Monday, October 25, 2010

Political Pains

Americans are very fond of aligning themselves with political parties. Those political affiliations play a large role in defining Americans as people. If you are a Republican, this is more than just a footnote on your personality profile—it becomes a badge of honor that you wear and defend every day. The same holds true with those who are Democrats. Your party affiliation can influence where you shop, where you buy gas, what apolitical charities you support, what clubs you will join, what sports teams back, and who you will befriend. Over 75% of Americans, when they register to vote, register as a member of one party or the other if that option is available in their states. Sure, there are other fringe parties in US politics, but these are either so short-lived or have too small of a membership to hold any significance. And, because there are only two major parties in the US, and because these parties are polar opposites, the social and political divide in the US is massive. I would go so far as to say that there is a lot of anger and hatred between voters of these parties.

In Canada, there are three, and some would argue four or five, major political parties. The comparatively abundant number of viable political philosophies effectively results in less dramatic and obvious polarization in Canada. I have yet to uncover any evidence that Canadians are given the option of registering as a member of a specific party when they register to vote. My conversations with Canadians has led me to make three generalizations that embody the political differences between Canadian and American voters: 1) Canadians are not as committed to parties--they will support a candidate for her beliefs and plans rather than solely based on her party affiliation; 2) Canadians don’t define themselves or judge others on their perceived or actual party affiliations; 3) Canadians who do align with a particular party do not necessarily view this as a permanent state nor do they agree wholesale with all of the positions that party espouses.

I have found these characteristics of the Canadian political landscape to be quite refreshing. While I was in the US, I would, right or wrong, judge someone based on what party they support. Oh, and for those of you who have not lived in the US, it’s easy to tell what party someone supports—Americans are not shy about sharing what many would consider to be very private information. You can tell a lot about Americans' political beliefs by the stickers they put on their cars, the signs they put in their yards, and most of all, the loud verbal broadcasts of their opinions occurring when they are sure that not only are their beliefs the right beliefs, but that everyone around will agree with them and nod approvingly at their wisdom.

I grew up in an area of Michigan that is close to 90% Republican leaning. As I got older and realized that there was almost nothing about the Republican tenets that meshed with my own beliefs, I also realized I was part of a very small minority. I was not really safe speaking out about my own political beliefs on issues unless I was certain I was in the company of like-minded individuals. Otherwise, I would be ganged up on by the Republicans. I became quite adept at identifying the non-Republicans in my midst and making connections. (I need to clarify that I hesitate to call myself a Democrat as I refused to identify a party affiliation when I registered to vote. Although I generally support Democratic candidates, I have no desire to align myself with a party.) I could also very easily identify the Republicans around me as they were not shy about divulging their opinions—why would they be? They’re surrounded by so many like-minded people in West Michigan.

Knowing that the Republican party does not support equal marriage rights (or equal rights for gays in general), and that those who vote for Republicans are essentially voting against my equal rights, created many a dilemma for me during my adult life in West Michigan. How could I be friends with someone who was proudly Republican? Even those Republicans, some of whom are in my own family, who say that they still support Sarah and me, vote against my constitutionally-granted rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness every time they cast a Republican ballot. I kept known Republicans at an arm’s length. I had been hurt too often by “friends” who eventually confided in me that they didn’t really believe I should have the right to marry Sarah, even if it meant me having to leave the country of my birth. They would happily take my tax money, invite me to their homes for dinner, accompany me to festivals. But, what their flagrant political opinions screamed to me was, “Sure, I like you, but I don’t believe that you deserve the same rights that I enjoy.”

If I started to befriend someone new and then gleaned any information indicating Republican inclinations, I would halt the progression of the relationship. After all, how could I ever be myself around that person? How could I introduce my wife without worrying it would make that person (and consequently me) uncomfortable, or even worse, prompt an I-don’t-mind-as-long-as-I-don’t-have-to-see-it, love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin response?

