In the battle for same-sex marriage recognition, Toronto’s two Michaels (Stark and Leshner) became the face of legalized marriage in Canada. Their wedding, performed just hours after the Ontario Court Of Appeal ruling came down on Jun 10, assured them a place in history as the first legally married gay couple in Canada.
But are they really the first? There are at least three other couples who can lay claim to the title.
“Ours was the first civil marriage,” says Michael Leshner, a crown attorney and litigant in the court case against the government.
According to Leshner, it is impossible to overstate the significance of that first gay civil marriage and the media attention it garnered.
“Imagine how many newspapers showed for the first time on the front page two men deeply embraced in mouth to mouth kissing. That’s a tremendous achievement,” he says. “The second and third and fourth pictures on the front page are much easier to get now.”
“It is of utmost professional satisfaction that in this David and Goliath story, I, Michael Leshner, won. That as much as they tried to shut me up, this gay man would not, could not and will not be shut up,” says Leshner.
It seems like only yesterday that different gay couples, Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell, and Elaine and Anne Vautour became the first to be married in Canada and got their wedding kisses printed on front pages around the world. (Though married at the same service, Bourassa and Varnell have been more vocal than the Vautours about being first.) But their first is measured with a slightly different stick.
Their matrimonial bliss goes back to December 2000, when the Metropolitan Community Church Of Toronto (MCCT) announced that it would marry the two same-sex couples using an obscure religious loophole, the ancient Christian process of reading the banns.
“What that means is that you announce for three consecutive Sundays in church that you have the intention to marry and people are allowed to raise valid objections to your marriage,” says Varnell.
They were married by media-savvy Rev Brent Hawkes on Jan 14, 2001.
“The moment those documents were signed in church, we were legally married,” Varnell says.
But the Ontario registrar at the time refused to register the marriages, which, according to the Vital Statistics Act of Ontario, left a gaping hole in the legality of those MCCT marriages. That hole was finally filled on Jun 10, when the Ontario Court Of Appeal ordered the registrar to validate the marriages, backdated to 2001.
When Varnell, Bourassa and the Vautours receive their marriage certificates later this month, it will show two dates (as all marriage certificates do): The date it was processed (some time in the last few weeks) and the day the marriage took place, Jan 14, 2001.
“It’s not when they issue the registration that’s important, that’s a pure formality, it’s the date your marriage ceremony was performed that counts,” says Varnell.
So using this measure, the Michael’s are couple number three.
That is, unless, you consider the case of Paula Barrero and Blanca Mejias, two women married by banns by Rev Dr Cheri DiNovo at Emmanuel Howard Park United Church in Toronto.
After pronouncing Barrero and Mejias spouses on Sep 29, 2001, DiNovo sent the papers to the registrar in Thunder Bay, where she hoped the Latino-sounding names would confuse the clerks. It worked. The clerks missed the gender on the application and mistakenly issued a complete marriage certificate to the same-sex couple.
“The marriage was processed by Thunder Bay in 2001 and it was registered in 2001,” says Cheri DiNovo. “That’s why it was the first registered marriage. The ones that were done at MCCT in January of 2001 were not registered until the law changed [last month].”
DiNovo has suggested that Barrero and Mejias were never interested in the media spotlight – though they drove in Toronto’s Pride Parade with a sign declaring that they’re the first legally married same-sex couple in Canada.
All of these technicalities suggest that there may very well be other couples that would qualify as the first same-sex couple married in Canada. For example, there’s the case of Linda Fraser and Georgie Scott, who were featured in the 1999 documentary Two Brides And A Scalpel. They were married as heterosexuals in 1997, prior to Georgie’s male- to-female sex reassignment surgery. They can also be considered the first married same-sex couple in Canada.
“I always say that it is exciting to have a lot of firsts,” says DiNovo. “The good news is that now there are many, which is a very positive step.”
The City Of Toronto has issued 309 same-sex marriage licences as of Jul 4, including 22 over Pride weekend.