Say "I Do"? I Don't

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There was a flurry of publicity at the beginning of the year when the predominantly lesbian and gay Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto married two same-sex couples in January. Not surprisingly, the marriage was not recognized by the Ontario government. A court challenge has now been launched, joining three other marriage-related cases already heading towards Canada's Supreme Court.

It is important to challenge the heterosexual monopoly on official state-recognized marriage. By singling out only straight unions for legal sanction, all other kinds of relationships are by law and implication less legitimate. Last year, even as the federal government passed legislation to increase the rights of same-sex couples, the Liberals included a disgusting clause reserving marriage for heterosexuals only. The religious right has been frothing at the mouth in defence of exclusive heterosexual marriage. And anything that gets these guys worked up has to be good.

But that doesn't mean that lesbian and gay marriages are a step toward real freedom. The recognition of same-sex ceremonies does not queer the institution of marriage, nor does it challenge the regulation of our bodies and our lives by church and by state. Instead, it falls into a larger pattern of recognizing "good" lesbians and gay men while demonizing "bad" ones.

The current focus on marriage and relationships leaves some queers very exposed, particularly those who do not choose respectability or qualify for it. Right now, we are witnessing an increased policing of queer sexual activity that falls outside of the mainstream. In Toronto, the last two years have seen a crackdown on sites of sexual activity unprecedented since the massive police raids on the city's gay bathhouses in 1981. Last September, five plainclothes male officers raided a women's bathhouse night, on the pretext of enforcing liquor laws, while the gay male Bijou Porn Bar has faced repeated raids and shutdowns since June 1999.

The strongest advocates for gay marriage are often conservatives, like U.S. journalist Andrew Sullivan, who argue that assimilation into the compulsory family system will give lesbians and gay men increased respectability and higher moral standards. These voices represent just one segment of a large and diverse community, but they are often treated as the spokespeople for all gay men and lesbians.

Queer liberationist politics are very much marginalized in contemporary debates. These politics emerged out of the most activist moments of queer mobilization. They emphasize visibility, militancy and the elimination of the compulsory family system through which the state and church validate some ways of life and restrict others.

Some organizations, like the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario maintain important elements of queer-liberation politics, remaining an honourable exception to the conservative drift of the community. Small clusters of queer activists can also be found around AIDS activist banners and queer slogans at anti-globalization protests. But many young, radical queers simply avoid the lesbian and gay movement and focus on other struggles.

Queer liberation activism helped open up a variety of spaces, bringing sex itself out of the closet. This was a direct challenge to the hypocrisy about sexuality that surrounds us in contemporary capitalist societies, where sex is everywhere (in every advertisement as an inducement to buy products), yet nowhere (the discussion and practice of real sexuality is completely shut down in public spaces).

The rise of queer marriage is connected to a remarkable increase in the visibility and rights of queers in Canada. But that acceptance is limited. Only some aspects of lesbian and gay life are deemed respectable by the powers that be.

This is increasing the polarization of the queer world. Lesbian and gay couples that can afford to consume the right things (bar drinks, clothes, hairdos, gentrified housing) are doing well. Other queers, who are excluded from this lifestyle, or choose not to enter it, face much of the same old shit. Those with fewer resources and less power are most likely to find themselves on the outside: women, queers of colour, transgendered people and those who are young or living in poverty.

So, pardon me if I don't make it to the church on time.

Alan Sears is a queer activist and socialist who teaches sociology and labour studies at the University of Windsor. A version of this article appeared in New Socialist magazine.

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