The gay divorcée

[originally published in fab issue 432 – August 31, 2011]

It’s hard enough to face a breakup, but for those who’ve been gay-married, getting gay-divorced really sucks. “Of all the other pain and anguish that goes with a relationship ending, it surprised me to feel like I had failed,” says Andrew [his last name withheld]. “I had failed as a gay man, like I was letting the community down.” That idea, he says, “was entirely self-imposed,” but it was a powerful one for someone who had felt “love, hope and joy” in being among the first generation of gay men to legally marry.

It took decades of political struggle for gay and lesbian Canadians to achieve full marriage rights in 2005, but same-sex divorce arrived even before. Ontario had already registered the first divorce in 2004, and earlier marriage-rights activists in the US had witnessed the sad spectacle of bodybuilders Bob Paris and Rod Jackson becoming the 1990s’ poster boys for same-sex marriage before their awkward public breakup, mocked from outside and within the community. As one letter-to-the-editor in The Advocate sniffed, “I have sense enough to know that four perky pecs does not a marriage make.” And all the while, of course, the hackneyed “gay divorcée” phrase has been ubiquitous ever since the 1930’s Cole Porter musical. The queer community has fought hard to have our relationships taken seriously, but it seems respect for our break-ups will take a while.

The cover of The Separation Guide, by Vancouver family lawyer David Greig, helpfully announces, “Information also useful for common-law and same-sex couples!” Greig says the new book was inspired partly by a gay marriage gone wrong. “I had just completed a fairly acrimonious battle between two men who had been in a very long-term relationship, and it was quite a nasty piece of business,” he says. “Fortunately, we were able to resolve it without litigation, but it came close to boiling over several times, so I did have that in the back of my mind while writing.”

“The principles are largely the same,” Greig says. “Whether you’re heterosexual or homosexual, the cold reality is that the divorce process itself is really window-dressing. When most people say, ‘I’ve been through a horrible divorce,’ what they mean is that they’ve been through a horrible separation. The divorce process itself is relatively cheap and easy.”

But it’s still more difficult than it used to be for gays, says Larry [his last name withheld], whose own 1990s marriage began and ended before Canada ever legally recognized it. “We didn’t have any legal paperwork that we needed to sign,” he says. “We just notified the United Church and went our separate ways.” Despite this ease, Larry was frustrated at having no practical support through the process. “There was precious little in the way of couples’ counselling for us,” he says. “We basically had one session at The 519, and that was it.”

“It’s a confusing time,” Andrew says, “because you’re always doubting yourself, even when you’re resolute. Am I doing the right thing? Is it too soon? That’s the emotional side, even as the practical side knows it’s time. It’s like a death; you go through a grieving process.” Ultimately, he says with a laugh, “you just have to keep your head down and keep moving forward. You hear that, Maria Shriver? Don’t let him talk you out of it!

Coming from a lawyer, Greig ’s useful step-by-step advice is surprisingly adamant about not going to court with one. “Litigation is just not a practical alternative for resolution of disputes,” he insists. “Use a lawyer if you must, but don’t pretend it’s okay to have a lawsuit. It’s not! It’s the worst thing you can do to a person. And yet,” he laughs, “it is how I make my living!”

Even a victory in court, Greig insists, won’t come without “an exhausting experience” of incurring massive legal fees, spending countless hours in a courtroom and enduring a lot of nasty, emotionally charged testimony. Most people leaving relationships want less fighting, not more. “It is entirely possible to calmly settle a divorce case,” he writes, and attempting to do so will save both parties a lot of time, money, stress and further heartbreak. “Done correctly, a separation and divorce can be an empowering, invigorating and even liberating event.”

There are, of course, situations where there’s just no way the divorce will be amicable. Greig includes in this partners who are abusive, habitual liars or psychologically unstable (all these being legal terms and not just the names you’ll call your filthy bastard ex to your friends over brunch). Also, he always recommends talking to a lawyer before signing anything. Too many bad deals are made, he says, in the throes of anger, guilt or impatience. In his book he notes how one client declined to pay $500 for tax advice that would have saved him from later having to hand over $60,000 to Revenue Canada.

“Most lawyers will see people for an initial consultation for free,” Greig says. “There’s really no reason for people having relationship trouble to not get some basic information,” especially when the law is always in flux. He points to the “monster case” of Kerr vs Baranow earlier this year, in which the Supreme Court decided on new rules about “unjust enrichment” in dividing wealth between common-law couples.

“Under Canadian law, you have to wait a year between separation and filing for divorce,” Andrew explains, “but that doesn’t mean you have to wait a year to start the process.” About six months after he and his partner separated, he says, “we sort of went around the apartment going, ‘That’s yours, that’s yours, that’s mine,’” while Andrew consulted with his lawyer. “You can change your mind at any point during the process,” he says, “but once they stamp that divorce order, you’re done.” If you’re Larry King, he laughs, you can marry again 30 days later.

Statistics Canada announced this July that, following a 2008 “service review,” it will no longer be collecting data on marriage or divorce rates, so what comes next is a mystery. “It’ll be interesting to see,” says Greig, but in the meantime, “I still think there’s no such thing as a ‘failed’ marriage, same-sex or otherwise. Whatever happens, something good had to be there or you wouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Circumstances change.” It’s worth noting that Bob Paris (quietly) remarried 15 years ago.

Despite everything he went through this year, Andrew says, “I would never disparage anyone for getting married. When it worked, it was wonderful. I felt I had a real, solid foundation under me.” And now? “I’m away from something that wasn’t working, I learned a lot, and now I have an opportunity to start again.”

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About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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