For Better or Worse?

By J.Timothy Hunt

I ALWAYS ASSUMED I’d go though life unmarried. Don’t get the wrong idea; I’m a pro-marriage kind of guy. I think people belong in pairs. It’s just that at other people’s weddings I’d find myself witnessing the events unfold with the kind of bemused detachment one has while watching space shuttle launches or extreme plastic surgery. Something like that would never happen to me. I would be unmarried until the day I died.

So imagine how I felt when I found myself standing at the altar last May. I was gobsmacked. There before God and 65 friends and family, I said “I do” and exchanged rings. For the reception, my beloved and I had chosen a Provençal theme, and had gone over the top with the olives and lavender. In our excitement, we had indulged in a modified package of what is generally considered “the works”: celebrity wedding planner, kick-ass venue, top-tier caterer, Juno nominated band, metre-high wedding cake, French wines, champagne. The only traditional wedding items we skipped were the wedding dress, the bridesmaids, the bride’s bouquet and,well, the bride.

When Ontario’s courts ruled on July 12, 2002, that any restriction on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, my longtime companion and I waited a year before planning our wedding. We desperately wanted to be married, but couldn’t stand the thought of our legal union being quickly annulled. Certainly something like gay marriage would be overturned or appealed, wouldn’t it? When a year passed and courts in Quebec and British Columbia had by then handed down similar rulings, we figured it was safe to send out the wedding invitations. On May 8, we celebrated our first year of remarkable yet totally unremarkable married life.

Shortly after our wedding, The New Yorker ran a cartoon of a woman standing by the door with her bags packed. “There’s nothing wrong with our marriage,” she says to her bewildered husband, “but the spectre of gay marriage has hopelessly eroded the institution.”

I know the cartoon meant to poke fun at critics of gay marriage. Even so, I found it a stern reminder that there are those who would accuse me of destroying the very institution that I cherish. As far as I can tell, my husband and I have not hopelessly eroded a single opposite-sex marriage within our sphere of influence. Conversely, the straight marriages falling apart around us haven’t weakened our own vows. How could they?

Over the past two years I’ve heard a lot of truly nutty arguments against same-sex marriage. (They usually begin with, “I’ve got nothing against gay people, but...”) Among the most typical of these bigoted inanities can be found in a press release from the strident lobby group REAL Women of Canada. “The definition of marriage as being ‘between two persons,’” they write, “opens a Pandora’s box — as two undefined ‘persons’ includes any unlimited assortment of couples including transgendered, crossdressers, father and daughter, uncle and niece, even heterosexuals who want financial benefits of marriage, etc. The so-called ‘sanctity’ of marriage, under the proposed legislation makes a mockery of marriage.”

In a similar vein, James Dobson of Focus on the Family recently declared, “The definition [of marriage] can be anything a judge says it is, or a mayor or three commissioners or what have you. It becomes anything anybody wants it to be. So you could have polygamy. You could have incest. You could have marriage between a father and a daughter. You could have two widows or two sisters or two brothers... Once you cross that Rubicon, then there’s no place to stop. Because if a judge can say two men and two women can marry, there is no reason on earth why some judge someplace is not going to say, this is not fair. Three women or three men, or five and two or five and five.”

It’s a Pandora’s box. It’s a domino effect. It’s a chain of circumstance. It’s the thin edge of the wedge. It’s the crossing of the Rubicon. It’s a slippery slope. My God! A slippery slope!

The paranoids are convinced that if you give someone an inch, they will take a mile, yet they don’t seem to realize that they’re the ones going down the slippery slope — the slippery slope of absurd assumptions.

First off, I had no idea that heterosexuals who wanted the financial benefits of marriage were unable to marry until now. I suppose what REAL Women is referring to is the prospect of two straight guys looking at each other and exclaiming, “Dude! Think of the benefits!” Regarding Dobson’s fear that five women and two men (or two widows?) might vow to cherish one another until death do they part, his personal Rubicon must exist on a planet entirely unlike Earth. As for the other doomsday scenarios, the group REAL Women is obviously unaware that opposite-sex pairs of transvestites and transsexuals have always been free to walk down the aisle. Do they not get cable television?

Any way you look at it, the slippery slope argument is itself a slippery slope. Accepting the idea of one slip leads to accepting the next one, and the next, and the next — until you can no longer bear to stomach any change from the status quo.

