For Ron and Lloyd Cameron-Lewis, their backyard in Mississauga is a retreat and sanctuary from a world that wasn't always easy on them. Credit: Rachel Levy-McLaughlin/Xtra
Feature
6 min

How the Canadian government legally recognized this gay couple’s 50 years together

Ron and Lloyd Cameron-Lewis built a relationship the government wouldn’t recognize — until now

In an introduction to Shakespeare course at one of the colleges in Toronto, there’s at least one romantic skeptic every year.

As the entire class reads Romeo and Juliet, someone will inevitably raise their hand in the 45-person lecture and say it’s just not believable that two people could meet and fall in love in a matter of days. Smirking, the course’s co-professor will turn to the other instructor and ask, “Ron, would you like to field this question?”

Ron Cameron-Lewis met his husband Lloyd in London, England in 1968, a year after homosexuality was decriminalized. Lloyd, who is British, had recently returned to London from travelling, and Ron had arrived in the city weeks before from Toronto to attend theatre school.

At a dance club underneath a coffee shop, they eyed each other from across the bar. Half an hour later, they were holding pinky figures.

After spending the night together, Lloyd left for lunch (and to go to church, Ron says, raising his eyebrows).

“He showed up, and he never left,” Ron says, laughing.

A few weeks after that, they found a place of their own and have been together ever since.

“I tell the story, and half the class is reaching for Kleenex,” Ron says.

But it took Ron and Lloyd, a long time to share the real story of how they met.

Ron and Lloyd have been together since Feb 3, 1968 — almost 51 years now — but have only been legally married for 15 years. That’s because same-sex marriage was only legalized in Ontario in 2003.

Over the years they’ve helped heterosexual couples, friends of theirs in Toronto, get marital congratulations for their 60-year diamond anniversary by collecting their marriage certificate and sending it to the appropriate officials, like their local councillor. But Ron and Lloyd never thought they’d get their own congratulations: for them to even make it to 50 years of legal marriage themselves, they’d have to live past 100 years old.

But two weeks before their 50th anniversary of living together, they received several packages to their home in Mississauga. One-by-one, they opened certificates from high-ranking Canadian officials. The mayor of Mississauga, their local councillor, their then-MPP, the lieutenant governor of Ontario, Ontario’s then-premier Kathleen Wynne, their local MP Sven Spengemann, the governor general Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, all signed letters congratulating them on 50 years of marriage.

The Canadian government retroactively recognized the Cameron-Lewis’s relationship, acknowledging that, had equal marriage been legal, they would have married much sooner.

This is the only retroactive recognition their MP’s office has given out, or even heard of in Canada.

Ron and Lloyd started dating at a time when it had only just become legal for men to be together.

The year before they met in London, the British Parliament passed the recommendations from the Wolfenden report, which legalized gay sex and essentially homosexuality.

But decriminalization didn’t stop police from raiding gay clubs. Lloyd says it was common for police to beat up customers from those clubs, bring them down to the station, fingerprint them and send them home.

“They couldn’t charge them, but they could harass them,” Lloyd says.

But it wasn’t just the nightlife where they had to hide who they were. They didn’t tell their families about their relationship for years, and told others that they were cousins, because it was “easier to explain,” Ron says.

Early in their relationship, Ron went back to his family cottage in Ontario for six weeks. Lloyd wrote him a letter daily, and, without alerting his family, Ron would sneak away from the cottage every day, run up the hill to the mailbox and fetch Lloyd’s letter.

When Ron came back from his family cottage, Lloyd met him at the airport. They could only shake hands, and say to each other, “you’re looking well.” Other than that, they couldn’t touch, and they had to wait until they were home to hug.

“You couldn’t do that,” Lloyd says. “You would have been punched out.”

Ron and Lloyd say every stage of their life has come with a new battle.

In 1971, two years after homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, Ron and Lloyd moved to Toronto.

