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Gay marriage turns 10

For better or for worse?

Michael Leshner and his partner, Michael Stark, were the plaintiffs in the landmark court case that legalized gay marriage in Ontario on June 10, 2003. Credit: Jan Becker

The death of homophobia.

So declared Michael Leshner, as he married his legal spouse in a Toronto courthouse in 2003, shortly after a judge decided in favour of granting marriage rights to Ontario’s same-sex couples.

The Michaels — as Michael Leshner and his partner, Michael Stark, were affectionately referred to by the media — were the plaintiffs in the landmark court case that legalized gay marriage in Ontario on June 10, 2003.

One month later, BC followed suit.

Among the celebrants were the three original couples who successfully filed suit for marriage rights in BC: Peter Cook and Murray Warren (who changed their married name to the combined Corren); Elizabeth and Dawn Barbeau; and Jane Eaton Hamilton and Joy Masuhara.

For those who had fought for access to an institution that excluded them, the BC and Ontario court decisions — which paved the way to Canada-wide legalization two years later — offered validation from the state that they, too, could love and have families, just like heterosexual couples.

On the other side of the political aisle, conservative naysayers predicted that the legalization of same-sex marriage would lead to the end of marriage and the family and to the downfall of traditional society.

***
It’s been 10 years and the sky still hasn’t fallen.

Same-sex marriage in Canada is no longer the hot-button topic it once was. In July 2005, the federal government passed the Civil Marriage Act, legalizing marriage for all Canadians, regardless of their sexual orientations.

Since then, the number of married same-sex couples has climbed dramatically.

The 2011 Canadian census counted 64,575 same-sex couples: 21,015 married and 43,560 common-law. Fifty-five percent of the couples were male. Of the married couples, 3,442 lived in BC and 8,372 lived in Ontario.

From 2006 to 2013, the number of married same-sex couples almost tripled, while common-law couples rose only 15 percent.

According to those same statistics, 0.8 percent of all couples (common-law and married) are in same-sex relationships.

***
Mathieu Chantelois and Marcelo Gomez were among the first
same-sex couples to get married in Ontario after the court ruling.

"I was quite against marriage before it became legal,” Chantelois says.

He had always seen marriage as old-fashioned and broken and thought the gay community should be fighting for a new kind of union rather than something that didn’t work anymore.

But, afraid the law could be reversed, Chantelois and his partner rushed to the altar. He recalls the day as surreal, describing the protesters at the door: holding Bibles and screaming as he and Gomez went inside to get married.

"I was doing this as an activist more than anything else, and when I got inside and when the ceremony started, I realized that the action that I was taking was nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with gay rights,” he says.

"It became very emotional, and I realized that I was believing more than I thought I would in the institution of marriage. It’s really the day I got married that I realized that the symbolism of marriage was something important and very serious."

***
Spencer Chandra Herbert, a member of BC’s provincial legislature
since 2008, remembers the community’s excitement in 2003.

"It feels in some ways like forever ago that we got our success, but it also seems to have gone by so fast,” he says.

Though he was already with his long-term partner, Romi, at the time, it took seven more years before they decided to walk down the aisle.

"I would want to do it and he wouldn’t be so sure. Then he would want to do it and I wouldn’t be so sure,” he says. “Not because of the relationship — we always knew we would be together for life — but just because we were questioning whether marriage was for us."

Chandra Herbert says they were both uncertain whether they needed the government to validate or sanction their relationship, but in the end they decided to make it mean something else.

"We went, ‘This isn’t about the state. This is about us celebrating our love together and the commitment ceremony with our friends and family.’"
 

***
Of course, not everyone gets the fairy-tale ending.

While Chantelois and Gomez are about to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary, of the three original BC court-case couples, none are still together. Murray Corren is now widowed; Peter died in December 2009 after a prolonged battle with cancer. Elizabeth and Dawn Barbeau are divorced, while Hamilton and Masuhara have been separated since 2011.

Despite the breakdown of her 18-year relationship, Hamilton still completely supports same-sex marriage. “I am less likely to get married again because I have now seen, firsthand, the toxic effects of divorce,” she tells Daily Xtra. “However, I still support [same-sex marriage] with fervour and think it is a cornerstone of LGBTQ rights."

Hamilton believes the right to marry has enfranchised the queer community. “It is a critical civil right, without which we are not equal, and it has a ripple effect that improves our lives in other arenas."

Elizabeth Barbeau agrees.

"Fifteen or 20 years ago, we couldn’t have imagined the legal protections that have become available in our lifetime. I certainly couldn’t have imagined it,” she says. “I’m somebody who has been married and divorced in the last 10 years. So my own relationship with the institution of marriage has evolved as I’ve grown and as things have happened in my life, but my political opinion about marriage hasn’t changed."

***
Lydia Luk, a community developer at a BC non-profit and a former queer youth worker, was 20 and newly out when the BC ruling came down. Luk had recently started attending a local college and was focusing on criminology and law so she could help fight for same-sex marriage.

"My second semester into [my program], it was legalized,” she laughs.

Luk’s perspective on same-sex marriage has since evolved. She now considers it a double-edged sword. Though she sees many advantages that have come as a result of legalization, she sees disadvantages as well. She fully endorses the importance of having the rights of spouses and the rights to families, but she doesn’t think that those need to be entwined with a narrow traditional definition of marriage that leaves out many people.

