At the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association conference at U of T the morning after Pride Day, Canadian self-satisfaction hangs as heavy in the air as the summer smog.
Lawyers, law profs and activists gathered here to share ideas about how to make the rest of the world more like Canada find themselves in what's become the globe's gayest country, one where the man in charge of the military is a somewhat queenie chap who greets men with a kiss on the lips as he arrives. National Defence Minister Bill Graham has the distinction of throwing a great Pride party, something that could not be said of his U.S. counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld.
But both the strengths and weaknesses of the global gay movement are on display here. On the one hand, advances on relationship recognition are being made throughout western Europe and North America (although most countries still prefer the term "civil union" to marriage). However, for those less privileged parts of the world, the gay movement lacks the vocabulary even to engage in a public debate, let alone the influence to bring about change.
Indeed, the more countries like Canada and now Spain accede to demands for same-sex marriage, the less likely intolerant states may be to cut any slack for their queers, for fear that basic rights today will lead to demands for marriage tomorrow. That may explain the handy little deal the government of Pakistan has made with its queers: "We won't enforce the laws against homosexual activity as long you don't demand civil rights."
To get a sense of the unevenness of queer progress, you only need to look around the room. Virtually all the 75 or so participants are from Canada, the U.S. and western Europe. There is one delegate each from India and the Philippines, three from Israel and none at all from the Muslim world. Last-minute stand-in Toronto immigration lawyer El-Farouk Khaki wasn't even aware of the conference when I spoke to him a week earlier. But here he is today on a panel with two Christians and a Jew pondering the question, Is God Against Human Rights? The answer is no, not even Allah, whose followers, Khaki says, are not the monolithically anti-gay crowd they're made out to be.
"Some of our panels lack gender and racial diversity," ILGLaw president Doug Elliott warns the gathering at one point. But it isn't for lack of trying. "I can't go in search of these people," he tells me.
Elliot recalls in an interview that famed gay South African jurist Edwin Cameron admonished delegates at their last conference three years ago to resist the elitist obsession with weddings and deal with the problems facing LGBT people in developing countries.
Still, most of the airtime at this three-day conference goes to same-sex marriage - how we got it in Canada, who else is close to getting it and how to improve the chances in countries farthest away from getting it. We hear from the activists, their lawyers and even the Chief Justice of Ontario, Roy McMurtry.
But how transportable is the Canadian example to jurisdictions as near to us even as the U.S.? Not very, is the consensus. However, U.S. activist Evan Wolfson says it will be useful for Americans to point to Canada as proof that "locusts do not descend when gays and lesbians are allowed to marry."
While men have sex with men everywhere, how people perceive that varies widely. Aditya Bondyopadhyay, a lawyer from New Delhi, tries to explain to his North American and European colleagues that in India homosex per se is no big deal. Who penetrates whom is what gives the act its meaning. To be the bottom in such a liaison is to take on the feminine role, to become what in Hindi is known as a "kothi."
But kothi is different from gay, he explains. "Gay is having lots of money, going to parties and being able to travel to foreign countries. It's a class identity, not a sexual one." The delegates seem puzzled by this view of sexuality from their colleague, whose work revolves around efforts to have sodomy removed from India's criminal law. India, at least, is one of those countries where it is possible to have a debate on the merits of LGBT law reform, along with neighbouring Bangladesh, where AIDS education funding has been a boon to gay organizing.
On the whole, though, conference participant and director of the international human rights program at U of T's faculty of law Noah Novogrodsky sees an ever widening chasm between conditions in the developed and developing world. He warns against the triumphalism that has greeted the gay marriage victories.
"You're seeing a huge separation between the possibilities in the developed and the developing world," he tells me. "There's a real culture of respect taking root toward gays and lesbians that was unimaginable a few years ago. But in much of the developing world it is more of the same horrific old-style human rights abuse."
Novogrodsky sees no immediate gains elsewhere. "What I'm recognizing is a gulf between the respect for human dignity and fundamental freedom in the developed world and the right to live in the developing world. Connecting those things is difficult."
And will continue to be so as long as the peal of wedding bells drowns out everything else.