Like in London, it took time for the public — and police — to catch up with the laws. Raids on clubs were common in Toronto, culminating in the bathhouse raids in the city in 1981, where more than 250 men were arrested and beaten.

The couple also faced obstacles related to being unmarried. Also that year, Ron was in the hospital for kidney stones. Lloyd was stopped at the door of Ron’s room. The nurses asked him if he was related, and he said, “No, but I’ve been living with him for the last 20 years.” They refused to let him in.

But in a world of frequent push back, their home in Mississauga became a retreat; their lush and expansive backyard became a peaceful sanctuary.

“When we closed our front door, we so valued what we had together and that we could keep the world out — because we had to — that it sort of made us more careful of and gentle with each other,” Lloyd says.

It’s noticeable. Every now and then, Lloyd touches Ron’s arm delicately, and almost interrupts his sentence with affection. For someone so private, he’s surprisingly forthcoming about just how much he loves Ron. He says he’s the luckiest person in the world.

Ron, more reserved on this front, just smiles quietly.

Regardless of the adversity they’ve faced, Ron and Lloyd have both had successful careers, something they pride themselves in, especially in the face of homophobic family members. Lloyd retired from the business world as a senior travel executive, and now makes exotic meals, cleans the pool and brings Ron countless cups of tea. Ron teaches theatre and directs plays — including a community theatre production I was in several years ago.

They say they’ve lived a simple, unobtrusive life. “We’ve just been together for 50 years,” says Lloyd. “It’s not anything that we did other than stay together, built a nice life, paid our taxes, hopefully been decent citizens.”

The galleries in the House of Commons were filled with Canadian LGBTQ2S civil servants who had been fired or demoted, or sent to prison for being queer. As Justin Trudeau apologized for decades of “state-sponsored, systemic oppression and rejection,” in November 2017, Ron and Lloyd were watching.

They were invited to attend by their MP Sven Spengemann as representatives for Mississauga to this historic apology.

“It was a very special event for us because we sort of tried to embrace everybody who’d brought us to where we were, and who weren’t able to be in our positions,” Ron says.

Spengemann, who Ron and Lloyd helped on his campaign, considers them role models in the community and worth recognition.

“They don’t stand up in front of the camera,” Spengemann says. “They could very easily, but in their sphere of influence, they are absolutely creating new leaders.”

The day of the apology, Spengemann learned the date of Ron and Lloyd’s 50th anniversary. So he appealed to other officials — federal, provincial and municipal — to give Ron and Lloyd recognition for their 50 years together.

“I think everybody resoundingly said yes, we’ll do it, and everybody followed,” Spengemann says.

Last January, Ron and Lloyd received the packages containing the congratulatory certificates in the mail. This recognition goes beyond just their relationship. For them, it’s indication of a changing world that might be easier on future generations.

Despite their reserved nature, even about participating in this story, they make a point to be role models for others because they had none themselves, especially for the next generation of same-sex couples.

“There are things you will have to do that take courage, that you will not want to do,” says Lloyd. “But you have to do them, because it is part of your job to make it easier for the people who follow you.”

Ron and Lloyd have tidbits of relationship wisdom they’ll pass on to anyone who asks. They say there isn’t any big secret, just treat each other well. Ron says to purge three words from any fight, “always, never and fault”.

Despite the battles they’ve waged in order to love each other freely — and the ones still to come — they’ve lasted 50 years together, longer than most couples, gay and straight, that they know.

“Not just 50 years,” says Lloyd, overlapping Ron as he explains their guidelines for staying together so long, “[I] wish we had another 50, and I can’t imagine not having him.”

Lloyd stops Ron mid-sentence, placing his hand on his arm.

In the humid evening after a brief drizzle, a rainbow streaks across the sky. Lloyd is almost giddy with happiness — “It’s too wonderful for words,” he says.

Ron and Lloyd admire the colour from the other side of their pool and I pull out my camera. It’s the only photo they’re comfortable with me taking of them that evening because, as Ron says, “it’s just too perfect.”