Friday, April 1, 2011

Why Thee Wed? (National Film Board of Canada, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a movie that proved to be especially appropriate for our anniversary (one of them — we have two, the one we started seeing each other 16 years ago, March 31; and the actual wedding day, July 4, which we like to call our “Dependence Day”): Why Thee Wed?, a 2006 production from the National Film Board of Canada about the eight Gay and Lesbian couples who sued and won the right to marry from the provincial government of British Columbia. The film was quite well done and especially compelling in that it acknowledged the division within the Queer community (and one of the many things the writer/director, Cal Garingan, did right was use the word “Queer” as an inclusive term for our community instead of those ghastly initials “LGBT”!) over whether marriage, as historically defined for heterosexuals and gradually and often grudgingly redefined as straight people’s conceptions of their own relationships have changed, was an appropriate institution for same-sex couples.

I must admit to having had some of those misgivings myself — less over the appropriateness of marriage than a sense of fear that if same-sex marriage becomes legally recognized and socially acceptable, Queer people who choose not to marry will be under the same kinds of pressures to do so that straight people who choose not to marry are under now. (We’ve all heard the line: “Why don’t you find yourself a nice boy and settle down?” In a future where same-sex marriage has transcended the current battling and become commonplace — assuming that does indeed happen — Gay men will hear that just as straight women do now, and Lesbians will hear the same thing as straight men: “Why don’t you find yourself a nice girl and settle down?”)

Garingan chose a fascinating character as his anti-marriage spokesperson: Jane Rule, the Canadian Lesbian author who wrote the novel on which the film Desert Hearts was based (and certainly her anti-marriage attitudes explain why she set the book in a Nevada resort for divorcées!), who’s from the first generation of the feminist revival in the 1960’s and has the attitudes towards marriage typical of that time: that it’s inherently a patriarchal institution, historically designed to repress women in general and women’s sexuality in particular, and it brings with it a whole set of assumptions about relationships (including that they’re going to last the rest of your life, which is untrue about most marriages today — she trotted out the familiar statistic that over half of all today’s marriages end in divorce, though I daresay if you counted the total number of people who get married rather than the total number of marriages, you’d find a majority of married people who do remain together for life: what I suspect is happening is that people who get divorced two, three or more times are skewing that “ … of today’s marriages” statistic in the direction of making marriage failures seem more common than they are).

He does a good job reviewing the history of marriage and, though he virtually ignores polygamy (a key part of the real “traditional Biblical definition of marriage”), he does focus on the fact that marriage was invented in the first place to allow men effectively to own women’s bodies so they could be sure that any children borne were theirs and no one else’s — and that in traditional marriage not only was the woman’s body owned outright by the man but so were their children. (I still find it shocking that it was not until 1977 that, under pressure from feminists, the California rape law was changed so that it no longer defined rape as a man other than her husband forcing a woman to have sex with him; it seems outrageous that during my lifetime — during my adult lifetime! — it was legal in my home state for a man to rape his wife.) Garingan covers the opposition to marriage from the usual religious zealots, though he doesn’t cover them as extensively as an American filmmaker would have and I suspect it’s because in Canada they simply don’t have the enormous resources and clout they have here — and there’s a poignant moment in the film in which Garingan, acting as his own narrator, notes that for some reason Asian-Canadians were the majority of the people opposing same-sex marriage on religious grounds, which upset him in particular because he is both Gay and Asian.

What makes Why Thee Wed? as good as it is is its conversational tone; Garingan is pretty clear about his own position but he wants to be able to understand people who disagree with him, and he’s got a positive knack for dealing nonjudgmentally with issues that would send an American filmmaker on either side of the ideological divide straight to the soapbox. Probably the most poignant story is that of Murray and Peter, a couple who met 30 years before in London and who were both heavy-duty alcoholics until Peter crashed his car while driving under the influence, which caused them to turn their lives around and find religion — which in turn cost them a lot of their Queer friends who wanted nothing to do with religion in general and Christianity in particular — though they found a Queer-friendly (and mostly Queer) church called the Renaissance Christian Church and were married by the minister who regularly preaches there (and who estimates that 99 percent of his congregation is Queer).

Almost no mention is made of the controversy over same-sex marriage in the U.S. — just one comment from a member of one of the couples that he hopes the ease with which same-sex marriage became legal in Canada will serve as an inspiration to “our friends south of the border” — and indeed this film is indicative of how issues that are still bitterly fought on this side (and with the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives and various state governments on an ideological roll as they cope with the pent-up demands of the religious Right to get some of their issue priorities enacted along with the lassiez-faire economics and the deep slashes in government spending — reason why we’re getting anti-abortion legislation that verges on the demented, and in the case of the license-to-kill-abortion-doctors law one state legislator introduced, goes over) have long since been settled by our friends north of the border.

Not only have they instituted marriage equality with relatively little Sturm und Drang, but this film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada — itself an indication of the huge gulf in political sanity between Canada and the U.S., given how industriously the Republican majority in the U.S. House is working to put an end to public financing of public broadcasting altogether in what I suspect is not only an ideological objection (the idea that all business should be privately owned and controlled and the public sector has no right to be involved in broadcasting or any other sort of business) but also a desire to drive out even the most mildly liberal ideas from America’s media marketplace so the only voices Americans will ever hear on any political or ideological issues will be those of talk radio, Fox News and the radical Right in general.