Canada

Marriage Vows

Canada’s gays and lesbians are mounting a strong fight for the legal right to be wed

John Nicol December 25 2000
Canada

Marriage Vows

Canada’s gays and lesbians are mounting a strong fight for the legal right to be wed

John Nicol December 25 2000

Marriage Vows

Canada

Canada’s gays and lesbians are mounting a strong fight for the legal right to be wed

John Nicol

Joe and Kevin, Anne and Elaine have rings signifying their bonds: the mens white gold and blue sapphires, the women’s white gold etched with one wolf chasing another underneath a moon. Looking through their wedding albums, they eagerly point to friends and family who made to their special days, and express regret over those who couldn’t. They can describe in detail what they wore and what the weather and music were like. They have everything— except registered marriage licences making their gay unions legal. In August, 1999, Kevin Bourassa, 42, exchanged vows with Joe Varnell, 31, just as Elaine Vautour, 43, did with

Anne Vautour, 38, a year later (Anne had legally changed her last name before the ceremony). On Jan. 14, the four friends plan to do it all over again in a double wedding at a Toronto ecumenical church—and use an Ontario law to challenge 134-year-old federal legislation that denies their marriages legal status. There is no guarantee they will succeed, but as Elaine, a theology student who works at a Toronto homeless shelter says, “It needs to be done.”

At stake for the two couples is the removal of what they feel is the last impediment to the acceptance of gays by the greater community. Their method of achieving that goal—state-recognized marriage for gays—is the old Christian tradition of banns, the public announcement of an impending marriage. Both couples are in the midst of having their intention to marry read out in the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto on three successive Sundays (founded in Los Angeles in 1968, the church’s congregations are mostly gay). If that is done without challenge, says Ontario law, they can be wed and issued marriage licences. But if authorities refuse to register the marriages, their double wedding eventually will join

17 other legal challenges to federal legislation that does not recognize same-sex unions. “There is no doubt that all the challenges will end up at the Supreme Court of Canada,” says Barbara Findlay, a Vancouver lawyer and lesbian activist who is representing three of the couples. Findlay maintains that the denial of marriage rights to same-sex partners violates Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “It’s hard

to think of a way it can be justified in a free society,” she says.

Opponents to gay marriages, though, aren’t about to concede defeat. For one thing, church ceremony and marriage licence notwithstanding, they must subsequently be registered with the provincial government. And Ontario Consumer Minister Bob Runciman says that isn’t about to happen—the marriages will not “qualify to be registered because of the federal legislation.” Peter Schonenbach, general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, maintains that legal, philosophical, religious and social traditions have reinforced marriage “as a public commitment between a man and a woman.” But Bourassa, a manager at the CIBC’s Toronto head office, counters that “marriage is an institution about love, respect and trust. Everybody can understand love. This is about people trying to join their lives together. I hope

people are beginning to see beyond this being two men and two women.”

Succeeding in their cause, the two couples believe, will help younger gays who are struggling to accept their sexuality. Elaine said she was once engaged to marry a man, but could not go through with it because it would have meant living a lie, as many gays have

done, just to conform to society’s standards. “Wouldn’t it make life easier for a lot of people if they could marry the person they love?” she asked, sitting in her apartment overlooking Toronto’s skyline. “In some countries, your spouse for life is chosen for you. In Canada, we should be free to choose.” Anne, a day-care worker and professional home organizer, says she was raised to meet public expectations. “When I was growing up, I’d say, ‘If I get married,’ and my mother would say, ‘ When you get married,’ ” she recalls. Now she is getting married, but her mother, while generally supportive, reacted to that notion “with silence.” Adds Varnell, an Internet coordinator for Sony of Canada Ltd.: “This is about breaking down the barriers that divide people, showing that there’s not that much difference between all of us.”

Rev. Brent Hawkes, the pastor who will perform the double wedding, says that unless someone can raise a valid objection—that one or more of the four should not be wed because they are either underage, already married or too close a rela-

The focus is on a federal law that does not recognize same-sex unions

tive to their prospective spouse—he will marry the couples and take their certificates to be registered (the Ontario Marriage Act states that anyone—it does not stipulate sexual orientation—can be married by someone eligible to perform marriages, such as Hawkes). “Runciman has said they won’t register them,” says Hawkes, who was raised a Baptist but, because he was gay, had to pursue a ministry with another church. “Hopefully, saner minds will prevail when they check with their lawyers—we have strong legal grounds.” Hawkes has been attacked by conservative critics. But he says the Metropolitan Community Church is thriving—for a reason. “People are leaving traditional churches because of their archaic positions,” he explains. “You can’t have a family of a gay son attending a church where the bishop circulates a letter opposing legislation favouring equality for gays and lesbians.”

Both the federal Liberals and the opposition Canadian Alliance stand behind the legislation defining a legal marriage as a union between a man and woman. Others support those views. Schonenbach, who speaks for Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops, told Macleans he does not want to “knock homosexuals.” But in their submission

earlier this year to a parliamentary committee studying the issue of same-sex benefits, the conference of bishops asked that “marriage should be the preserve of heterosexual couples.” Schonenbach concedes that there is anecdotal evidence to prove some gays would make good parents if they adopted children. But, he adds, “it is not the norm. For the stability of family and nurturing of children, the Judeo-Christian tradition favours a man and a wife.”

Meanwhile, the two couples say they have received mostly words of encouragement. They are concerned that their double wedding may become a circus complete with media and protesters. But, says Bourassa, “If you’re gay, you’re used to fighting for freedoms.” Elaine Vautour equates their quest to the plight of the wolf, an animal that decorates their apartment in many motifs and was an object of fascination for both her and Anne even before they met. “They’re loyal, they mate for life, they hang out in packs,” she says. And, she adds, “they have been misrepresented—for so many years.” ED