Equality For Gays And Lesbians Everywhere describes itself as a national organization committed to advancing our rights. It stops short of calling itself “the” national gay and lesbian organization, but, let’s face it, there isn’t another one.
So if EGALE is all we’ve got, what exactly have we got?
True to its name, EGALE has sought formal equal protection rights for gay men and lesbians.
¥ It successfully lobbied the federal government to add “sexual orientation” to the Canadian Human Rights Act.
¥ It intervened in support of Delwin Vriend’s challenge to the provincial Individual Rights Protection Act, arguing that Alberta’s refusal to include “sexual orientation” is a violation of equality rights.
¥ And it lobbied the federal government to include gay men and lesbians in a sentencing law which introduces more severe penalties for those convicted hate crimes such as gaybashing.
EGALE has also focussed on the recognition of same-sex relationships. It has lobbied Ottawa for employment and immigration benefits, and it has intervened in a number of legal cases challenging het-only definitions of “spouse.”
From Jim Egan (and his unsuccessful attempt to challenge the Old Age Security Act) to Nancy Rosenberg (who did force a change to the Income Tax Act) to M versus H (a palimony case still pending before the Supreme Court Of Canada), EGALE has pushed the issue on the legal front. Although the record is mixed, the pendulum appears to be swinging in favour of legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships.
These are all important accomplishments, but EGALE is also defined by what it does not tackle. Less respectable issues – like censorship, sexuality and age of consent – are not part of EGALE’s agenda.
¥ Canada’s national lesbian and gay organization did not intervene in the Little Sister’s case. The Vancouver bookstore challenged Canada Customs for its discriminatory targeting of homo publications.
¥ It did not intervene in the Ontario case challenging the discriminatory age of consent for anal sex (it’s 18, but 14 years for straight sex).
¥ Unlike the CBC and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, EGALE did not lobby against the child pornography law (which introduced a ludicrously sweeping definition of kiddie porn and criminalized possession).
¥ It did not get involved when the Surrey School Board in British Columbia banned gay-positive children’s books from libraries and classrooms.
These issues are all a little more radical, a little more controversial, a little more on the edge of gay and lesbian politics – and these issues are, apparently, outside of EGALE’s self-defined political agenda.
It isn’t hard to understand why EGALE has stayed clear. The group sticks to the straight and narrow, the “nice” rights. Its issues are more respectable, more mainstream, more marketable.
EGALE represents itself as the unthreatening face of the gay and lesbian community, the face that looks just like mainstream Canadians. It’s gay and lesbian politics without the nasty edge – basically, without sex.
There’s nothing wrong with a gay and lesbian organization running with the mainstream, of course. Unless it’s the only organization we’ve got.
Every movement needs a Malcolm X. Every movement needs a more radical voice, which dares speak the words that the mainstream doesn’t want to hear, because without a radical voice demanding radical change, a whole lot of folk will be left out along the way.
Many political movements have understood the need to operate inside and outside of the mainstream. The AIDS movement in Toronto, for example, had two voices – a moderate voice from the likes of the AIDS Committee Of Toronto, and the more militant screeching of AIDS Action Now. The militants kept the moderates honest, trying to make sure that the moderates didn’t compromise too much, demand too little, or leave sex entirely off the table.
EGALE has been successful precisely because it is mainstream; precisely because it presents an unthreatening face. It is a decent, fit and proper face of the gay and lesbian community.
But if legal recognition requires respectability, then those who refuse to abide by these mainstream standards are left behind. It deserts those who can’t, or won’t, assimilate – drag queens or SM leather dykes or others who define their identities and politics in unapologetically sexual terms – outside the gates of Eden.
So, as long as EGALE is our only national group, as long as it aspires to speak on behalf of gays and lesbians everywhere, then maybe it needs to push itself a little harder. It is considering getting involved in the Little Sister’s case and maybe, the Surrey book banning case.
If EGALE doesn’t push itself, maybe it should admit that it doesn’t speak for “Gays And Lesbians Everywhere,” but only respectable, not too sexual, gay men and lesbians. Then, we need to find another voice that doesn’t fear to venture into the steamier areas of gay and lesbian equality.
EGALE is at 306-177 Nepean St, Ottawa K2P 0B4; or call (613) 230-1043. For EGALE’s computerized listserve, send a message to [email protected], with “help” in the subject line.
Brenda Cossman is an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of law.