Just Married: Gay Marriage and the Expansion of Human Rightsby Kevin Bourassa, Joe Varnell, Kevan Baossa
Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell made international news headlines and human rights history in January 2001 when they became one of the first gay couples anywhere in the world to be issued a government marriage certificate. The marriage would not become fully legal, however, until the Ontario provincial government registered the marriage, and
Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell made international news headlines and human rights history in January 2001 when they became one of the first gay couples anywhere in the world to be issued a government marriage certificate. The marriage would not become fully legal, however, until the Ontario provincial government registered the marriage, and it refused to do so. Bourassa, Varnell, and their church have brought a lawsuit asking for legal registration, but the case is still in the courts.
Just Married is an account by Bourassa and Varnell of how their church, the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, decided to test the Canadian marriage laws, and how they and a lesbian couple agreed to be the ones to make the attempt. Under the Ontario Marriage Act, any adult couple can be granted a marriage license if a church, following ancient tradition, reads the marriage banns on the three Sundays prior to the wedding. Joe and Kevin had long wished to be legally married in their church. They expected controversy, but little expected the massive scale of the international coverage that occurred, as reporting on their intentions and their wedding of them shot across the Internet and their photographs appeared in newspapers not only across North America but also in Europe, Asia, and South America.
Despite the legal and political wrangling, the opposition and support they received, the disputes among religious denominations and organizations, and the glare of the media lights, this remains a story of two people who chose to make a life together and sought the support of both church and state for their marriage. They believe they have taken part in an incredible event—one that will change the world, not just for Canadians, but for citizens, families, and communities everywhere.
Copublished with Doubleday Canada.
The Wisconsin edition is for sale only in the United States.
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A Burning Platform
“Homosexuals are equal members of society; entitled to the same rights as anyone else. Why, then, should they be denied the right to marry?” -- Lead editorial, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, December 6, 2000
Joe and I weren’t in church the day Rev. Brent Hawkes told a cheering congregation that the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto would begin conducting legal same-sex marriages.
It was the beginning of the holiday season, the first weekend of December, a time of year filled with excitement and promise. We had been out late the night before, at a Christmas party -- an annual ritual with the same people, the same food, and even the same musicians playing cello and guitar. And so we were at home, reading the Sunday New York Times and munching on toasted bagels, while Reverend Hawkes spoke to the congregation.
“MCC Toronto is proud to announce that, beginning in January 2001, we will be issuing marriage licenses for same-sex weddings. Until now, we felt restricted from acting on our beliefs by what we thought was a legal impediment regarding same-sex weddings. Being called by God to marry same-sex couples, we recently sought legal advice and as a result we have changed our position on the legality of same-sex marriages. In keeping with the ancient tradition of banns of marriage, we will now be issuing marriage licenses for same-sex weddings. We believe we will be the first to issue these licenses anywhere in the world.”
Under Section 5 of the Ontario Marriage Act, a couple can be granted a marriage license if a church publishes their names on three Sundays before thewedding. “Any person,” the Marriage Act says, “who is of the age of majority may obtain a license or be married under the authority of the publication of banns, provided no lawful cause exists to hinder the solemnization.”
This was a bold step for our church to take, but a move that was totally consistent with its gay and gay-positive congregation. Founded in 1973, MCC Toronto is part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, headquartered in Los Angeles. The Toronto congregation is a diverse lot, with members who speak more than twenty languages and represent at least thirty ethnic backgrounds. Hundreds of worshippers arrive each Sunday to fill the 11:00 a.m. service. Additional services are held at 9:00 a.m. to meet the growing demand.
