The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in America last week and the gay community is finally on a collective honeymoon. While many celebrated at Pride festivals and on social media, the critics have already emerged.
And no, I’m not just referring to Senator Ted Cruz, who called the ruling to create an equal society “the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” Progressive columnists are questioning whether the landmark ruling drowns out more pressing areas of discrimination, such as housing and employment. “Was marriage even the right fight to pick?” they ask.
Canadians can offer some guidance. After all, 10 years ago this month, we became the fourth nation on Earth to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. If the U.S. looks to our example, it could learn a lot from Canada’s fight for gay rights.
America is going about this backwards. Though everyone now has the right to marry, only 21 states plus the District of Columbia have anti-discrimination laws. In more states than not, a woman can still be fired from a job or denied housing for being a lesbian. Basic rights before vows, people. Before Canada legalized gay marriage, sexual orientation was included in the Canadian Human Rights Act and protected in the equal rights section of the Charter by the mid-90s. That meant politicians and activists had a strong framework from which to secure same-sex couples the same social and tax benefits as those in straight, common-law relationships. When gay marriage was legalized, every province was required to include sexual orientation in its human rights legislation. While same-sex marriage is fabulous, U.S. policymakers still need to fill in many key stepping stones on the path to equal rights.
While we definitely have bragging rights, the U.S. can also learn from our mistakes. Bryn Hendricks, who’s been an LGBT activist with organizations such as Egale Canada for the past decade, says Canada’s same-sex marriage victory “brought a sense of complacency” to the LGBT movement. He remembers how the activists who fought for the ruling were exhausted after the win and says they have still yet to mobilize in the same way for other LGBT rights.
Yet there’s still a lot to fight for. Take Bill C-279, which seeks to protect transgender people under the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code. It’s been stalled in the Senate for two years – the most recent hang-up being the Conservative fear that biological men will act like creepers if they win the right to enter women’s bathrooms. Because of the time lag, the bill will likely die before the next federal election.
It’s harder to create public enthusiasm for issues that aren’t as sexy as marriage. People are less likely to pop champagne over the fight to decrease high rates of LGBT homelessness or suicide. But there’s a danger in that. In a recent New York Times column, Timothy Stewart-Winter asked: “Will even a fraction of the energy and money that have been poured into the marriage fight be available to transgender people, homeless teenagers, victims of job discrimination, lesbian and gay refugees and asylum seekers, isolated gay elderly or other vulnerable members of our community?”
The good news is that the right to marry will have a powerful effect on social attitudes. In the five years before same-sex legislation passed, about one-third of Canadians supported the union of Adam and Steve, according to the Environics Institute. In 2010, that number grew to include almost half of the population and in 2015, a Forum poll concluded that 70 per cent of Canadians support same-sex marriage. Canada is proof that over time, even the most staunch Adam and Evers can mellow out. Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Harper, recently conceded that though he’s still opposed to gay marriage, resistance is futile. His Sun column reads like an exhausted parent justifying his teenager’s mohawk to fellow conservatives over brandy: “Times have changed. People have changed. Views on marriage have changed.” Indeed-y.
America deserves to enjoy this moment in history. But once the bubbly runs dry it’s time for activists and politicians to get back to work. They’d be wise to look North for some advice.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen