Jane Ahlin column: Canadians put same-sex marriage on our doorstep

Does it matter that Canada legalized single-sex marriage? Absolutely. It brings controversial social change -- sanctioned by a nation Americans respect -- up close.

Does it matter that Canada legalized single-sex marriage? Absolutely. It brings controversial social change -- sanctioned by a nation Americans respect -- up close. With Canada on our doorstep, we will see first-hand the effects (or lack of them) that same-sex marriage brings to bear on a society much like our own.

While a strong stand against homosexuality energizes the Christian right, mainstream America has become much more tolerant over the past few decades.

Instead of the old-style notion of "deviant behavior," homosexuality is now seen by most Americans as a genetic characteristic, such as brown hair or big feet. And like hair that is dyed or feet put into shoes too small, the genetic reality of sexual orientation can be hidden but not changed. Particularly, there is understanding for protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

While the notion of same-sex marriage is not popular in America, a majority of citizens think discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace and in housing is wrong. And a good share of Americans believe that sex between consenting adults behind closed doors is nobody's business but their own.

And yet, at this point, Vermont is the only state to legalize "civil unions" of like-gender couples -- unions which are legal but do not carry all the rights accorded to married couples. Partly because social conservatism tied to right-wing Christianity has become the driving force of the Republican party and partly because changing in-grained biases never happens easily, opposition in many states remains strong.


As a result, legislatures in at least half the states have tried to preempt moves toward sanctioning homosexual unions by passing "Defense of Marriage Acts" which clearly define marriage as a union of two people of opposite gender.

Of course, history shows that defensive laws figure into the process of change. Segregation and Jim Crow laws are one example. But examples having to do with the government's role in regulating sexual morality also resonate. For instance, states had various laws about birth control until 1965 when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that the government could not regulate a couple's form of birth control.

And until 1967 when the Supreme Court declared the miscegenation laws unconstitutional, many states not only did not allow interracial marriage but also refused to recognize the interracial marriages of couples from other states where those marriages were legal.

Of course, nothing points up resistance to change when the subject is sexual mores more than the most recent North Dakota Legislature. Although POSSLQ (persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters) has been part of the lexicon of government documents for over a decade, the North Dakota legislature chose to keep a law prohibiting co-habitation on the books, a law they knew full well was meaningless.

In Canada, as in the United States, marriage and family have grown more and more complicated over the past few decades. Divorce is prevalent, single people adopt, singles and couples become parents through surrogacy or in-vitro fertilization. But it was not single-sex marriage that brought about any of those changes, nor is it single-sex marriage that threatens the future of marriage as an institution.

Gays and lesbians don't want to keep others from getting married; they simply want to be able to get married themselves. Canada decided that once religious beliefs were removed from the equation, logic and fairness came down on the side of marriage as a legal civil commitment between two adults regardless of gender.

But fairness isn't the only question. Especially in America, economics always is an issue. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida argues that "the 3 Ts of economic development" are "Technology, Talent, and Tolerance." Calling gays "the canaries of the Creative Age," he shows that the most innovative, vibrant, and successful communities in America are the same communities where gays and lesbians feel welcome. More than an exercise in fairness, diffusing prejudice pays off.

Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. E-mail

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