The semiotics of same-sex marriage

The most controversial issue in Canadian politics today is same-sex marriage. There is opposition and support coming from all sides, but only one thing is for certain: Every Canadian has an opinion on the subject.


I believe institutionalizing same-sex marriage would be an extravagant measure to take in the name of equality. It is a step that goes beyond the realm of rights and into the sphere of recognition. By recognition, I mean a legitimacy conferred upon people, or groups of people, by a community. Forcing the issue at this point could set back the cause of gay rights.


Compelling change via the courts now, instead of by having a national discussion leading to appropriate legislation, could lead to resentment. Not only from the zealots, but from more moderate individuals who would like to know why marriage is such an important matter for homosexuals.


The Ontario Court of Appeals sought to legalize same-sex marriage by using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically Section 15 which states, "every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability."


The first problem is that marriage, although an important institution, offers neither protection or benefits. In fact, the only practical effect the decision will have on same-sex couples is it will allow them to purchase licenses and register their marriage. If it does nothing practical, if it is more symbolic than anything, can it really be called a right?


This is not a rights case in the way other cases for civil rights were. In other cases, actual harm was being incurred by the plaintiffs or they were prevented from doing something of practical importance. All the benefits and protection of married life have already been given to same-sex couples. These include bereavement leave, health care benefits, pensions benefits, spousal support, name changes and adoption.


A serious aspect of this decision is it will change the meaning of a word that has meant something to the Western world for centuries. Whether activists would like to admit it or not, marriage is an institution embedded in history, and religion, as a heterosexual union. The case passed from being about individuals fighting for rights, to individuals on an active program trying change the way people think. In essence, this case is about societal manipulation and semiotics.


The project of the gay lobby, at this point, is complete recognition of the legitimacy of same-sex relationships. This is a decent and respectable goal, however the recent court decision will not furnish what they are looking for. Recognition cannot be forced. Those who do not accept gay marriage will not do so just because of a court decision.


The church leaders, parents who do not accept their gay children, and others who are homophobic will not change simply because of this decision. The reason recognition is so important to all of us is because it is voluntary.


Perhaps recognition by three judges is enough to those who brought the suit forward. If their goal is societal recognition, however, they should have gone about it in a different fashion.

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