Does winning the war mean losing the will to fight?
BY EDWARD KEENAN AND BERT ARCHER

What happens after you get what you want? If you’re John Fisher, you take your bows, reap your rewards and move on.

Before leaving office as executive director of EGALE (Equality for Gays And Lesbians Everywhere) later this month, Fisher — the New Zealand expat who made the Ottawa-based organization one of the world’s most organized and, as of June 10, most successful gay rights groups — will serve as grand marshal of this year’s Pride parade, marching just ahead of Michaels Leshner and Stark, the first same-sex couple to legally marry after a watershed June 10 Ontario Court of Appeal decision. (For a breakdown of the status of same-sex unions worldwide, see our Pride Guide page 47.)

The court’s decision is well-timed to allow Pride week to be a victory celebration. As co-chair of this year’s Pride committee, Ayse Turak says, “we’re hoping people will come and use this as a perfect honeymoon opportunity. Come get married in Toronto and then stay for Pride.”

But in the wake of this striking of the last major sanctioned form of discrimination based on sexual orientation, the sheer numbers and diversity (leather dykes, bears, club kids, drag queens) that will surely constitute much of the rest of the parade following Fisher and the recently wed Michaels poses some questions about the future of our gay communities.

What happens when a community built on oppression and struggle clears its final hurdle? For the identity-based activism that played such a large role in forming gay communities in this province, and has given it two huge booster shots in the form of AIDS activism in the ’80s and ’90s and the fight for marriage rights from the late ’90s until June 10, the options seem to be entrench and recede, or evolve.

Fisher, for his part, seems prepared to leave EGALE to take the former route. “Just as the removal of many legal barriers for the women’s movement, for people of colour, for aboriginal communities have not meant that we live in an equal society,” Fisher says, treating the increasingly unwieldy string of descriptors for his constituents as a single word, “so the struggle for equality for lesbiangaybisexualandtransgendered people will continue for some time to come.”

Indeed, though they’d probably disagree with the characterization, the American National Organization for Women (NOW) has entrenched and, as a result, receded following the great legal advances of the ’60s and ’70s guaranteeing women financial independence and reproductive freedom, and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.

“Our first goal was to achieve economic equity and that has yet to be achieved,” says Karen Johnson, vice president executive of NOW, who hadn’t heard about the Ontario court decision until eye told her. Johnson says that as a result of the widespread perception of basic gender equality in North America, it’s been harder to rally public support for NOW’s fights against sexual harassment and in favour of greater access to abortion, child care and decent education for women. “What we see is … a generation gap. There are women who have benefited from gains we’ve made as a movement,” Johnson says, expressing a sentiment exemplified in a gay context by Stephen Sheffer in our lead Pride feature on page 36, “they say, ‘I don’t have a problem with discrimination, I can do whatever I want to do.’ So many younger women take it for granted that these things are just natural…. On the other hand, I think many people realize when they’re in the workforce in particular that perhaps things are not as far ahead as we thought they were.

“What we see is that even when we’ve made some gains, almost immediately there’s something coming up to take away those gains. It’s a matter of vigilance. Even making the gain legislatively doesn’t mean that it’s enforced,” says Johnson. It seems likely that in the short term at least, advocates of gay marriage will have to fight to see that marriages are actually available to same-sex couples who want them. A survey of small towns around Ontario conducted by eye found that many of them no longer have justices of the peace signing marriage certificates. Instead, local religious ministers are the only available authority to preside over weddings. If religious ministers in such places refuse (as is their right) to marry same-sex couples, those couples will need to go to another town or a larger city to get married which, though better than it was on June 9, is still not practically equal before the law.

The fight for the hearts and minds of Canadians will certainly continue. An online poll conducted by The Globe and Mail on the same day the Ontario decision came down showed that 53 per cent of the 24,574 respondents still opposed same-sex couples adopting children.

The NAACP after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and the battles for enforcement immediately following) is another example of a movement losing its huge public and media support following a major watershed victory, and which, like NOW, continues to fight, in this case for affirmative action and against poverty.