Thinking about the friends I had (and mostly still have) in Michigan, I believe I only had one good friend who was Republican. That relationship was (and still is) trying on many levels, as there are certain topics we can just never discuss. As much as I love this person and value her as a friend, there is always an indescribable barrier that prevents us from being as completely open and honest with each other as we are with our other friends.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit naïve since I’ve moved to Canada. I know that gay marriage is law here and that there are people who aren’t necessarily comfortable with gay marriage. However, even those people, for the most part, don’t outwardly exhibit indicators of their disapproval. I have been buzzing around Canada for two years in ignorant bliss, believing that everyone was okay with Sarah and me. Out of an ingrained fear of a negative reaction, I don’t usually “out” myself to anyone until I have a good reason. Any time I have been upfront with Canadians about my relationshis, the revelation had about as much impact as if I’d told them I drive a blue car.

But, a negative reaction was bound to happen sometime, and I have known this all along. Canadians are more tolerant in general, but there are still those who fear and dislike others who are different. I came face-to-face with this situation earlier this month.

I went to lunch with someone I considered a friend. This guy is extremely friendly, intelligent, and well-read. My own prejudices caused me to assume that anyone who is intelligent is also open-minded. I had noticed a bumper sticker on my friend’s car promoting a certain Canadian political candidate known for being ultra-conservative. I was surprised to see a campaign bumper sticker at all, as this is not a common sight in Canada, and I was even more surprised that someone I thought of as intelligent and open-minded would support such a candidate.

Next, I did something very foolish, something I wouldn’t have done when I was living in the US. He made some joke about his bumper sticker, and then I said, “Are you a Conservative?” [Capital “C” intended here as I am referring to the Canadian party not the adjective.] His startled look in response to my impulsive inquiry caused me to follow up with, “Oh, I don’t know if it’s appropriate to ask that in Canada.”

He smirked and replied, “Yes, I am a Conservative.” I felt that awful sick feeling come over me that I used to get when I lived in Michigan and discovered that someone I liked or admired was a Republican. I remembered that Conservatives in Canada are not usually as right-wing as Republicans, so I gave him a chance to redeem himself in my eyes by asking, “Are you a fiscal conservative or a social conservative?” this time focusing on the rationale for his support of the Conservatives.

He looked me in the eye and said deliberately, “I’m a Conservative.” This response didn’t make me feel any better, so I decided it was time for him to lay all his cards on the table. I swallowed hard and squeaked out, “Do you support gay marriage?” He continued to stare me in the eyes and said unapologetically, without hesitation, “No.”

The sick feeling in my stomach intensified and I couldn’t believe I was actually having lunch with someone who thought I didn’t deserve the rights I had travelled so far to get. He knew about Sarah. He knew my story about having to leave the US. As much as I had to give him credit for being honest with me, I couldn’t look him in the eye. Finally I managed a helpless and weak “Why?” He explained that even though he was not a Christian, he really liked Christian values. I stared at him in disbelief—I know he lives with his girlfriend, and that, in terms of supposed “Christian” morals, his objection to my relationship was inconsistent with his own relationship status. I wanted to point this out, but by this juncture in the conversation, I had already given up on the friendship and didn’t want to belabor the issue.

Was it a mistake to ask him so directly about his beliefs? I don’t know. I guess I feel like, after all I’ve been through and how much I’ve given up to be who I am, I have a right to know how my “friends” perceive me. Was it foolish for me to assume that most Canadians are okay with my “lifestyle”? Definitely. Now I am left to wonder how many of my friends in Canada are actually supportive of Sarah and my relationship. I probably won’t ask anyone else. I’ll just wait until I can observe clues, which will take a bit longer than it did with people in Michigan as Canadians are a bit more private about their beliefs.


Kristy said...

I married a Canadian. I'm an American. My experiance and her experiance with same sex marriage is more like don't rub it in our face approach. She lost a lot of friends in Canada. We live in Ontario in a small town and get plenty of grief. It isn't as in your face as in the states. It is more insidious. Example, last person to be waited on or sat in a terrible section away from people.Discrimination is good and alive in Canada. It just isn't spoke about out loud.

MJB said...

Kristy, funny you should say that. We were out in a rather large city in Ontario this weekend and had some very suspect shoddy service at a restaurant. I couldn't help that it was partially because we were a group of six gals, most of whom would fit what is the common stereotype of gay in appearance.

I guess when it comes down to it, there are different schools of thought on whether it's better to have that type of discrimination in your face or kept quiet. In some ways, I'm happy to not have to be confronted with hatred in Canada as much as I was in the US. On the other hand, there's something to be said for knowing where someone stands right from the start.

