Gay Marriage and the Limits of a Rights Discourse – Shar Cranston-Reimer

This story has been circulating in my head for coming up on two years now and has many parts. My goal here is to put a bunch of factors together to look at the complexity of an experience and to try to make some sense of it in relation to the topic of queer rights, though I am referring to rights discourses generally. The statement I am most trying to refute here is the one in which non-queer (though sometimes also queer) people try to assure me that things are so much better than they used to be for queer people, in addition to the argument that LGBTQ people’s well-being hinges on access to rights, especially those regarding marriage.

1.

I got (gay) married in the spring of 2014. It was a difficult decision to make in many ways – I never imagined myself getting married. But my partner and I realized that we wanted a family, and though our ‘rights’ suggest that there should be no issue with that, I was scared. I will admit that I like a party, and it was a lot more fun than I expected. But the core of it was our – especially my – fear that laws can change quickly. If we were lucky enough to have kids and something happened to me (who we hoped would carry them), could we be sure that my partner, who wouldn’t have a biological relationship to the baby, would be seen as their parent and guardian?

What if?

Things can change really fast, and though marriage is a deeply flawed institution, we felt that it offered the potential of some protections should the worst happen. When I started having nightmares about the consequences of living in Russia, a place where I see a rapid social shift with regard to the treatment of LGBTQ people happening, my mind was made up.[1] Some might call it paranoid or ‘looking for’ oppression – marginalized people have these claims launched at them all the time – but, you’ll have to trust that I’ve seen enough. This is not mere paranoia. (And, if you’re thinking along these lines, you might ask yourself why you’re hesitant to trust my description of my experience or other marginalized people’s descriptions of theirs.) I didn’t want to find out the hard way.

2.

As you’ve probably noticed, my partner and I don’t call each other ‘wife’ (except strategically). My objection is feminist – the history of women as property in marital contexts – while hers is more about her gender presentation not lining up with the word and having no real interest in reclaiming or redefining the term. We will use it, though, when our relationship is questioned or is not being read correctly. It’s a site of privilege, and we manipulate that privilege from time to time, like at a doctor’s office, where our ‘rights’ may come second to standard operating procedure.

3.

To make sure that we made visible our feelings about gay marriage rights, particularly insofar as many queer people see marriage as a dangerous institution in which to engage, we decided to build some of our discomfort with getting married into our wedding ceremony. We tried to express that we value a range of kinds of relationships and do not see ours as more ‘valid’ than any other, but that this was a decision we felt we had to make. Now, don’t get me wrong: I got told how pretty I looked all day, and that doesn’t hurt. We were in a financial position to have a (small-ish) wedding, and I bought a dress (though not a white one) that I love, and I wore it proudly. But we wanted people to know that we were not strictly buying in to the promise of being ‘normal,’ with a white picket fence and all. Though, admittedly, our lives are pretty heteronormative.

4.

Buying the dress was an experience that made my relationship to rights further visible. Before I go there, though, let me back up a bit to give you some context. As we know, we live in a profoundly racist, sexist, homophobic, ablest world. I’m a white, reasonably gender-conforming (so am generally assumed to be straight), able-bodied woman, so I get through the vast majority of spaces with relative ease. While I experience plenty of sexism, I generally feel equipped to handle it, based on my decades of experience with said sexism. I’m always looking for better approaches to making spaces safer both for myself and for my loved ones, many of whom occupy sites of marginalization that I don’t share, however. One strategy I began employing a few years ago was calling ahead to spaces I might enter (and into which I might invite my loved ones) in order to ask how the space handles queer people and people of colour; basically, I ask if they are racist homophobes.

Doing so accomplishes a few things in my view: first, it puts people on notice about how I expect myself and my guests to be treated. While I can’t guarantee my loved ones a safe space, this is one way that I try to ensure a safer space for them. Asking this question also gives me some leverage if things do go off the rails. And, finally, I hope that putting the topic of discrimination on the table explicitly opens a dialogue by asking people to think carefully about how these issues work (in order to avoid the ‘I didn’t know’ kind of response after a hateful incident). This is, of course, not foolproof, and it relies heavily on my sites of privilege to work – my whiteness and educational background surely inform my sense of entitlement to ask these questions – but this is one way that I try to use my privilege for good and to mitigate some pain and discomfort for myself and my loved ones.

I used this practice throughout most of our wedding planning, as I wanted to avoid homophobia and racism as much as possible. I usually soften the question by phrasing it as follows: “I hate to have to ask this, but I wanted to be sure that [your space] is comfortable working with queer people and people of colour.” People are generally horrified by the suggestion otherwise, but I then explain to them that despite what the laws say, I’ve witnessed and experienced enough to know that it’s important to ask. And even though I do ask these questions, the subtle micro-aggressions persist, usually in the form of ‘tolerance.’

Some people think asking these questions is ‘tough’ or ‘edgy’ of me, and I don’t think they’re wrong. But the truth is that I do it because it’s a coping strategy that works for me. It is a way to reduce some of the weight and the pain that I carry and feel as a result of the world we live in. It helps me feel brave and like I can continue to fight. Most importantly, this is a way that I put the safety of myself and my loved ones ahead of the ‘politeness’ that gets socially value ahead of our rights.

