On July 20 last year, same-sex marriage became legal in Canada. Bill C-38 was pushed through by Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Liberal government as a "fundamental human right". In splendid rolling rhetoric Mr Martin praised his country’s "relentless, inviolable commitment to equality and minority rights". Gays and lesbians would suffer if they were unable to marry, just like other Canadians. The bill sailed through Parliament.
Nonetheless, the issue was intensely controversial, more so than the war in Iraq, according to some politicians. One of the ministers in Martin’s cabinet stepped down rather than vote for the bill.(1) With a Conservative government in power after January’s national election, gay activists suspect that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will try to roll back their hard-won gains. There are fears that Harper even has plans for a law to protect opponents of same-sex marriage. Currently, a justice of the peace who refuses to marry a gay or lesbian couple puts his job on the line. Open critics of homosexual behaviour in Canada now risk prosecution for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.(2)
But is it possible to turn the clock back? This is the question explored by two young film-makers, Eric and Jerome Spoeth, in their thought-provoking documentary C-38: the search for marriage. It examines the principal issues by balancing supporters and critics of the law in talking head shots, interspersed with historical footage. And although the supporters put their case cogently, the deck is stacked against them. The critics are witty, attractive and razour-sharp.
But the true stars of the film are not the activists and academics, but ordinary young Canadians in their parkas and beanies in a shopping mall. There they explain with refreshing candour why they support (most of them) or oppose C-38. This is where you learn why Canada became the third country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage — because most people have no idea of what is at stake. What’s marriage? — "just a ring and a big spiel," says one teenager. Is same-sex marriage immoral? "I don’t believe in right and wrong. They’re not in my reality," says another.
To most of these people, it’s a no-brainer: if two people love each other and want to commit themselves in marriage, why shouldn’t they? Why have you got a problem with that? Wherever you stand on the issue, the superficiality of this line of thought must be dismaying. Surely altering an institution which has endured for thousands of years deserves to be pondered at length. And that is what this film compells its viewers to do.
The interviewer road-tests the views of the voters in the mall with a bit of Socratic inquiry. If love is the only thing necessary for marriage, what about a brother and sister who love each other? The people stop and wrinkle their brows. Hmmm. Hadn’t thought of that. What about a guy who loves his horse? Hadn’t thought of that either.
Even more revealing rejoinders come when people are queried about a guy who has a few lady-loves. Why can’t they get married? "That’s just fine," says one. "I really don’t have a problem with polygamy," says another. Crikey, what would you have a problem with?
The ethical poverty of these answers is disturbing. Gay and lesbian activists insist that same-sex marriage is not a slippery slope to polygamy. But if voters have thought so little about the need for marriage, how can they possibly resist taking another step towards a fuller commitment to equality and minority rights? Polygamy is already a reality in Canada, albeit an illegal one. Last year, the women of Bountiful, an isolated town in British Columbia, held a press conference — shown in the film — to explain its virtues. "Polygamists are a team of players who care for each other," says the beautifully groomed spokeswoman.(3) In the wake of gays’ success, the polygamists are hoping to press the same buttons on Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms so that their own lifestyle can be legalised and respected.
The argument for traditional marriage is not just strong; it’s impregnable. The problem is that voters don’t come to grips with the issues. They need to drop the blinkers of moth-eaten clichés and look at same-sex marriage from all angles. This is why it’s important to back up scholarship and steely reasoning with catchy sound-bites — as this film succeeds in doing. It raises most of the usual questions and gives satisfying answers: Why are children necessary for marriage? What about contracepting couples? What about infertile couples? Why can’t homosexuals be good parents? Why do you need parents of either sex? Isn’t it just about love and commitment? Can’t marriage evolve? Can gays become straight?
The line-up on either side is excellent. In favour of C-38 are a professor of marriage and sexuality, Rev. Charles Bidwell; a prominent AIDS activist, Michael Phair; a steely-eyed, unsmiling human rights lawyer, Julie Lloyd; and the director of Gay and Lesbian Awareness, Murray Billet; who speaks of the pain of walking out on his wife and two children.
The opponents include two Catholic bishops with a flair for epigrams, Thomas Collins and Fred Henry; a priest historian of marriage, John Gallagher; Janet Smith, an expert on the theology of sexuality; and Margaret Somerville, an Australian ethicist who is said to be the smartest woman in Canada (go figure!).
At 77 minutes, the film could use some pruning and some of the editing is a bit amateurish. But on the whole, this is an excellent contribution to one of the great debates of our time. Although its focus is on the situation in Canada, its arguments are just as relevant to the US or Australia.
At one point, the director of Gay and Lesbian Awareness ticks off interviewer Jerome Spoeth. You guys shouldn’t even be making a documentary about C-38, he says. You can’t turn the clock back. It’s time to move on. If enough people see this intelligent documentary, he might be proved wrong.
Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet. C-38, the search for marriage can be purchased on the film’s website for C$22.50. There is also a video clip on YouTube.
(1) "Same-sex marriage law passes 158-133". CBC News, June 29, 2005.
(2) "Tories blasted on same-sex marriage backup plan". Oct 4, 2006. (3) Bountiful polygamists speak up. Canadian Christianity