Thanks for your comment.


Jen said...

Wow! One thing I love about your blog is how you can cover so much ground in a single post.

My experience of being out and relating to conservatives seems [slightly] different than you MJB and than Kristy. I grew up in Alberta and moved back there for a year with my then partner, now wife, L. Everything there skews right. I, in my first election ever, voted Progressive Conservative (granted, that's different than today's Conservatives) which is so weird to me now but it was a failed attempt at strategic voting (never again). Funnily though, L and I actually [used to] get more hairy eyeballs and overt commentary from passersby in Ontario than we ever did in Alberta. Further evidence that the Ontario experience does not equal the Canadian experience? I did lose friends on coming out (I was brought up Catholic so some of the real devout types were gone in a flash--but was surprised by others).

Anyways, my take on relating to people like the guy you were going to lunch with is that I only expect the minimum standard: tolerance. Not understanding, excitement, enthusiasm, or support just respectful recognition that I can have my beliefs and live my life my way even if they don't agree with me. Which is true right now under the law and would be very difficult for the Conservatives to reverse even with a majority government (though I recognise not impossible, yes, we are mailing away for our Marriage. Certs in case Canada goes the way of California). I figure tolerance opens the door to better understanding that allows people to see new points of view and become more supportive, enthusiastic and then possibly excited about the things in my life (e.g.: my wedding).


Jen said...


I work as a registered nurse and a few of the other nurses are very conservative in their religious practices (e.g.: doing their bible study on the night shift), fiscally (given their opinions on some health care issues), and probably in their voting practices (just a hunch). I've been very out about my wife, our wedding plans and our recent wedding. I've received well-wishes from some folks I'm fairly sure don't really support same sex marriage, but like me and so wished me well, wishes I gladly accepted. Of course this scenario is different than yours as I have to work with these folks and I wouldn't socialise with them outside of a work-related function. The ones I do socialise are overtly supportive. Though not 100%.

One of my co-workers I see socially recently got married too. Younger than me by 12 years, straight, conservative: her dad did the service as he's a minister, parental rules kept her from living with her then boyfriend until they were engaged, etc. When I was planning my wedding she was quite vocal in the "You have to wear a dress to your wedding" camp (pun totally intended). I explained that I only go "in drag" to straight weddings so as not to draw attention away from the bride & groom by conservative friends and family (i.e.:"That wedding was lovely but who was the dyke in the suit?!"). I figure this co-worker is still young, making an effort to form her own opinions & values separate from her parents (god knows I didn't have that down at 23 considering I didn't come out until 25), and by seeing her socially with other more liberal folks at work she will know "homosexuals" that are pretty darn average not all the horrible sinners described by the church she was brought up in.

The other thing is that it took me 10 years or so to finally come out. If it took me 10 years to come around to something that is so fundamental to who I am, I think I should give a bit of leeway to people coming around to/changing their views on gays and lesbians in society and our rights to be out and to marry. For many of them it is something going on to other people that they think [wrongly] doesn't affect them or [even more wrongly] anyone they know. Same sex marriage has only been legal since 2005. That L. and I can walk down the streets of Ottawa now with barely a glance or have conversations and celebrations about our wedding at work still has our heads spinning slightly. I can't imagine what it's like for people who figure I'm the only gay person they know and that homosexuality is a sin (well, I can imagine what that is's like high school for me!). But if I don't interact with them I may never find out and open their minds...

Sorry for the ramble, but my writing isn't as succinct and focused as yours! Cheers, Jen

MJB said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I especially liked your point that "If it took me 10 years to come around to something that is so fundamental to who I am, I think I should give a bit of leeway to people coming around to/changing their views on gays and lesbians in society and our rights to be out and to marry." I should keep this in mind and practice the tolerance I wish to see in others. But, I do kind of draw the line when others' intolerance interferes with my equal rights.

Thanks also for reminding me of the regional differences in Canada, and even Ontario. I do tend to generalize Canadians rather than referring to the Southwest Ontarians with whom I have substantial experience. I've not lived in any other province in Canada, and I've only been to Ontario and Alberta (so far). While I know that Canadians identify with regions, my perception has been that they identify more with their country than their province. The opposite seems to be true for Americans. But that is a whole other topic for a whole other blog post!