2 min

The odd couple

The diva & the quiet one find common ground

THE MICHAELS. Leshner and Stark celebrate 20 years together. Credit: Jan Becker

Michael Leshner and Michael Stark once broke up for three whole hours.

“Mike didn’t want to commit to a long-term relationship – but he stayed for dinner,” says Leshner.

Dinner has lasted two decades. The couple just celebrated their 20th anniversary with a May 27 fundraiser that brought in $10,000 for the two straight lawyers working on a legal challenge to federal marriage laws. The suit, with seven other couples, will be heard in November.

“I think too many gays and lesbians have poo-pooed marriage,” says Leshner. “It’s not an issue of promiscuity versus intimacy, it’s the right to choose marriage.”

The couple is monogamous, but Leshner says he’s had fun. “Back in 1981, you slept together before you ever dated.” (That was the year the two met, in a gay bar.)

Leshner says it is a big deal that they’re still together.

“I think it’s a rare occurrence for people who met in 1981, because even before the plague years, people were so horribly closeted, liberation meant just having sex.

“To meet someone, fall in love and grow old together. From our first consciousness we were taught we could never have that, that we’re bad people not allowed to dream that dream.”

Leshner was born in 1948 on the US side of Niagara Falls, coming to Canada to study law.

“I was becoming horribly obsessive-compulsive, dysfunctional… that was one of the prices I paid for being in the closet. It’s the reason I’m so unforgiving about homophobia: our right to sexual early adult lives were completely robbed, for those of my generation. There are terrible emotional and psychic scars.”

And Leshner has been a loud and proud activist for many years, getting his face in the media with regularity. He’s the diva. His partner, Mike Stark, is more quiet.

“We can’t both have that same drive, we’d get in other’s way,” says Stark. “I couldn’t do it. I admire him for doing it.”

Stark’s volunteer work is behind the scenes – with Out And Out, a telephone help-line and the old gay and lesbian counselling centre. “If two people were identical…. we’d be like Beirut.”

Stark works in graphic communications at a printing company.

Now 43, he was born in Halifax and arrived in 1976 for a degree at Ryerson. “At the beginning, I’d only been out less than a year, I hadn’t done a lot of oat-sowing. He was more ready to settle down.”

Leshner is 10 years older. He liked what he saw, and wasn’t going to let the perfect man get away.

“We have very good communication skills. We share many of the same fundamental values.”

Both love disco. Leshner is a fan of “failed monstrosities” like Joan Collins and Judy Garland.

Leshner’s first overtly homo political act was to take a boyfriend to then Ontario attorney-general Roy McMurtry’s cocktail party. (McMurtry was despised for his suspected role in the infamous bathhouse raids three years earlier which had resulted in hundreds of arrests.)

“He behaved very well,” says Leshner. A few years after that, he filed a human rights complaint demanding same-sex spousal employment benefits from the Ontario government. The attorney-general, the gay Ian Scott, did not support the application (eventually won in 1992).

Leshner says the greatest political act is to come out to family and friends. That’s the only way change can happen, he says.

“My problem is with far too many gays and lesbians who internalized their homophobia, it’s much uglier than anything that straights do to me. For years they wouldn’t come out to Pride, to the office, to family, long after it was safe to do so.

“I’m very much aware that people think I’m a very strong guy who never bleeds. I never let the enemy know, but I’ve bled lots in the quiet of our home.”