Same-sex marriage

Five years ago, Canada became embroiled in what some traditionalists worried was an indecent proposal: Granting gays and lesbians the legal right to marry. On the contrary, Margaret Webb writes, same-sex couples have much to reveal about what a healthy, loving marriage really looks like
By Margaret Webb; Photographs by Thomas Fricke and Birthe Piontek
Same-sex marriage

They describe themselves as a regular couple, but theirs was hardly an ordinary wedding. On January 14, 2001, Elaine and Anne Vautour arrived at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto in an SUV, with security to deal with protesters. The minister, Brent Hawkes, wore a bulletproof vest. Both excited and nervous, Elaine and Anne, and another couple exchanging vows that day, Joe Varnell and Kevin Bourassa, became the first lesbian and gay couples in Canada, and the world, to marry. The packed church greeted them with a standing ovation and an outpouring of love that still overwhelms them.

"I felt like a complete Canadian citizen," says Elaine. "Our relationship was authentic. My brothers and sisters all married. My parents were married for 50 years. I simply wanted what they had. When we married, I had full rights, the same rights as any other Canadian."

Their subsequent attempt to register their marriages with the province instigated a legal battle that saw marriage rights extended to same-sex couples in Ontario on June 10, 2003, and across Canada on July 20, 2005. Like many other gays and lesbians that year, my partner and I felt that Canada had become the coolest, most progressive place on the planet, and we were deeply proud.

But we also decided we would not be traipsing down the aisle in our sensible shoes any time soon. For one, the opponents of equal marriage keenly reminded us that the institution and its sidekicks – including more conservative factions of church, community and family – had hardly been kind to gay folks. Court battles unleashed a vitriolic spew that mocked and vilified us. With members like that, who would want to join the club?

Five years later, society is actually looking to the contributions gay couples make to marriage. According to recent studies cited in The New York Times, we rate our relationships more favourably than heterosexual couples do: We have more equitable partnerships, are more effective at resolving differences, are less likely to use controlling or belligerent emotional tactics and are more able to see each other's perspectives. Overall, we report a higher level of relationship satisfaction.

I'm not saying that what my partner and I have is perfect, but we're amazed to fall more in love every day. Unburdened by marital convention and gender roles, we have pretty much invented our relationship, an ongoing and very fun project that has kept our domestic arrangement extremely happy and pretty hot for 14 years now.

Yet lately I have found the idea of marrying intriguing. Maybe it's the straight world warming to us. Maybe my outsider hurt has subsided. Or maybe it just feels right. But in looking for a more succinct way of saying "I love you madly, honey cakes, and the only sane life I can imagine is with you," I have taken to asking my partner to marry me. Her response is always the same: "Why?"

I don't take it personally. Living alternative lives, we don't want what everyone else has. We want to protect what we have. And maybe I will find the answer to her question, sparkling like a diamond in a place where it makes sense for me to look: in same-sex marriages.

Paula Rutledge and Rita Leonard, who married in 2005, immediately eliminated one deep aversion my partner and I have to tying the knot – namely, the ceremony. A lot of people, gay and straight, would rather stick pins in their eyes than be the centre of attention at some expensive, overblown affair, but in their case, their pared-down do was particularly surprising: They're wedding planners.

The two became media darlings when they launched their Winnipeg-based PrideBride Weddings on February 14, 2003, and appeared on CNN. Since then, Rutledge, 37, and Leonard, 44, have arranged ceremonies for some 60 same-sex couples. And their style is catching on: They have also married 60 straight couples through their companion business, Mobile Marriage.

I meet up with Rutledge and Leonard at a scuffed-up diner in Winnipeg's gay-friendly Wolseley neighbourhood. When I ask how they got into the wedding business, Rutledge's massive laugh barges into the room. "My first idea was to open a sock shop! Friends told us you have to start your own business, for financial independence. But they nixed the sock idea."

In the beginning, Leonard, a quiet, warm woman who works as a customs officer by day, became a marriage-licence issuer, while the more effusive Rutledge, who had worked as a sheriff, became a wedding commissioner, which allowed her to perform civil ceremonies. (Now they both perform both duties.) "During the week I was hauling people into custody," says Rutledge. "Then on the weekend I was marrying couples. It was a bit odd."

The weddings they perform are as down-to-earth as their prairie personalities. "We don't believe in the white veil and the whole money-grabbing social stuff that goes with it," says Leonard. Many clients, flying in from countries around the world where same-sex marriage is not legal, take the couple's advice and plan ceremonies for themselves rather than submit to big splashy affairs to please their families. They often exchange vows in Rutledge and Leonard's living room, followed by a celebratory dinner at a restaurant. The small, intimate services, says Rutledge, still have tremendous transformative power for both the couple and their guests. "There would be the homophobic Aunt Cathy who comes in with this face on, but by the end of it, we have to pour her out the door, she's having such a good time. You can't really witness an expression of love without being moved by it."

