Waiting at the Altar

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Even those who don't think much of same-sex marriage - and there are thoseboth on the right and the left - have to admire the guerrilla tacticsReverend Brent Hawkes used when he married two couples, one gay and onelesbian, at his Toronto church in January.

His strategy managed to drum up more media interest than any otherholy union performed at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT) since 1973. It also caused more buzz about gay relationships than a dozen court cases or same-sex-partner omnibus bills.

"We were blown away by the media interest," Hawkes told the audience at theNational Lesbian and Gay Journalists' Association of Canada conference on June 2nd, where he was a panelist at a discussion on gay marriage and the media.

For the January 14th ceremony, Hawkes and his predominantly queer congregation dug up an old Ontario law, based on ancient Christian tradition, called marriage "banns". Banns allow clergy to issue a marriage certificate to any two people - their gender is unimportant, Hawkes claims - after publicrequests for legitimate objections go unanswered on three consecutiveSundays.

(Yes, some visiting fundamentalist Christians did raise objections one Sunday. No, Hawkes didn't heed them - but he did invite the objectors to stay for the children's service.)

As far as publicity goes, the bann readings whipped reporters into afrenzy that was, for the most part, supportive. More than eighty accreditedmedia outlets showed up to record the big day of Kevin Bourassa and JoeVarnell, and of Anne and Elaine Vautour. The couples' photos were splashed on front pages across Canada, and as far away as Germany and Japan. Hawkes did more than 60 interviews in a three-week period.

But were the weddings really all that historic? After all, a week later, theOntario government refused to register the licenses - banns or no banns. Thechurch is taking Ontario to court to get it to recognize the licenses. This effort is only one of several same-sex-marriage cases unfolding across the country. But none of the others have attracted anywhere near the same amount ofpublicity.

The truth is, the mainstream media couldn't resist the symbolism of a formalqueer marriage with rings and processions and post-nuptial kissing. Theirony of an old Christian tradition being used for progressive purposes wasa big plus.

"There was no debate [about] whether to cover it or not," said Erin Elder, photo editor for the Globe and Mail. Regarding the paper's decision to put the couples on the front page, Elder stated simply: "It was thestrongest image of the day."

Not everybody agrees it should have been. With only twenty-five percent ofCanadians living in traditional mom-dad-and-kid-under-eighteenrelationships, there are those who think that all this focus on marriage,gay or otherwise, makes people forget the other seventy-five percent. Whatsupport does the government give single people? What about people who don'twant to promise to be true forever and ever?

"Marriage doesn't help poorer gay people," said panelist David Walberg,publisher of Xtra, a Toronto gay-and-lesbian newspaper. "To put so much emphasis on state-sanctioned marriage distracts from helping others."

Walberg argued that the state, through legislation and the courts, isbecoming increasingly obsessed with the economic factors of marriage; thereseems to be an incentive to have everybody coupled up because it's cheaperto run the social safety-net that way. Court rulings over the past few yearshave made divorced straight people financially responsible for their ex-spouses, even re-opening divorce agreements years later.

"The state doesn't care about honesty, fidelity or emotional attachment,"Walberg said. "People want the state to recognize their love. But the statedoesn't really recognize love."

Even if gay marriage isn't the most worthy of endeavors, Hawkes argued thatit's good publicity: it shows homos to be something other than the stereotype of purely sexual creatures. Canadians are increasingly supportive of same-sexrelationships, with some surveys showing more than fifty percent support forgay and lesbian marriage. The advocacy group Egale Canada, which lobbies on gay and lesbian issues, wants even more Canadians on-side. It's planning a campaign to sway Canadians who are indifferent or gently opposed to gay marriage.

There's hardcore opposition, though, that might never come around. PanelistJonathan Kay, the National Post's editorials editor, started off sounding understanding, if a little conservative. "Social conservatives are terrified of gay marriage. They romanticize a past age," Kay said. "There's a feeling that marriage has almost dissolved and now you're taking away the definition of marriage."

Mere semantics, it might seem. But when the issue of gay parenting came up, Kay demonstrated how far out the right wing remains on homosexuality and, most particularly, sodomy. "It comes down to children and to medical risk," Kay said. "Gay sex pushes the human body beyond its design engineered capacity."

Kay suggested that lesbian marriage is a different story, because it involves neither the possibility of polygamy nor what he calls "the medical issue."But conservative Canadians can't deal with sodomy, and so, Kay said, marriage between two men is not an option.

That kind of skewed logic piqued panelist Susan G. Cole - editorof Toronto's Now magazine, a mom, and half of a lesbian couple. Declared Cole: "I don't want to have marriage, but as long as you don't want us to have the choice, we want the choice."

Paul Gallant is Xtra's features editor and a board member of the NationalLesbian and Gay Journalists' Association.

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