Two celebrities making the rounds of this year’s Gay Pride parades across the country are dressed neither in leather nor drag. They’re wearing something else that pushes the envelope—gold wedding bands. Kevin Bourassa, 44, and Joe Varnell, 32, were one of two Canadian same-sex couples to tie the knot on Jan. 14, 2001, at Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church. The ceremony was held, in accordance with Ontario law, following the publication of the banns for three consecutive weeks. When the provincial government refused to grant a wedding licence, Bourassa, a former bank manager who is now a fulltime advocate for marriage equality, and Varnell, an e-commerce consultant, took to the courts.
In mid-July, three Ontario Superior Court judges ruled that the federal law prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying is unconstitutional. Last week, Ottawa announced it was appealing the decision. Bourassa and Varnell, co-authors of Just Married: Gay Marriage and the Expansion of Human Rights (Doubleday), talked to Associate Editor Sue Ferguson.
Were you expecting the federal government to appeal the court’s decision?
Varnell: When we started, we knew there was a strong possibility that a positive decision would be appealed. But because of the overwhelmingly strong wording of the judgment, telling the government its laws were unconstitutional, we were a little surprised.
Bourassa: Various things led us to be hopeful. The polls, the provincial Conservatives saying they wouldn’t appeal the ruling, the federal government floating the trial balloon about getting out of the marriage business, fueled our hope that Ottawa would honour the Charter.
What do you think of the proposal that there should be no more state-sanctioned marriages, just religious ceremonies or civil arrangements?
Varnell: It’s an extremely radical step—far more radical than simply extending the definition of marriage to include gays and lesbians. But it would be a disappointing option for us because they would be saying that rather than pollute the institution
of marriage with same-sex couples, they’d prefer to pick up their toys and go home.
Why is marriage so important for gay and lesbian couples?
Bourassa: First, it’s about the government being allowed to treat one group that is otherwise protected by the Charter differently. It’s important to send a message that gays and lesbians are not second-class citizens. But on a personal level, marriage is about love. We should be able to experience that love in the manner we choose, in a manner available to all Canadians.
Is marriage something you think other gay couples should do?
Varnell: Marriage isn’t for every couple. Relationships have to be protected in law. But the formalization of those relationships has to be an individual choice.
How has being married affected your personal lives?
Bourassa: Over the past 12 months, I’ve gone from a banking career to working full time at advocacy. I couldn’t do that if it wasn’t for Joe. Marriage is like that—it’s sharing resources and complementing one another.
And what have you personally, emotionally, got out of marriage?
Bourassa: It’s brought us closer and closer together. If you can work together through stress and you can also find that you’re building something together that’s bigger than the two of you could do alone, that’s great. And I think we’re doing that.
Did you talk about the 12-year gap in your ages and what that might mean in your relationship as you grow older?
Varnell: Yes, we discussed it. Caring for each other is part of the obligation of marriage. That’s one reason marriage is so important. Same-sex couples in Ontario are denied many survivor benefits. If I died tomorrow, Kevin would not automatically be recognized as my next of kin.
Have you discussed adopting children?
Varnell: Yes, but we decided it’s not something that is right for us.
Bourassa: My sister’s husband is dying of cancer and we’re the legal guardians of their three children, who are 2, 5 and 9. We talked about that very seriously before agreeing.
How have people reacted when you tell them you’re married?
Bourassa: Most people respond positively. It’s usually not confrontational unless you’re dealing with a situation such as when we were watching fireworks on a blanket, and a bunch of kids heckled us from a car. People will do it from a distance. It’s much more difficult to do to your face. And in some ways that’s what Joe and I are trying to do—present that face a little bit more and give people a chance to get to know us and say, hey, is this really so bad for society?
Varnell: It’s fine to have protection in law, but until you have acceptance in your community, the protection in law can be very cold comfort.
During your preparations for marriage and the marriage itself, it was notable that there wasn’t a more vocal, harder opposition.
Varnell: We were very, very heartened by the fact that on the third Sunday of the reading of the banns, even those people who did object stayed to worship. I believe one of the things the banns process did was to show there can be a reconciliation between spirituality and sexuality. Bourassa: The media coverage played a big role in educating the public. My family told us about two boys in my parents’ town of Trenton, Ont. The boys’ parents were concerned about their kids being remote, their grades falling. The boys told their parents that they were gay after they saw the coverage of our wedding. The visibility is making people realize they don’t have to be ostracized.
Your personal life has become a very public thing. Do you ever tire of being the poster boys for gay marriage?
Varnell: There are times when we’d just like to pack up our tent and go home. I would be thrilled if nobody ever heard of me tomorrow because the federal government passed a law. But until that happens, we recognize it’s not going to go away. Bourassa: Joe and I are in for the long haul. CTl
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