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The Politics of Same Sex Marriage

Successful same-sex marriage legislation in Canada and Spain shows that left projects will always be greeted by conservatives with acrimony. Rather than wringing our hands about "polarization," we should look back to this history of other major left victories. PLUS: what's next after marriage for queer rights?

On Tuesday, Canada’s House of Commons approved a bill that would change the definition of marriage to allow same-sex couples to legally marry throughout Canada. Though reactionary churches will not be forced to marry lesbian and gay couples, all Canadian institutions will be required to recognize same-sex marriages. Assuming that the Senate approves the bill, Canada will join the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain (as of today) as countries in which lesbian and gay people can legally get married.

The Canadian and Spanish bills are both tremendous political victories, but they raise two important issues: one about the nature of party politics in representative democracies, and one about the future of what I will call the movement for queer rights.

In Canada, the liberals’ legislative victory in this matter is an interesting mirror image of republicans’ victories in the U.S. since 2000. The liberal government is a minority government, and barely survived a no-confidence vote weeks ago. When the conservatives threatened another no-confidence vote to present the same-sex marriage bill from passing, the liberals played hardball, using obscure parliamentary tactics and calling surprise votes. Though there was much hand-wringing over the loss of decorum in parliament, the liberals’ actions were no different from conservatives’ attempts to make use of a financing scandal earlier in the spring to topple the government. While this was cause for concern among centrist pundits in Canadian newspapers, it’s old news to this American. After all, the Bush administration governed like it had a mandate when it didn’t even win the 2000 election. In both cases, we see a group barely able to govern ramming through its social agenda. In Spain, the socialists are part of a firmer governing coalition, but the issue was equally acrimonious, with Catholic Conservatives calling the legislation a “disgrace.”

It should come as no surprise that same-sex marriage is becoming the law of the land (or at least progressive lands) in this fashion. The story of the movements in Canada and Spain follow a clear historical pattern. Social justice policies, steps toward legal equality for groups previously excluded, start out as hugely controversial and divisive and are pitched as “radical” (think of interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, and child labor laws to name three U.S. policies that followed this pattern), and within a generation they become normal and commonsensical. The point at which they become enshrined in law is the point at which they gain sufficient support to be taken up by a governing party. The pattern suggests that within a few years, more and more people will shrug their shoulders at same-sex marriage. They will treat it as normal, commonplace and everyday.

The moral of this story is simple: if the left is looking to put new social policy in place, it should expect a fight, and it should beware of appeals centrist, “consensus” or “reasonable” politics. There will come a decisive moment where some people have to win and some people have to lose. It’s nice to see our side winning once in awhile.


Same-sex marriage is a tremendous victory for the queer rights movement. My spouse and I have been together for 15 years but married for only 6. We resisted marriage for a long time because, among other things, we believed that it was an unjust institution, since our queer friends could not marry. When I got a job with good healthcare benefits and decided to buy a house in Pittsburgh, we essentially got bought off by the state. The benefits were too great, and we were giving up too much to stay unmarried. Which only demonstrates our original point. Marriage provides all sorts of access to resources and “goodies,” and if a segment of the population cannot get married, then they are denied access. For us, the practicalities of daily life won out over principle. We accepted our privilege and got on with it. In Canada, at least, now everyone has that privilege.

Or do they? While same-sex marriage sounds like a resolution to the problems of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it is really only a piece of the solution. To use a word from Judith Butler, it is a “heteronormative” institution. Marriage privileges the idea of a single lifelong partner (or more practically, the serial monogamy that comes with multiple marriages), suggests that the 2-parents, 1.5 children family model is the ideal one, and provides a narrative script for adult lifestyle choices that includes buying property, stability in work, and raising children. And yet, queer politics has been about so much more than simply offering queer people the chance to opt in to the same goodies that stereotypical middle class heterosexual people aspire to. It was about affirming a wide range of attitudes toward and practices of sexuality. It was about finding other ways to organize one’s love life, one’s friendships, and one’s life story. My fear is that debates and crusades around same-sex marriage (and lesbians and gays in the military before that) have obscured the real promise of queer politics: a society where people have maximum freedom of personal affiliation, where they can choose to configure their lives in a wide variety of ways, and where everyone has access to the “goodies” that come with institutions like marriage, without having to conform to their values. The truth is that religious conservatives have little to fear from same-sex marriage as a challenge to their institutions and ways of life. Which is why I hope that the queer rights movement will press on, that it will view the same-sex marriage victory as an early victory, rather than a culmination of the movement that had its modern beginnings at Stonewall.

Copyright © Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.