As I write these words, the votes in Ireland are being counted. There, for the first time, a national referendum is being held to approve or deny the right of gay marriage. If approved that right will be entrenched in the constitution. The early returns suggest a massive victory for the yes side, a tremendous thing in one of the traditionally most catholic countries in the world.
Canada was one of the leaders in providing the right to marriage to gay couples. It did not come about as a result of a referendum or even, initially, because of the actions of politicians — except indirectly. In 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted and made part of the constitution. One of its most powerful clauses — overriding everything else — is Section 15 which provides equality to all citizens and in particular enshrines the equality of men and women.
When judging the legality of the Federal Marriage acts, courts asked a very simple question. If a man can marry a woman, doesn’t the equality provision mean that a woman can marry a woman and vice versa. The equality provision had already transformed the status provisions of the Indian Act that deprived women of status if they married a non-status man (but didn’t impact a male the same way). It had also led to major victories in the area of equal pay for work of equal value, so it was clear that the court’s answer would be yes. Marriage equality was an essential part of the equality of the sexes.
Ontario courts were the first to reach this conclusion. The effect was immediate and dramatic. Gay couples began to get hitched right across the province. The celebrations were long and loud and full of joy. I know, because I was living in the part of Ottawa called the gaybourhood.
It had an interesting impact on me personally. I had been married three times already; my partner had left a very long marriage to be with me. We were both skeptical about the value or the meaning of marriage. But watching the sheer joy of people celebrating what they had been long denied — the right to make a public declaration of their love and commitment — changed our minds. Gay marriage actually restored our faith in the institution, something I take great pleasure in telling my more conservative friends. A year or so later — well before Parliament debated and passed the Civil Marriage Act, Liz and I got married. It’s been over a decade for us and for gay marriage. Civilization has not ended — in fact it has expanded as more and more countries have recognized that gay marriage is a fundamental right.
While there have been set-backs in the Africa and Russia — places not always know for their embrace of human rights, a change is coming. Eventually, the rights of gays will no longer be headline news. Not even in the darkest places in the world.
Because that is how progress works — first with a trickle and then with a rush. And those who were once excluded — women, blacks and now gays — become just like everyone else. Able to seek their own joy — or make their own mistakes — just like you and me.
And that’s ten minutes.