Leonard adds that same-sex couples often feel more accepted after marrying. "Others see you've made that extra commitment. People give your relationship more respect."

Although Rutledge and Leonard rushed into living together – "Two weeks after meeting, we were trying to figure out how to tell our friends we wanted to be together forever," says Leonard – and into the wedding business, they had no intention of ever marrying themselves. They had already committed to the idea of monogamy. (Gay couples are often more open to extramarital sex, usually negotiated, such as one-time stands, with no emotional attachment, while lesbians more often choose to be exclusive.)

And besides, Leonard had married (and later divorced) a man when she was in her twenties and was dead set against the institution. She hated the expectation that she would do the "wife's work": the housework, cooking and raising their daughter. "The whole notion of women's work and men's work always rankled me."

After eight years together, Rutledge and Leonard knew they had a good thing. "We discovered that we could really communicate," says Rutledge. "We just love every day of being together." They negotiate chores and work together on larger projects. "Like everything we do, we talk things out to death." Many would envy the fun they have together, socializing with a large circle of friends, playing poker, camping and organizing dinners and dances to raise money for the gay and lesbian community.

Leonard's daughter, Caycie, was nine when the two women moved in together, and they co-parented "pretty seamlessly" with Leonard's ex. The women bought a suburban bungalow and renovated the basement to give their daughter space to have friends over. Luckily, Caycie escaped much of the teasing – and horrific bullying – that some children of same-sex marriages may face as gay life becomes increasingly mainstream. The moms told Caycie that she could not hide or lie about their relationship to friends she brought over. And though she was the only one in school with two moms, she lost only one friend because of it. "The girl's family was religious," says Rutledge. "You know how that goes." Now 20, Caycie just finished her second year at university, dates boys and recently brought two friends to a Gay Pride event to volunteer with her moms. Says Rutledge, "She tells us that we're the most normal couple she knows."

But after years of marrying others, they began to wonder, Why not us? They certainly knew how to plan the ceremony they wanted. On September 25, the anniversary of the day they met, they married at their favourite campground in Bird's Hill Provincial Park. They wore jeans and "do-up shirts." (Those are shirts with buttons – I had to ask, too.) Leonard's parents didn't come to the wedding. "They don't approve," says Leonard. "Enough said." Rutledge's mom, also a wedding commissioner, performed the ceremony. Rutledge's brother stood up for her, Caycie for Leonard. The whole thing lasted 10 minutes, though the emotion, they said, was intense. Afterwards, they lunched at a nearby restaurant; then Leonard and Rutledge returned to their campsite. "We're Coronation Street junkies, so we brought along a TV, VCR and tapes," Rutledge says, laughing. "It took about two weeks to realize, hey, we're married!"

Peeking inside a gay-male union proves to be ... well, a little hairier. "Good timing," Max Parsons tells me when I telephone to talk about his marriage to John Egan. "I've just finished shaving John's back."

The two, both 44 and happily hitched for four years, faced issues their first year together that would have uncoupled many: a family illness that meant a separation, job woes in a foreign country. Their partnership works, Parsons says, because they communicate to understand each other and resolve issues, not to win arguments. "We say what's on our minds. We don't do passive-aggressive sulking. I think gay people, having been through the whole coming-out process, have had to deal with more shit and so they tend to be very communicative and conscious."

Egan says they have taken great care to develop a style of marriage that is wholly their own and works for them. I meet him at a busy café in the gay village on Davie Street in Vancouver, where the couple own a condo five minutes from Stanley Park. Egan, who works as a trainer of volunteers, served his time in the trenches as a gay activist. Fiercely articulate and idealistic, he grew up in New York and immigrated to Canada at age 24. "I didn't fit in in the U.S. I thought it was a gay thing. But I realized I'm much more of a 'we' person and there's more community here."

He met Parsons in Australia in 2003, when Egan was there on a work contract. Parsons, a financial analyst, was originally from England. He has a kindly smile and, like Egan, battles his receding hairline by shaving his head. Both were 39. "We met, had a couple of dates and it was 'Wow,'" says Egan.

Parsons adds that they met on the internet while he was newly out of an 11-year relationship and not looking to get married: "Then along comes John. There was a huge physical attraction. And then I discovered he was immensely smart and very intense and passionate about many things. He was very exciting."