Like most churches, ours nurtures the young, cares for the sick and dying and provides pastoral care within our community. Beyond this, we also have a history of working for equality and human rights in our city, in our province and in our country. In 1995, MCC Toronto acted as an intervenor in a Supreme Court of Canada case, Egan vs. Canada, which concerned same-sex spousal recognition under the Old Age Security Act. The victory in that case led to sexual orientation being read into Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
When Reverend Hawkes announced the church’s intention to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, everyone knew that he was prepared to go all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court again, if necessary. Reverend Hawkes was the ideal man for the task. Since becoming pastor of MCC Toronto in 1977, he has built the church into the third-largest congregation in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, after Dallas and Houston. A longtime activist, Hawkes went on a hunger strike in 1981, fasting for twenty-five days in protest over the infamous Toronto bathhouse raids. During the 1990s, he fought for changes to legislation to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. Among his many accolades are the United Nations Toronto Association Global Citizen Award (1995) and the City of Toronto Award of Merit (1994), the city’s highest civilian award.
“There should be no mistake,” city councillor Kyle Rae told the Toronto Star, “he has been central, the last twenty years, to the advancement of gay and lesbian equality.”
Reverend Hawkes moved to the center of the gay-marriage debate when he agreed to sponsor a strategy proposed by activist lawyer Douglas Elliott, of the law firm Elliott & Kim. The firm’s briefing notes offered the following introduction to the MCC Toronto board:
Elliott & Kim has a well-established history of representing individuals and organizations in the area of same-sex equality rights. Elliott & Kim has appeared before every level of court on same-sex issues. We have represented the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) and a number of individuals on the issue of survivor benefits for same-sex couples under the Canada Pension Plan. We have also represented CAS in the Vriend v. Alberta appeal before the Supreme Court and represented CAS in the appeal of Robert Latimer before the Supreme Court of Canada.
Douglas Elliott has also appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada on behalf of the Foundation for Equal Families in M. v. H., which dealt with the issue of same-sex spousal support under Ontario’s Family Law Act.
Like Reverend Hawkes, Douglas Elliott has received several awards recognizing his advocacy for human rights and his service to the gay community. Elliott’s reputation and connections with other lawyers led to a Kingston colleague contacting him to discuss the use of the traditional practice of publishing banns.
“I received an e-mail from Prof. Kathy Lahey at Queen’s University,” Elliott said. “She’s a lesbian, and a friend of mine. She’s also a friend of my law partner Patricia LeFebour, and Patricia had told her it looked like we were going to represent the church in an eventual legal challenge around marriage. Kathy said I should look into the banns issue.
“I must admit my first reaction to it was, it can’t be this easy. Why didn’t somebody think of it before? Now, I didn’t realize that there had actually been a case in the 1970s when someone had tried this. I think that’s why Kathy knew this was an angle. It had been tried before the Charter.”
Some months before suggesting the banns as an option, Lahey had asked Elliott to join her at a conference at Queen’s University being organized by a professor who was promoting registered domestic partnerships, or RDPs, as the next step in human rights for gays and lesbians. Lahey, realizing the threat RDPs posed as a replacement to gay marriage, was determined to rally as many of her colleagues as possible to join her at the conference to fight against RDPs.
“The way registered domestic partnership has worked everywhere,” Elliott explained, “is that they take marriage and then they start subtracting various rights. Whatever is left over, that is registered domestic partnership. Everyone knows registered domestic partnership is second rate. It’s marriage lite. In Norway they call it the Homosexual Partnership Act. They make no pretense about it being something neutral. That’s the kind of labelling that should have gone out with the Nazis and pink triangles.
“If you have the same rights, what does it matter? Well, when Rosa Parks was told to sit at the back of the bus, she refused not because the seats in the back of the bus were any worse than in the front -- it was the symbolism. The message was that black people weren’t good enough, that they were second rate to white folks, and therefore they had to sit in the back of the bus. That would be the same thing with RDP. It’s the same thing as putting a big pink triangle on us and saying we’re not good enough for marriage because that is saved for superior people, for heterosexuals.”
Meet the Author
Kevin Bourassa was raised in Ontario, France, and Germany and moved to Toronto in 1976. He is in banking and specializes in process management. Joe Varnell is a Toronto native and works for an electronics company.
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