Marriage as an institution has constantly evolved throughout history. In ancient Rome only the upper classes were allowed to marry; Christians didn’t declare marriage a sacrament until the 1400s; men were once free to rape their wives — you can name literally hundreds of incremental changes that have occurred to marriage over the centuries. In fact, marriage has done quite a good job of adapting itself to the needs of each era without becoming a “mockery.” Sometimes the changes people initially lamented the most were the ones that ended up making marriage better. Yet the lamentation continues.

“I hate to say this, but I think you have to draw the line somewhere,” said Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, alleging that the Liberals’ support for same-sex marriage will lead Canada toward polygamy.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler responded, “We don’t see any connection — I repeat, any connection — between the issue of polygamy and the issue of same-sex marriage.”

Perhaps what Cotler meant to say was that polygamy already exists in Canada, and same-sex marriage has nothing to do with it.As former Ontario attorney general Marion Boyd recently noted in her report on the permissibility of Islamic sharia law in Ontario: “...throughout Canada, it is possible to have more than one married spouse, as long as the marriages took place in a jurisdiction that recognized the ceremony.” (Sharia allows for up to four wives.)

Thus, despite remaining a Criminal Code offence, polygamy is tolerated and even flourishes in parts of our country. Just outside of Creston, B.C., for example, there is a Mormon community of about 1,000 where polygamous marriages are widely observed. Toronto and Montreal are also home to a growing number of polygamous refugee and immigrant families from South and Central Asia. As for mixed marriage groupings of “three women or three men, or five and two or five and five,” there is no word for this concept because never in history has such a thing existed.

As a reporter, I’ve come across many polygamous families during my travels to Africa. On one occasion, an Ashanti queen offered to add me to her stable of husbands. (I politely declined for a number of reasons.) Whenever multiple-spouse families like these immigrate to Canada, in theory, the head of the clan is required to claim only one spouse and leave the rest behind. In reality, Citi-zenship and Immigration Canada has found ways to circumvent the laws against polygamy and keep such families together by admitting additional spouses as independent applicants under the humanitarian and compassionate program.

As for the Mormon community in rural B.C., prosecutors have held off laying charges there for fear that they would lose if challenged under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In other words, the only way the authorities feel they can keep polygamy laws on the books is if they don’t enforce them, which is pretty much the way things went with sodomy laws before they were repealed.

So does this mean that in Canada our acceptance of gay marriage has hurled us toward legalization of bigamy? No.

Stephen Harper is correct that we have to draw the line somewhere, but Harper is drawing his line across the wrong slope.

The definition of marriage has evolved from “the lawful union of one man and one woman” to “the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.” Despite what REAL Women of Canada would have us believe, the new definition of marriage is not two undefined persons. All the laws pertaining to incest, bestiality, bigamy and consent still apply. Adult Canadians have the right to marry one person of any race, religion or sex — provided that their intended spouse is not a minor lacking parental consent, a close blood relative, currently married, mentally incompetent, in a coma, imaginary or dead.

Same-sex marriage is an equal-rights issue. It is also the final stop on the road we embarked upon when we removed the societal restrictions on interracial and interfaith marriages. In the past, Catholics could marry Catholics, but Jews were all but forbidden to marry Catholics. Asians could marry Asians, but blacks were all but forbidden to marry Asians. A woman could marry a man, but a man could not marry a man. When my female next-door neighbour was permitted to do what was forbidden to me, that was discrimination. Now she and I are equal. With same-sex marriage, this slippery slope line of logic comes to an end. There is no place left to slip. The rights afforded to one class of person are now afforded to all.

The polygamists may have a valid case for the legalization of their religious or cultural practice under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; however, any gains they might make in the future won’t be achieved on the backs of the gay rights movement. Polygamists are not being denied a right afforded to others. One group of Canadians has never been given the right to bigamy while another has been excluded from practising it. The same holds true for incest, bestiality, pedophilia, necrophilia and any variation of human-vegetable love. Polygamy and its kin are separate issues from same-sex marriage, separate concepts on a separate icy hilltop. As for me, I’m truly grateful to be standing — married — at the bottom of the other slope.

On the night of our wedding, as the evening was winding down, my new husband and I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. We soon noticed that our sound technician had also ducked outside for a quick smoke. Shyly, he stubbed out his cigarette and walked over to shake our hands. “Congratulations,” he said. “I’ve never worked a gay wedding before. It was great. Really different.” Looking around, he paused and then added,“I gotta tell you guys, I’ve done about 400 weddings so far, but I think this was the most real wedding I’ve ever been to.”

His words were a ripple in a pond, the thin end of the wedge, the crossing of the Rubicon, an acorn, a floodgate, the best wedding present we could have asked for.