Gay BC judge wins Hero Award

Canadian Bar Association calls Judge J Gary Cohen a role model

A gay judge in BC has been given a Hero Award by the Canadian legal community.

Surrey Provincial Court Judge J Gary Cohen was awarded the Canadian Bar Association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference (SOGIC) Hero Award, while Jocelyn Frazer, of the Law Society of Alberta, won the Ally Award.

The awards recognize excellence within the Canadian legal profession in advancing the cause of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and two-spirited people.

Cohen was presented with the award by SOGIC co-president Amy Sakalauskas. She said Cohen came out in 1974 at the age of 18. Two years later he became president of Gay People of Simon Fraser University.

From there, he moved to UBC law school, where he founded and became the first president of the UBC Law Gay and Lesbian Students’ Association in 1978. Two years later, he became president of the UBC Gay & Lesbian Students’ Union. He also met his partner, Bruce Fraser, while at UBC. They’ve been together for 32 years.

“We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for people like Judge Cohen,” Sakalauskas said, calling him “a role model for the rest of us.

“Other members of the queer community have turned to him for advice, and other judges turn to him for help with gay and lesbian issues,” she said.

Cohen said that without the support of his husband, “I would not be here today.”

“I was there if not at the start of the fight of what we call gay liberation,” he said. “We didn’t just fight our way into recognition; we danced and partied our way into recognition, and we were proud.”

He said his hard work and refusal to be in the closet “all paid off in the long run.”

Cohen also served as the first non-American president of the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Judges, from 2005 to 2008, Sakalauskas said.

But, Cohen said, “my radical days are long gone.”

He said it is now up to the younger generation to continue the fight against inequality. “There are still so many people that do not enjoy the full benefit of this successful society.”

Cohen was nominated for the Hero Award by Preston Parsons, who recently served as president of the UBC law students group that Cohen founded.

In his nominating letter, Parsons said Cohen’s student work made “significant impacts on the environment in each university setting, often in brave ways in the face of strong homophobia or simple ignorance.”

“As a student from a very young age, he did what was considered extremely activist stuff, which now would be considered being yourself with integrity,” Parsons tells Xtra.


Parsons says Cohen’s greatest contribution has been “his unwavering commitment to being out at work for his entire career . . . never hiding or compromising on that.”

Frazer was presented with her award by SOGIC co-president Mark Berlin. He said SOGIC has worked on issues such as family law and recognition of same-sex marriage and divorce, and he continues to work on trans rights.

“SOGIC will be in the forefront of active lobbying for the legal rights for our community,” Berlin said.

He said Frazer turned up at a meeting several years ago saying she wanted to establish a SOGIC branch in Alberta. He called her contributions “extraordinary.”

“We’re grateful and appreciative of your efforts,” Berlin said.

“I was awed by everything they’d accomplished in SOGIC,” Frazer said. “I’m proud to be an ally and will continue to support the community any way I can.”

The awards were presented at a reception held as part of the Canadian Bar Association’s annual national conference in Vancouver.

Past Hero Award winners include trailblazing gay Vancouver lawyers barbara findlay and Ken Smith, and Svend Robinson, Canada’s first openly gay member of Parliament.

Past Ally Award winners include Vancouver lawyer Joe Arvay, former chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission Max Yalden, former chief justice of Ontario Roy McMurtry, former Supreme Court of Canada justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, former federal justice minister Martin Cauchon, and former Ontario Court of Appeal justice Horace Krever.

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