"Marriage itself is an institution. My own personal take on it is that, even though it gives us those rights, it’s a state recognition of a certain kind of relationship,” Luk argues. “It also often dictates what is a family and, as a result, devalues other kinds of families.

"It’s allowed a lot more visibility and legitimacy for a certain type of monogamous queer or same-sex couple,” she says.

"But it continuously does not include all the other kinds of relationships out there and delegitimizes other queers as being too queer. Inadvertently, it can segregate and ostracize or oppress other kinds of relationships that don’t look the way mainstream society wants them to look."

***
Ryan Conrad cofounded the American group
Against Equality and was studying for his doctorate at Concordia University in Montreal when he spoke to Daily Xtra. He thinks same-sex marriage and the fight for it has done serious damage to our community.

Young people are being inundated with images telling them that the only way to be in a healthy relationship as a gay person is to get married, he says.

"You’re going to grow up, get married and have kids is now what gay people are expected to do, in the same way that straight people are expected to,” he says. “It changes the actual imagined possibilities of ways in which you can make relationships with other people; it’s reduced down to monogamous couples."

***
Barbeau doesn’t personally see the downside
to marriage but acknowledges that not everyone agrees with her.

"Some people feel that some of these legal and social changes have maybe watered down the queer identity and made us a little bit less than who they felt we were,” she says. “But on balance I wouldn’t go back to where we were.

"I’m pro-choice when it comes to marriage. I’m not a big marriage-pusher; I don’t think everybody should get married. I think that queer people should have the same range of options as straight people."

Although she dislikes that the origins of marriage are linked to ownership and the transfer of property, on this point, Luk is in agreement. “I constantly resist the idea of marriage, because of its roots. That doesn’t mean I don’t support people who want to celebrate their relationships — those are two very different things,” she says.

She understands the appeal and importance for many queer people, and in particular for queer youth, of hearing stories about finding that one perfect person, getting married and settling down with them.

"Some people actually live those fairy tales and want that for whatever reason,” she says. “Just having the choice to do so or not can make a huge difference in somebody’s life, in terms of their own acceptance of who they are. We cannot ever really forget what a huge thing it is."

***
Hamilton thinks that winning the court battles
has meant much more than just the right to marry. She argues that the increased visibility has been revolutionary in changing attitudes toward the gay community.

"We were finally introducing [some of] our relationships in a way that heterosexuals could understand, and they were being moved,” she says.

She believes the spillover effect has benefited other members of the community who are unattached or who are involved in less traditional relationships.

"Gradually, this increase in status began to leak outside the matrimonial sphere so that even our alternative relationships or single queers were increasingly visible, accepted and non-threatening,” she says.

Conrad doesn’t believe the spillover has helped those who don’t fit the standard moulds. “Everything has been sanitized,” he says. “It further marginalizes people who can’t pass or can’t fit into those moulds."

"The playing field has been levelled,” he says, “and now it’s like if something’s wrong, it’s your own fault. Go die somewhere else."

Hamilton argues that homophobia is being taken more seriously in schools and that youth are now able to come out as young as they want.

"They’re going to grow into a different queer world,” she says.

"I wouldn’t say that this is entirely marriage-related, especially since Canada was on this trajectory anyway with the general gaining of gay rights, but regardless, it’s significant and heartening."

Chandra Herbert acknowledges the progress that has been made, especially in Canada’s larger metropolitan cities, but believes there is still a long way to go in eradicating homophobia.

"Society is richer because the hate that was quite prevalent 10 years ago has been reduced to a dull roar in some areas,” he says. But even in the gay-friendly provincial riding of Vancouver-West End, he still gets homophobic letters from people saying they won’t vote for him because of his sexual orientation.

Marriage has “allowed us to make the case to people,” he says, “but people who’ve had hate in their heart for a long time sometimes don’t want to give it up."

Luk agrees that real equality is still a far way off and that Canada has grown somewhat complacent in the push toward true social justice. “Same-sex marriage only provides so much on paper,” she says. “I think that Canada has used it to legitimize itself as a forward-thinking country and to shame other countries — and to not take responsibility for itself."

She, too, points to subsections of the queer and trans communities who have sometimes felt left behind by the mainstream gay movements.

"We’ll hear sometimes that ‘hey, we were there to fight for same-sex marriage, but we don’t see that playing out in supporting our community,’” she says.

***
When asked if the gay community has changed marriage,
or if marriage has changed the community, Conrad says we’re the ones being changed.

"I know there’s a lot of people that will make the argument that by participating in it we’ll subvert it, but I think that’s a bunch of bullshit,” he says, laughing.

"You can get married skydiving, upside-down, carrying a chicken, and it’s still marriage. Changing the surface configuration doesn’t actually challenge the institution in any significant ways,” he says.

Hamilton partially agrees.

"Queers brought freshness to a stale institution, and meaning,” she maintains.

"But we’re getting married, and divorcing, and marriage goes forward as one of the world’s most potent — and perhaps, arguably, potently disturbing — social institutions."

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on June 5, 2013, and was updated on July 20, 2015.