In the case of same-sex issues, it’s the difference between being shut out because of who you are and being shut out for what you do. Such is the case with NOW’s ongoing struggle to change workplaces to allow greater access to child care and to shift working hours and maternity-leave structures to allow working mothers to advance as quickly as men do.

As might be expected, activists such as Fisher and Turak do not acknowledge the distinction. “I wouldn’t really characterize it as an identity/behaviour distinction,” Fisher says. “It’s impossible to distinguish what parts of our identity make us gay and how we give effect to that through behaviour or otherwise.”

Which doesn’t change the fact that the average suburban housewife who hasn’t moved as far from heaven as Julianne Moore will sympathize more readily with two people’s desire to marry than she will with a gay man’s desire to get fisted in a bathhouse.

This is what makes the same-sex issue different from race and gender: what many same-sex folks do continues to raise a huge amount of dander.

Still, though it may fracture public support and cause rifts within the gay communities, some say that behaviour-based activism is where advocacy groups such as EGALE should be moving. People have made careers out of NOW and the NAACP, fighting fights that will constantly refresh themselves; it’s unglamorous, useful and a good bet for job security. But a shift away from identity and towards behaviour would mean evolution from groups like EGALE.

Eleanor Brown, former managing editor of Xtra and current columnist for fab and gay365.com, has been an outspoken critic of EGALE’s till-now single-minded focus on family-minded activism. In an email from Montreal, she writes that it’s time to broaden the scope of the movement’s advocacy. “I expect that this has, by now, slowly dawned upon the good people of EGALE, which really is our only serious and organized national lobby group. I’m guessing it’s one of the reasons they’ve finally started paying attention to other issues — and by this, I mean the down an’ dirty piggy sex stuff, the stuff that ‘good’ gays tried to hide because it was bad PR.” Brown points to EGALE’s reaction to a December bathhouse raid in Calgary and a gay strip-club raid in Montreal last month as evidence of this broadening approach.

“Assimilationists are welcome to get married and all that; it’s their right, more power to them. For the rest of us, as individuals and as lobby groups, we need to continue to hold a separate culture, and import it into the mainstream. They need to learn from us — about sex, polyamory, the traps of monogamous coupledom, about the importance of questioning orthodoxy, of getting it up the ass. Oh my gawd, I could go on. Heterosexuals need us.”

It’s a question now of which route the parade’s going to take. Once Fisher leaves, will the movement follow the second-in-line Michaels into wedded bliss and pet ownership, paying their mortgages and working their way from paper to wood to tin to crystal, only coming together over anecdotal outrages like Matthew Shepard or Marc Hall? Or will the parade leave those folks to their own pleasant devices and take a sharp turn down a side street behind the folks bound for the Black Eagle, Pussy Palace, Spa Excess and Cawthra Park?

Once they’ve wiped themselves off and gone home, the only reasonable place to go is forward, to evolve into a variation on the late ’60s and early ’70s gaylib themes, according to which gay liberation was a step along the road to general human sexual liberation, placing the more sexually introspective and activist-minded homos in common cause with hets who are interested in a general overhaul of Canada’s increasingly archaic sex and obscenity laws.

There have already been encouraging sounds from Xtra, Toronto’s gay and lesbian bi-weekly (get it?), a publication known, until recently, for its very focused coverage of gay matters, with the inauguration of its multi-part series on sex-law reform (and its accompanying petition, for which, see http://www.xtra.ca/site/toronto2/petition/
petitionSubmit.asp). A fight to repeal the indecent theatrical performances law, or to eliminate the final confusing details of the laws that make a minefield out of prostitution would not only make strange bedfellows, it would lose much of the sympathy the recently family-values-oriented gay movements have accrued. It remains to be seen what EGALE, and groups like it, will do (EGALE’s currently advertising for a new executive director). Either route would, given the organization’s track record, almost certainly provide a service. One route, though, could prove downright revolutionary, on a par with, say, winning the right for same-sex couples to marry. Disparate people united by a common, unpopular cause: it could be the start of something.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on June 19, 2003.

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