The Coming Gay Rights Letdown

Ten years after Canada passed same-sex marriage, activists there still struggle to convince citizens that major LGBT issues remain. How the U.S. can avoid the post-legalization apathy.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

Celebrate marriage but beware the honeymoon period. That’s the advice that Canadian LGBT leaders and politicians would offer—humbly, of course—to the United States in the aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges.

When the Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide late last month, Canadians largely cheered the decision. Others took it as an opportunity to brag about the forthcoming 10th anniversary of Canada’s Civil Marriage Act, which legalized same-sex marriage in all remaining provinces and territories on July 20, 2005.

“Welcome to the club!” became a popular Canadian Twitter refrain on the day of the decision.

But lost amid the cheers and the not-so-subtle self-congratulation were other, more sober LGBT voices who warned that things across the northern border are not quite as utopic as they seem. Worse, they said, the legalization of same-sex marriage, while necessary and important, may have made their remaining goals more difficult to achieve.

“It gets infinitely harder,” Jeremy Dias told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.

Dias is the director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (CCGSD), formerly known as Jer’s Vision, an organization Dias co-founded in 2005 with the settlement money from a successful human rights lawsuit against his school board, which had denied his request to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA). Since then, the CCGSD has grown into the rough Canadian equivalent of GLSEN, an American organization that focuses on LGBT education and training in schools.

As someone whose work on LGBT issues has primarily taken place after the Civil Marriage Act, Dias was incredulous on the day of the Supreme Court ruling when he saw Buzzfeed circulate a playful list of remaining items on “the gay agenda” comprised entirely of superficial items like “buy cute underwear,” “bring back 2001 Britney,” and “stricter punishment for sandal/sock violators.”

“Are you serious?” Dias said upon seeing the meme. “What about trans people in prison? What about access to surgery and medication? What about poverty? What about racism? What about class and immigration?”

Buzzfeed has posted about next steps in LGBT equality before and after June 26 but, for Diaz, the meme’s widespread circulation on the day of the decision was a perfect encapsulation of “the idea that there is nothing else to fight for, nothing else to do” after marriage.

From his experience in Canada, Dias warns of the “apathy” that can accompany a nationwide same-sex marriage victory, an apathy that only makes his work with the CCGSD more challenging. A large-scale 2011 study found that LGBT students in Canada still experience high rates of verbal, physical, and sexual harassment, leading Dias to conclude that Canada’s culture is far more resistant to change than its laws.

“We haven’t really seen a change in the statistics,” said Dias.

Courting donors to address issues outside of same-sex marriage, he added, has been particularly challenging for Canadian LGBT organizations in the last 10 years. The CCGSD has been lucky to find a place in a post-2005 LGBT landscape, Dias said, but he also made ominous reference to a “slide in donations” that other Canadian organizations have experienced since the passage of the Civil Marriage Act.

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In fact, for some organizations, the Civil Marriage Act almost spelled the end.

“Is there life after marriage? That’s a big question,” Helen Kennedy, the executive director of Egale, told The Daily Beast with a slightly pained laugh.

Founded in 1986, Egale is Canada’s largest and oldest national LGBT advocacy organization, most directly comparable to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in the United States. Like the HRC, Egale invested a large portion of its financial resources in the legalization of same-sex marriage. In hindsight, Kennedy says that Egale “paid a heavy price” for that decision, both in terms of the organization’s future and the needs of the broader Canadian LGBT population.

“From my organization’s perspective, we struggled for the first three years [after 2005],” said Kennedy. “We almost lost the organization,” she added.

Egale survived by refocusing on youth issues, transgender rights, homelessness, violence, and other forms of anti-LGBT discrimination. Last year, the organization opened a counseling center for LGBT youth in Toronto, where nearly 20 percent of homeless people under 21 reportedly identify as LGBT—an alarming overrepresentation of a population that already struggles to find support at traditional homeless shelters. Kennedy told The Daily Beast that 15 to 30 LGBT youth who have been kicked out of their homes visit the center “every single day.”

“These are issues that are pressing, they’re very concerning, and they need attention,” Kennedy said. “But everyone says, ‘You have marriage.’ It’s very difficult to motivate our community around other issues once you have gained marriage.”

Like Dias, Kennedy told The Daily Beast that she encounters “a certain amount of apathy and exhaustion” when trying to engage LGBT and non-LGBT Canadians on these other issues.

“It’s relatable,” she explained, when asked why marriage has been, comparatively, a much easier goal to achieve in Canada. “People who don’t have the lived experience of [being LGBT] have no understanding of the day-to-day struggles that the queer community has to engage in.”

Randall Garrison, an openly gay Canadian member of Parliament (MP) and the official LGBT critic for the New Democratic Party (NDP), offered a blunter explanation.

“Same-sex marriage, in many respects, is the easy one to do,” he told The Daily Beast. “It doesn’t require straight people to do anything. It presents some challenges to those with more conservative religious beliefs but it’s really not that complicated legally.”

For four years, Garrison has been trying to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include protections based on gender identity, most recently with bill C-279, which stalled in the Canadian Senate this February when conservative MPs deployed the usual, unsubstantiated scare tactics about transgender people using the same restrooms as non-transgender people. Ideally, Garrison would like to see more engagement from all LGBT Canadians on issues like transgender discrimination.

“When lesbians and gays fit the box that is not threatening to society, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Well, we’re OK’ and then forget that there are others who don’t fit into that box so easily,” he said.

Despite these setbacks, Garrison seems determined to fit every Canadian into the metaphorical box. While Buzzfeed’s viral “gay agenda” includes such important items as “mandatory brunch” and a “Golden Girls reboot,” Garrison and the NDP are working through a list of concrete legislative goals that they have officially dubbed a “gay agenda”—a feat of naming that would not be possible in the United States, where the phrase is primarily used in a pejorative sense by the religious right.

Of course, the NDP’s “gay agenda” seems remarkably short compared to LGBT priorities in the United States, where considerable gaps remain in anti-discrimination legislation even based on sexual orientation. Many LGBT issues that are cutting-edge in the United States—like transgender inclusion in the military—have already been addressed in Canada.

When asked what counsel he would give to LGBT advocates in the U.S. who now face the issues that Canada has been addressing post-marriage, Garrison, with true Canadian modesty, initially shied away from the task. With prodding, he offered that they should “use that momentum [from marriage] to tackle some of the more fundamental problems.”

It’s advice that seems to resonate with the expressed intentions of U.S. LGBT organizations, although funding may tell a different story in the coming years. On the day of Obergefell, many U.S. LGBT organizations told The Daily Beast that they would turn to the same issues that Canadian organizations like Egale and the CCGSD have been prioritizing for the last 10 years.

If history repeats itself, that could prove to be a difficult transition.