5 min

Wedding bells are ringing

Lesbian and gay couples are stepping up to the altar

Credit: Brian Gallant

Sylvia Martin and Elise Besigneul had already sent out the invitations for their July wedding when Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced he was supporting same-sex marriage. Chretien’s announcement on Jun 17 was in response to a ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal that denying same-sex marriage violated the Charter of Rights.

“Everyone at our house, even Emily, who seems unaffected in appearance only, was giving out hugs and telling friends over the phone about the ruling, that her moms can get married, and the law says so,” says Martin.

“I had said that my marriage wasn’t for political reasons, but after hearing the ruling the other day, I cried for some time,” says Martin. “The whole idea of legitimacy, the whole idea that this isn’t a moral wrong, that a person can exercise their choice – I guess it is political no matter how we look at.”

For Duane Kindness and Richard Soucy, this marriage is about more than just a great hyphenated last name. It’s about giving back to the community that nurtured them individually and as a couple, it’s about sharing their love with friends and family – and throwing a great party for them.

Kindness and Soucy have been together for 15 years, and their lives have been moving along quite smoothly without the benefit of being married. They own a beautiful bed and breakfast, the Roy d’Carreau Guest House in the heart of the village in Montreal. They have made international acquaintances of artists and former guests, and clearly they love their life just the way it is. But when they heard the news on the French radio that Québec had approved civil unions between same-sex couples, they decided to take the plunge. Both had considered marriage, but they didn’t want a symbolic union, they wanted it to be recognized.

“On Jun 7, 2002 the National Assembly, Québec’s legislature, passed Canada’s most comprehensive civil union legislation,” says Kindness. “We decided on that day we would have our ceremony celebrating 15 years together in July of 2003. With this new direction of civil unions taking place, we are advancing gradually but steadily along a path that is new for couples like Richard and I. ”

The ceremony will be traditional, performed by Rev Neil Whitehouse of the United Church. Less traditional will be the location of the ceremony, the deep end of the old swimming pool in l’Écomusée du fier monde. This beautiful Art Deco building was a former bathhouse, a once notorious and secret gay scene.

In planning the wedding, the couple took a cue from their “gay dog children,” Virginia Woolf, Milieu and Simeon. Starting from the fur color of the West Island Terriers, Duane and Richard are creating a black and white wedding to remember with the help of friends and designers Fong and Yves Jean Lacasse, each dressing one of the grooms. Lacasse will also be dressing the “flower dogs,” who will be following the wedding party into the pool.

It is important to the couple that this event showcase some of the resources and skills of the businesses in the Village. “Our flowers, jewelry, everything really, are coming from businesses in the community,” says Soucy. “We wanted to do this, and to have the ceremony and the luncheon where we are having it because the Village has given us so much. We want to give back to the community a little of what we have received over the years.”

Here in Ottawa, preparations are no less feverish, yet the marriage of Sylvia Martin and Elise Besigneul will have a character all its own. Like Soucy and Kindness, Martin and Besigneul are being married in the United Church, and see the wedding as an opportunity to share their love with friends and family. In their case this includes two teenage daughters, Ashlee and Emily Besigneul. According to Ashlee, “We’re getting married as a family.” Emily agrees.

A wedding should reflect the individuals being joined. And for Martin, Besigneul and their daughters, that means being resourceful. It’s obvious that everyone in the family has some crafty skills from the eclectic and detailed mosaic floor in the kitchen of their lovingly remodeled and slightly chaotic East End house. They are putting their skills to good use, and making everything from the invitations to the decorations themselves.

Molly, the family dog, will not be attending the wedding, but friends and family from all over have RSVPed, and the wedding will be as eclectic in its own way as the Soucy-Kindness one. Both couples have decided to reinterpret the traditions of marriage to suit their tastes and character. “Richard and I are still debating who will be the blushing bride. It seems that we are setting our own traditions as we forge our way ahead,” says Kindness.

One thing they have all decided to dispense with is the giving of gifts. “We would prefer that guests make a donation to the Fondation d’Aide Directe-SIDA Montréal Inc, an organization that provides care for people living with AIDS,” reads Duane and Richard’s wedding invitation.

Martin and Besigneul have asked guests to give rocks, raw material for the feat of landscaping underway in their back yard. It’s a calm corner pond, impressive in its size, and decorated with well-established plantings. It will clearly take some time and effort to build it. “We’ve been together long enough that we shouldn’t need a piece of paper to show we’re committed,” says Martin. “But somehow this union, this marriage, solidifies it all in my mind.” Eventually, the back yard refuge will grow into a literal representation of that solid foundation.

These may not be your average weddings, but what will make them memorable is that these couples, and others like them, have waited years for the opportunity to marry. Arguments for and against same-sex marriage are thick in the media right now, as couples across Canada drag legislation and social policy into the 21st century.

Yet same-sex marriage is not as new as the rhetoric might make it sound. Same-sex couples are included in common-law legislation, and the Globe and Mail recently published statistics from the 2001 census indicating that 34,500 families identified as same-sex. Nonetheless, arguments against same-sex unions abound, and what they lack in reason and evidence they sometimes make up in vitriol. Fortunately these arguments do not reflect the opinion of the majority of Canadians. The census statistics reveal that well over half of Canadians under 55 support gay marriage.

The United Church is one organisation that has been a leader in extending the right to marry to same-sex couples. They have weathered a lot of controversy over this decision, just as they have for allowing gay and lesbian ordination.

According to Reverend Neil Whitehouse of the Rosedale-Queen Mary United Church, the policies are not imposed. “Each Church makes its own decision [about how to interpret the policies], and in Montreal 13 out of 65 have chosen to marry same-sex couples.” For Reverend Whitehouse, marrying Kindness and Soucy will be an example of how “society is catching up with the church.”

“I hope more of these weddings take place. I’d like to see more openness, and more positive portrayals. It’s the people we know, not the legislators that have the most impact. This is an opportunity to gently introduce change.”

One argument that just won’t go away is the idea that marriage by its nature is an institution between a man and a woman. Reverend Whitehouse calls this a misunderstanding. “There are examples of same-sex unions being celebrated in the early Church. Tolerance was a feature of Christianity from the beginning.” He cites the works of historian John Boswell, author of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, and argues that the entire concept of romantic love was introduced in part through these early examples of same-sex union. “People like to present a monolithic history [of marriage traditions] when it is just not true.

“Because of the additional pressures on gays and lesbians, the ceremonies that celebrate their love are exceptionally moving,” says Reverend Whitehouse. He believes that love is outward and generous, and that all people should have serious and authentic traditions that reflect its importance.

None of the arguments against same-sex marriage will ever convince Ashlee that her moms should not get married. “Why do they want to get married?” Ashlee says. “Because they love each other and want to spend their lives together. And we want to tell the world that, friends, family and God.”