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Interrogating the Epistemology of the Bedroom: Same-Sex Marriage and Sexual Citizenship in Canada

From: Discourse
26.3, Fall 2004
pp. 136-165 | 10.1353/dis.2005.0032

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Discourse 26.3 (2004) 136-165

Same-Sex Marriage and Sexual Citizenship in Canada

Wendy Pearson

[The] culturally central concept [of] public/private is organized so as to preserve for heterosexuality the unproblematicalness, the apparent naturalness, of its discretionary choice between display and concealment: "public" names the space where cross-sex couples may, when they feel like it, display affection freely, while same-sex couples must always conceal it; while "privacy," to the degree that it is a right codified in U.S. law, has historically been centered on the protection-from-scrutiny of the married cross-sex couple, a scrutiny to which [. . .] same-sex relations on the other hand are unbendingly subject. [. . .] The making historically visible of heterosexuality is difficult because, under its institutional pseudonyms, such as Inheritance, Marriage, Dynasty, Family, Domesticity, and Population, heterosexuality has been permitted to masquerade so fully as History itself—when it has not presented itself as the totality of Romance.
—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,"Queer and Now"

With a vote in Parliament due in Spring, 2005, same-sex marriage appears about to become a legal reality across Canada. Although one could argue that bringing lesbian and gay relations in line with idealized heterosexual relations is in fact a conservative move, the possibility of same-sex marriage has created fervent opposition from some quarters, much of it from people who associate the legalization of same-sex marriage with other social trends they dislike, predominantly gender equality. Such critics claim that same-sex marriage will destroy the institution of marriage, damage masculinity and deprive children of the "right" to be brought up in heteronormative families. While the potential impact of same-sex marriage on "traditional marriage" raises interesting questions in its own right, those questions risk deemphasizing the effects of same-sex marriage, not only on lesbian and gay relationships themselves, but on larger issues of sexuality and citizenship. My focus in this article is on the possibility that equalizing marriage might effectively equalize the place of lesbian and gay people within the public sphere and thereby alter the heteronormative definition of what Lauren Berlant calls "iconic citizenship."

I begin with the recent history of the largely unexpected success of campaigns for equal marriage in Canada and its provinces. On December 9, 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered its verdict on three questions that had been referred to it by former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien after the federal government decided not to appeal rulings by two provincial courts that current definitions of marriage discriminate against lesbian and gay couples. Chrétien's government drafted an act to recognize same-sex couples' legal capacity for marriage, but also asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the definition of civil marriage lies within the exclusive authority of Parliament, whether recognizing same-sex civil marriages is consonant with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and whether the Charter protects religious officials from being forced to perform same-sex marriages. The Supreme Court ruled in the affirmative in all three cases, but refused to answer a fourth question, which had been appended early in 2004 by Prime Minister Paul Martin, asking whether limiting marriage exclusively to opposite-sex marriage was consistent with Charter rights. "In effect, the Court said it was inappropriate to answer the question as the federal government had decided not to appeal lower court rulings that upheld same-sex marriages. The Court said the law had effectively changed in six provinces and one territory because the government had not appealed the rulings" ("Supreme Court Decision"). This decision was interpreted by many commentators as the Court's refusal to allow the government to hide its own legislative decisions behind charges of "judicial activism," but also as an indication that the federal government could not do an about-face, even if it wanted to, on an issue it had already ceded.

At the time of the Supreme Court's decision, same-sex marriage was legal in six out of ten provinces and one of three territories. The federal government is expected to introduce legislation in January 2005 to legalize equal marriage throughout Canada. The Conservative government of Alberta has insisted that it will not allow...

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