“Go to the cashier and pay your $150.00 fee while I prepare your paperwork.”
The clerk looked completely and utterly bored while he pointed us to the cashier. He was performing a procedure he had performed hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before. He knew his job by rote and, though he was polite, he was not excited by the process he was taking us through.
I, however, was having a spiritual experience standing in the middle of Ottawa City Hall in Canada. On August 27, 2009, my partner Wanda and I walked into this government office to ask for a marriage license. It’s an exercise we’ve done for several years over Valentine’s Day week at our own government office in Columbia, South
Carolina. Each year, we go and fill out the forms, dutifully scratching out “husband” and “wife” and replacing it with “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2.” Each year, after we’re allowed to fill out the forms completely, the clerk behind the desk politely hands them back informing us that we cannot get legally married in our home state.
This experience was different, however, and jarringly so. There were no television cameras following us to catch the ultimate refusal of our right to marry. Instead, there was a bored clerk surrounded by other bored clerks processing paperwork not just for me but for a few heterosexual couples that surrounded us at the counter.
It felt eerily familiar to filling out the paperwork at home, except there was nothing to cross out. The form simply said “Applicant” and “Joint Applicant.” Afterward, we took the form back to the clerk and braced ourselves. Our nervousness grew as he looked it over. Then said the magic words: “Go to the cashier and pay your $150.00 fee while I prepare your paperwork.”
That’s it? Really? No drama? No fanfare? No rejection? No judgment? No, just a bored city hall clerk doing his job. What he didn’t realize, though, was the depth of the moment for us or the amazing gift he had just given us — a marriage license — a true, official, real, backed up by the federal government, marriage license.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since July 20, 2005 after the enactment of the Civil Marriage Act. The road to marriage equality in Canada was similar to the one currently being traveled by the States. Some provinces ruled in favor of allowing it while others resisted. The only true cure for Canada is the only true cure for the States — a federal law equalizing marriage rights for all across the board.
The struggle for marriage equality in Canada was also, as it is in the States, a matter of wrangling within the churches. There were conservative Christians who opposed marriage equality and spoke stridently against enactment of the federal law. They launched campaigns against it just as anti-marriage equality groups have done here. Church denominations have drawn their own positions on the matter and the ongoing struggle was evident at our wedding ceremony the next evening.
A retired United Church of Canada minister performed our ceremony at the apartment of two of our friends who hosted us in Ottawa — a gay male couple who had married just a couple of years before. The United Church has taken a very progressive stand on marriage equality and voted in 2000 “to advocate for the civil recognition of same-sex partnerships.” Their ministers are free to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Present at our wedding, however, were six other clergy people who would have dearly loved to do our ceremony, but were prohibited from doing so by their denominations. So, while the law has been settled, the churches continue to struggle with their own theologies of acceptance like so many U.S. denominations.
It was truly a bittersweet day. We were able to get legally married in Canada, but we knew that as soon as we crossed the border back to our home country, we’d still have to check off the “single” box on any form that asked about our marital status in the States. We are not alone in this conundrum. Six states have enacted marriage equality for gays and lesbians, but the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) continues to prevent even those marriages from receiving federal recognition. Even those couples considered married in these states still must declare themselves “single” on any federal form or when they cross into another state that doesn’t recognize their marriage. Canadians have experienced this cognitive dissonance of a patchwork of marriage laws and have come to an equitable conclusion. Wanda and I are dedicated to continuing the fight for similar federal recognition of same-gender marriages in the U.S.
Friends had asked why we didn’t get married in one of the half dozen states where it is legal instead of leaving the country to do it. My answer is two-fold. The first one is practical — I didn’t have any speaking engagements planned in any of those states in the near future. I had been invited to speak at church in Ottawa that weekend as part of Ottawa’s pride celebration, so Wanda and I decided to take advantage of the law while we were there. But, my second reason is deeper. I believe that the United States will be forced to recognize international same-gender marriages before they deign to recognize those performed within its own borders. The reason will be economic instead of religious.
In a 2006 paper, University of Colorado law professor Laura Spitz argues that because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) it may become impossible for the United States and Canada especially
to mix economically without ultimately mixing culturally.
It seems to me that if the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada is politically and philosophically consistent with the American economic model, and North American economic integration is part of a larger project to make the American economic model global, then Americans have reason to believe same-sex marriage — i.e., the further expansion of the private care-taking sphere — will
become important to large economic actors in the United States. In other words, the federal government (which is facing the largest deficit in history), multinational insurance companies, and other corporations awarded government contracts for what were previously understood as public services, will all be interested in expanding the private caretaking sphere in order to save money. One way to do this in a relatively short period of time is to broaden the definition of family. And experience tells us, at least in the United States, that when the insurance industry and large government contractors become interested in change, they bring enormous pressure to bear on politicians and other decision-makers.
I should note that while Spitz makes a compelling case for accepting same-gender marriage on international economic grounds she clarified in an email to that she, personally, does not “support the ‘same-sex marriage agenda’ for the LGB movement in the United States.”
What Spitz makes clear in her paper is that despite religious opposition to marriage equality within the United States, if the economic livelihood of American businesses is ever threatened because of marriage inequality in the U.S. we can expect corporations to become the newest marriage equality advocates. If that happens, marriage equality will become the law of the land no matter what anti-gay preachers or organizations have to say about it. When the corporate piggy bank is at stake, religious arguments will always fall on deaf corporate ears.
When that happens, whether it is sooner or later, I hope many more of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will experience the same thrill that Wanda and I did when a bored government clerk, completely unimpressed by the two men or two women standing before him or her at the counter, directs them to pay their fee while he prepares their paperwork.
Just one more note about the bliss of marriage. On Sunday, when we took part in the Ottawa pride parade, we were walking down the parade prep line to join up with Integrity Canada (the Anglican LGBT support group) when we passed by a scantily clad woman in leather marching with the fetish club.
After I walked by, Wanda said to me, “Did you see that?”
“See what?” I asked.
She turned me around and I beheld the mostly bare flesh of a beautiful woman, her private parts barely hidden under fine strips of leather and lace.
“Oh, no, I missed that.” I said, blinking at the sight.
Our host for the weekend laughed and said, “You are married.”
I had to laugh with him. Yes, I am married. In every sense of the word.