Virtual Acceptance


“Gay rights” appear to have progressed much further in Canada than in the U.S. Yet the cultures of the two countries are similar. Is Canada now a haven for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered refugees from everywhere else? If so, why?

While the public visibility of a handful of “out” GLBT (or LGBTQ2-spirited, gender-variant, henceforth shortened to “queer”) celebrities (Adam Lambert, RuPaul, Ellen Degeneris) is interpreted as a sign of queer “chic” in the North American media, U.S. laws that have extended the full rights of citizenship to all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, have been repealed. When the reactionary legislation is itself struck down, this is hailed as political progress. This is what happened in August 2010 in California, when Proposition 8, which overturned the legalizing of same-sex marriage in that state, was itself declared unconstitutional.

In Canada, same-sex marriage has been legal since July 2005, and disgruntled conservatives (including representatives of the Conservative Party) haven’t succeeded in reopening the issue in a nation-wide referendum. The conservative hope, of course, is that most Canadians would rush to the polls to reaffirm civil marriage as a contract between one man and one woman.

How on earth did the Canadian federal government manage to legalize same-sex marriage in the first place? Probably because legislation is sometimes actually based on logic and precedent, not the passion of the mob, and because certain controversial issues (“gay” rights, women’s rights) that have become deadlocked at the state level in the U.S. have been tackled first at the national level in Canada.    

In 1982, Canada acquired a national constitution which includes a charter of rights that outlaws discrimination on the basis of gender, among other things. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, various provinces (equivalent to states) acquired legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I’m proud to say that Saskatchewan, my home province, added this clause to its human rights code in 1993 after a lobbying campaign in which I was involved. In the new clause, “sexual orientation” was cleverly packaged with “marital status” and “dependence on social assistance” (welfare) as prohibited grounds, and was quietly passed without headlines. There was partying in the queer community, but those who wanted us to remain vulnerable to arbitrary exclusion from jobs, housing, and all public institutions didn’t seem to realize that their own “right” to discriminate had been taken away until the deal was sealed.  

So when the bill to adopt same-sex marriage was brought up in the Canadian Parliament, the legal groundwork had been laid. If civil marriage was now already defined as a contract between equal partners, and if homophobic discrimination was now illegal in most parts of Canada, how could the rights and responsibilities of marriage be denied to same-sex couples? As a bunch of smart lawyers argued, legalizing same-sex marriage was inevitable. And so a majority of federal politicians voted “I do.”

Does this mean that homophobia is less prevalent in Canada than in the U.S.? This claim would fit nicely with the claim that Canadians are less violent than Americans, based on the lower percentage of shooting deaths in Canada, which in turn seems to be more a result of stricter gun laws than of lower rates of assault in general. Many Canadians enjoy the myth that graciousness is a northern personality trait. Reality, however, is more complex than any national stereotype.

Revulsion toward people who are sexually attracted to members of their own gender, or who are gender-ambiguous or transgendered, is still widespread throughout North America, regardless of anyone’s legal status. I suspect this self-righteous hatred is surprisingly widespread even in British and European cities that are thought of in the rest of the world as sexually liberal or downright decadent. And homophobia has reached a hysterical pitch in African countries dominated by Christian and Muslim values. (It might, in fact, enable Christians and Muslims to work together in countries where they would otherwise compete violently for power.)

Discrimination against those perceived to be any flavor of queer has been compared to discrimination based on race, gender or religion. In some ways, however, homophobia is a unique prejudice. It is based on a belief that “natural” gender norms should be policed and that certain feelings can and should be forbidden out of existence. Unlike the forms of hatred that separate different demographics, homophobia divides families. Like misogyny, homophobia has its roots in family roles, but it goes further. Homophobia motivates relatives to close ranks against an individual “black sheep,” the one family member who is defined as an alien by those who share his/her genes.      

In her book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (2009), prolific author and queer activist Sarah Schulman describes homophobia within families as the root of homophobia in society at large. She describes a range of punishing behavior toward queer sons, daughters and siblings, from outright disowning to limited “acceptance” (“If you come over, don’t bring that ‘friend’ you live with, or at least don’t talk about all that gay stuff – it’s embarrassing, and you know how Grandpa and Grandma feel about it.”). Schulman shows how homophobia at the family level leads to homophobia at the social and legal levels, and to self-hatred and rejection of others even within queer communities.

Another groundbreaking activist and “out” lesbian, Urvashi Vaid, coined the term “virtual equality”* to define the social status of the queer community today. Like characters in video games, we appear in the media as both visible and powerful. The fight for “gay rights,” we are told, has been won. Ads for luxury items in upscale queer magazines suggest that poverty and homelessness are no longer our issues, if they ever were.

And yet many teenagers are still terrified (with reason) of telling their parents about their crushes on same-gender classmates or their desire to wear dresses every day (if male) or never to wear a dress, even for a meeting with the Queen (if female). Many of the people I’ve met in the local queer community since the 1980s are geographically distant from their blood relatives, and this gives everyone involved a respectable excuse to limit contact with each other. Some queer people who are on speaking terms with their relatives express gratitude for being tolerated, even when the queer person has shown extraordinary, one-sided support for family members (raising neglected children in the family, providing money or shelter for those in need). Some families seem to enforce an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. A high percentage of street youth are transgendered, and a bar-centered queer community is rarely an adequate substitute for loving parents. (This is sometimes pointed out by the very folks who refuse to provide their gender-nonconforming younger relatives with any alternative.)

Why all this uproar over the feelings at the root of sexual identity? Some of my queer friends have suggested that their “straight” relatives can’t help feeling squicked by the thought of what two men or two women might possibly do together in bed – ewww!

If visceral disgust is really the basis of homophobia, it seems as childish as the standard reaction of children who learn for the first time that their parents do it. Eventually, most adults accept the fact that their parents were not unspeakably depraved while conceiving them and that actually, sex creates families and keeps the sizzle in sexual relationships. If the incest taboo makes most people unwilling to visualize their blood relatives in the act, it doesn’t follow that sexual feelings should disqualify anyone from the non-sexual love of their family.

Sometimes the virtual “acceptance” of relatives, friends, co-workers or counselors takes the form of downplaying the sex in same-gender erotic relationships or of treating it as an unfortunate addiction that need not prevent the sufferer from living heterosexually. When I “came out” to my parents, they told me that sexuality was a very private aspect of my life, not to be mentioned to anyone else. One of my feminist friends assured me that she understood lesbianism as emotional closeness between female friends. Before I officially “came out,” various friends and mentors assured me that I wasn’t a lesbian even if I had an occasional girlish crush on another girl — which I would, of course, outgrow with time.

Except for some islands of avant-garde thinking, we live in a sexually childish culture. Many of my students in first-year university classes use “inappropriate” as a kind of euphemism for any reference to anything sexual in any context. An unwillingness to accept the sexual nature of human beings – or the diversity of that nature – is not a sign of moral goodness. It’s queer in the sense of being out of touch with reality. While legal rights are useful in protecting vulnerable populations from the concrete expressions of irrational hatred, the hatred needs to end. For everyone’s sake.

*See Vaid’s book, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation (Doubleday Anchor, 1996).

Jean Roberta
September 2010

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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