Blame Canada: Equal Marriage Rights in Canada Will Also Allow U.S. Gays to Wed Legally. How Will That Affect the Fight for Marriage Rights at Home?

Article excerpt

A few days before Prime Minister Jean Chretien's June 17 announcement that Canada would become the first nation outside of Europe to grant equal marriage rights to gay men and lesbians, Beth Hayes and Pam Trainor of Spencer, Ind., drove across the border to exchange vows. Chretien's announcement came a week after a court in Ontario, where Hayes and Trainor were headed, ruled that equal marriage rights had to be granted in that province immediately.

Upon arriving in Leamington, a small town of 26,000, the women made a series of phone inquiries. After locating the local Unitarian Universalist church and the Ontario provincial government office that would issue them a marriage license, they set a date.

And on Friday, June 13, Hayes and Trainor become one of the first American same-sex couples to be legally married. Theirs was not a civil union, nor was it solely a symbolic church ceremony. The act was a legal one and on completely equal footing with the marriage of any heterosexual couple in Canada.

"We were so happy. It was a beautiful ceremony," says Hayes, a Ph.D. candidate in Indiana University's music department. "Here's a society where we're equal. We think that's phenomenal."

Though the wedding took place in Canada, the reverend conducting the ceremony was an American expatriate, Christine Hillman, who now lives in southern Ontario. "I was thrilled to conduct this ceremony," Hillman says. "It felt like we were making history."

Indeed, they were. By getting married, Hayes and Trainor became one of the first couples to take advantage of the June 10 decision by the Ontario court of appeals. That decision was made permanent by Chretien's announcement that his government would not exercise its right to appeal the ruling to the country's supreme court. "There is evolution in society," the prime minister said. By declining to appeal, the Canadian government also agreed to extend equal marriage rights nationwide, not just in Ontario--a process that has already begun.

Building on previous decisions by courts in both Quebec and British Columbia that favored equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, the 61-page Ontario declaration was sweeping in its ramifications. "Exclusion perpetuates the view that same-sex relationships are less worthy of recognition than opposite-sex relationships," the decision read.

The judges ruled that excluding gay and lesbian couples from the institution of marriage was unconstitutional and discriminatory. While the similar rulings in Quebec and British Columbia gave the national government until July 2003 to address the issue of marriage rights for same-sex couples, the Ontario court ruled that as of June 10, the Canadian government's definition of marriage was invalid and must be changed from "one man and one woman" to "two persons."

The ruling makes Canada only the third country in the world--after the Netherlands and Belgium--to legalize equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. But more important to its neighbors to the south, Canada welcomes U.S. couples to marry. The Netherlands requires that at least one member of a married couple be a resident, and Belgium's law does not offer full equality with heterosexual couples.

As a result, many gay couples from the United States are making plans to cross the 49th parallel in order to tie the knot. And that's welcome news in SARS-weary Toronto, where businesses are buzzing about an anticipated boom in "GMTs," or gay marriage tourists.

Still, gay activists in the United States are cautious in their response to the news from Canada. "This will have tremendous repercussions here, all for the good," says Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York City-based Freedom to Marry, which is lobbying for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in the United States. "Gay people will go to Canada, get married, and return to America, where people will be able to see what real-life gay married couples look like. …