5.

When dress-shopping in Winnipeg (my hometown, which has been the subject of much discussion of race relations in particular of late), there was very little subtlety in the discrimination I encountered, though it wasn’t directed at me. In this moment, it was a generalized transphobia (and maybe some homophobia regarding cis-men) I encountered. I was booking an appointment in a bridal shop (I won’t name them, as I do not think that this is an isolated incident – they are just the ones that said it out loud) to try on some dresses, and I mentioned to the staff person I spoke to that I’m queer in order to ensure that that wouldn’t be a problem. The staff person assured me that that was fine, since I’m not a man.

As you can imagine, I was surprised by this statement and pushed her on it. She stated that it was the management’s policy to keep the shop as a ‘women only’ space to avoid making other customers uncomfortable. I don’t know what they mean by ‘man’ – whether that was a (presumably) queer cis-man who wanted to wear a dress or a trans*woman whose womanhood they imagined would be objectionable to other patrons. I can’t imagine they would’ve asked anyone’s straight male fiancé to leave, though.

I tried to get a hold of management a couple of times to find out, but (not surprisingly) I received no response. In these communications, I asked why gender presentation would matter in who would be welcome to try on a dress? I mentioned that gender presentation is protected by the human rights code. I asked what it means to refuse service to one person for the sake of the ‘comfort’ of another? I asked about non-binary people, and I also mentioned the story from the summer of 2013 in which a Saskatoon bridal shop refused service to Rohit Singh based on her gender. Needless to say, I didn’t shop there.

6.

My partner had a very different experience picking out a suit. First and foremost, her sartorial choices were explicitly questioned and policed. A woman who works at a business that my partner has patronized for years (and so is very familiar with her rather masculine gender presentation) even went so far as to inform my partner – unsolicited – that “it’s stupid” when queer women couples don’t both wear dresses to get married. This kind of thing happened over and over.

Aside from these direct attacks, she would be totally ignored in suit shops unless accompanied by a male relative who would trade on his privilege to get her service that one wouldn’t call more than mediocre. There was very little fanfare, except from me, at home, as we had decided not to show each other our outfits. Again and again, she was undermined both passively and actively, rendered invisible.

She’s not the type to call ahead to ask if people are racist homophobes, and no one should have to be. Despite what the laws say, she bears the weight of these aggressions and micro-aggressions. She knows, of course, that this is the system, and that it is not about her. But I can tell you that it breaks my heart to know that anyone would treat her or anyone else like she’s nothing. I see the toll that it takes, and I love and am so proud of the courage that she shows, getting up every single day, knowing that she is going to fight that battle without knowing from which direction it will come.

7.

This is all an indication to the social world we live in. And we know the limits of a rights framework – many people discuss it far more eloquently than I have here. Rights frameworks tend to see injustice as an individual issue, rather than seeing it systemically. Legal rights are not without some merit, but they cannot be seen as the site at which we are going to see wide scale social change. As Dean Spade suggests, they are – at best – a part of that struggle, but can also do more harm than good (Normal Life 101). Because of my sites of privilege, it is not likely that I will experience the worst effects of any of this, but living in a society that believes so fully in rights as an indication of dramatic social shifts is harmful to all of us. I have told you some parts of our story about marriage rights in hopes that if you haven’t thought much about them, you might reconsider the effects of rights discourses. Rights are tangible in a way that many social changes are not, but it is imperative to recognize their limits.

So, as you may have guessed, I don’t believe that things have gotten ‘better,’ and even if they have, better than what? Relativity is not what I’m interested in. I can only speak for my experience, but it seems to me that things are just different. The codes through which aggressions and micro-aggressions are expressed have shifted, but many of us face similar or related problems to ones that the majority of society tell us have been solved. We need to ask ourselves where this investment in believing things have improved comes from, and why people are so defensive in their insistence about it, particularly with regard to rights. We urgently need to figure out how and why these investments override the experiences of discrimination that people dare to share. What does that tell us about the world we live in?

[1] In saying this, let me also say that I don’t mean to set up a dichotomy between a safe ‘here’ and an oppressive ‘there’ – wherever that ‘there’ may be. As Jasbir Puar shows us particularly with regard to dominant discourses surrounding the Middle East, this dichotomy is common, false, and supports western imperialism.

Shar Cranston-Reimer earned a PhD from the Department of English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University and received an award from the Canadian Studies Network – Réseau d’études canadiennes (CSN-RÉC) for her dissertation Building New Worlds: Gender and Embodied Non-Conformity and Imagining Otherwise in Contemporary Canadian Literature. In her dissertation–named by the CSN-RÉC as Best PhD Dissertation in Canadian Studies (2015)–Cranston-Reimer studies non-normatively gendered and embodied characters in contemporary Canadian fiction through detailed and close analysis of Lucy (Not Wanted on the Voyage), Evie and Miranda (Salt Fish Girl), and Fur Queen (Kiss of the Fur Queen).