Northern neck: Gay marriage boosted... by Canada

One of the most exciting and pivotal events to happen in years to the gay rights movement in the United States just occurred– in another country entirely.

Canada, soon expected to legalize same-sex marriage, is hardly the first nation to recognize unions between gay men and between lesbians. But, for Americans, the decision is monumental for the simple reason that Canada is right in our backyard.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether such marriages would be legally recognized here, and litigation will likely ensue for years to come. But the cultural impact from Canada's action will release a blast a hundred times stronger than the Arctic air masses our neighbor to the north regularly sends down.

What seemed like something very far off– legal sanction of same-sex relationships in America at the federal level– suddenly looks much closer. That's thrilling and hugely significant because marriage rights are among the last bastions of inequality between gays and straights, encompassing everything from tax laws and inheritance to adoption and immigration rights.

There is no logical reason to keep gays from getting married. All that opponents can come up with are emotion-charged moralistic arguments. They may make some people feel good, but in the end they just don't wash. The spectrum of legal recognition of gay relationships includes marriage rights for gays, Vermont-style civil unions (which confer many of the benefits of marriage without recognition on the federal level, where hundreds of benefits are conferred upon married individuals) and domestic partnerships laws.

Just a few years ago, domestic partnership laws– piecemeal items that often offer gay couples some very basic rights, such as hospital visitation, funeral leave and health coverage– were seen by many as radical, while civil unions and same-sex marriage were completely unheard of.

For Democratic politicians today, supporting domestic partnership laws is the safest, most conservative concession regarding recognition of gay relationships. Several Democratic presidential nominees support civil unions.

With the Canadian decision, the edge of the debate will shift even further to full marriage rights, accelerating the legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the United States, simply because of Canada's proximity.

The only countries that currently recognize gay relationships nationally are in Europe, which to most Americans may as well be a million miles way. Denmark, France, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden offer similar legal status to civil unions. Both Belgium and the Netherlands offer full marriage rights for gays and lesbians but don't allow non-citizens to marry unless they have been residents for a specified period of time.

Canada, however, is a country with which we share culture– from the English language to Austin Powers (Mike Myers), Baywatch (Pamela Anderson), and Celine Dion. And unlike the other countries that recognize same-sex marriage, Canada's proposed law will allow Americans or citizens of any other country to marry in Canada, with no specific residency requirements.

Lesbian and gay Americans may enter Canada one day and come back as husband and husband or wife and wife the next, even if they may face discrimination and opposition once they get home. The Canadian side of Niagara Falls, for instance, with its gambling casino and hotels, could very well become a gay Las Vegas, with quickie weddings for gay Americans.

As the battle for same sex marriage continues in the United States– the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is currently deciding a case while a new one has been launched in New Jersey on behalf of seven gay couples– Canada could also provide a stunning example of how same sex marriage works. All of the apocalyptic warnings about same-sex marriage from Christian right leaders will be proved false simply by our looking to a giant experiment up north, up close.

The dire predictions, claiming that allowing gays to marry will destroy the institutions of marriage and the family, will likely be laughed off as time goes on. American public opinion will continue to change in favor of marriage rights for gays as people see that the threats to heterosexual marriage– which has its own problems these days that have nothing to do with gays– were completely bogus.

That doesn't mean there aren't big roadblocks ahead. Religious conservatives in Congress have been trying to build up steam to pass an amendment to the Constitution expressly forbidding recognition of same-sex marriage, further solidifying the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The U.S. Supreme Court on June 26 struck down sodomy laws targeting gays.

The United States is embarrassingly behind other democracies on the issue of equal rights for gay men and lesbians. Still, legal recognition of gay relationships in America is only a matter of time. And this week it inched a lot closer.

Signorile has earned acclaim for his three books: Life Outside, Outing Yourself, and Queer in America. This essay, distributed by the Featurewell service, originally appeared in Newsday.