and are not experiencing violence on a day-to-day basis or going to schools where they feel they are suicidal all the time. These things feel less tangible and don't have the same kind of appeal as gay marriage, which is a really easy, pretty win.
Airton: This community should be fired up about the rising tide of xenophobia and particularly Islamophobia in Canadian public life. There are ways that dominant gender norms in schools harm girls who aren't white and girls who veil, just like they harm queer kids and trans kids. That's my fight.
Professor Mary Bernstein is a University of Connecticut sociology professor and a lesbian with twin daughters with her partner, who is not her wife. In 2015, she posited this future: "Lesbians and gay men with children may be producing a new generation poised to pursue and enact gender equity and, perhaps, other forms of social justice." Is this playing out among young people in Canada?
Airton: Children receive so many messages that adulthood means you grow up and you marry someone. Same-sex marriage is such an important thing because at least who you marry is up for debate. The way I see it taken up by younger people is through the ideas of, "I can choose to marry whoever I want" and "Love is love." This is more of a young person's discourse than, "I can choose to marry a man if I'm a man." It de-emphasizes gender; it's a sense that choice is on your horizon. I don't think this was necessarily intended in the beginning of this movement.
Valverde: Young people now say they don't want to be monogamous. They want many different relationships. Well, that's not going to be in any book for Grade Twos. Heather Has Two Mommies – okay. But not this.
Airton: Today, it's about broadening it out. So many families don't even look like marriage or two parents at all. This is about queering the institution of marriage.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.
—With files from Stephanie Chambers