Shortly after meeting, they endured a three-month separation when Egan's mother fell ill and Egan returned to North America to visit. Once back in Australia, Egan was uncertain he could find a permanent job. Plus he didn't care for the hard-drinking macho culture, the spiders or the government's campaign against same-sex marriage. "We were living in a country that was thumbing its nose at us. We could live in any number of countries because of our multiple citizenships. Why not a country that treated us as family?"

The two were in love, but everything else – where to live, careers – was up in the air. A year after their meeting, in a gay nightclub in Sydney, in the midst of one of their usual intense 4 a.m. conversations, Egan proposed to Parsons.

Parsons's diary entry from that night reads: It's a precious gift, the strongest statement possible of love and trust and faith in our relationship. For me, this is what marriage is about, not rights, duties, responsibilities or acceptance.

Egan says marrying Parsons seemed like the most natural thing to do, but he also wanted what other married Canadians have: spousal benefits, and pension and inheritance rights. (Straight and same-sex common-law couples acquire most of those, but only after a year and in some cases three years, and they may have to prove their relationship.)

Before tying the knot, the couple flew to London to introduce Egan to Parsons's parents. "They were pretty uncomfortable," says Parsons. "We invited them to the wedding with no expectation they would come." They didn't.

Egan's parents didn't come to the wedding, either. When he called them in New York and joked that he was getting one of those newfangled things, a gay marriage, "My mom said, 'I don't believe in this.'" Only one of his four siblings attended. Egan's voice quickens as he speaks. "It's nice to know that if one of us were to die, our families couldn't fly in here and try to sell our condo. There's no question where our assets go. To me, all relationships, whether self-defined or legal, are equal, but in a court of law, marriage is value-added." On October 10, 2004, Egan and Parsons hosted a dinner-and-dance reception at a Vancouver hotel for 45 friends. They wore white shirts and matching red waistcoats with black insignias that signified luck and longevity. They had a short civil ceremony and settled into their version of married life in Canada. Rather than "husband," they sometimes refer to each other as "partner" and rarely discuss being married. "It can feel like a slap in the face to those who aren't," says Parsons. "Although with straight couples, the topic can sometimes make them feel more comfortable. You're sharing the same aspirations and worries about mortgages. It's almost like we've been defanged."

When asked whether the couple are monogamous or open, Egan politely replies, "That's none of your business." The two spend time together and apart: Egan likes to ski and snowboard; Parsons practises kung fu and yoga. They both enjoy skating, and partying in the gay village. To maintain their passion and commitment, they indulge in a few rituals.

Egan: "Each morning we're together, we slip our wedding rings on each other's fingers. Then we give each other a big, passionate kiss." Parsons: "Every Friday night after work, we meet in bed with tea and biscuits. We download our workweek, then start our weekend with sex. It's there, it's timetabled, it works. It's a great tip for any couple. It's a great way of reconnecting."

Both say they're very happy but don't assume their marriage will last forever. "We talk about retiring together," says Egan. "But our marriage is for today. We're just-for-today romantics." Parsons agrees. "I entered into the marriage thinking it had the potential to last forever," he says. "I'm not so naive to think that every relationship will. Relationships should last as long as they should."

Of course, not every relationship lasts forever, no matter how gay. No one is tracking divorce statistics just yet, but Joanna Radbord, a lawyer specializing in gay family law at Toronto's Martha McCarthy & Company, calls same-sex divorce "extremely rare": Her firm has handled only a few divorce cases to date, which makes sense given same-sex marriage has been a reality for just five years. Then there's the fact that gays and lesbians aren't exactly rushing to the altar: Only 7,500 same-sex couples have married in Canada, as of the 2006 census. (That's compared with six million heterosexual marriages.) According to Harvey Brownstone, Canada's first openly gay judge, who has presided over hundreds of same-sex ceremonies, that first wave to marry tended to be couples from committed long-term relationships, who had already been together for 15 or more years. "If they were going to split, they would have already done so," he says. "Couples are taking it very seriously."

Indeed, it takes some sleuthing to simply find a gay man and a lesbian who have divorced and are willing to talk about the experience. Of gays and lesbians who married, the divorcees I interviewed had been with their partners for much less time before tying the knot than those who remain married: In the gay man's case, for less than a year; in the lesbian's, for four years. Both couples had made no assumptions about monogamy; they had discussed and agreed to terms in advance. The lesbian couple agreed to an open relationship, while the gay couple agreed to be exclusive.

What ended both marriages, it seems, were significant personal problems the couples encountered early on. Neither blamed marriage, but both felt burdened by the legal process of undoing their "mistake." He: "The process of divorce extends the period of grief. I spent more time undoing and healing from the divorce than I had spent developing the relationship." She: "Our divorce was very amicable, but undoing the legal ties was draining." And on parting, both felt a guilt that is perhaps unique to same-sex divorce: They had let down gays and lesbians eager to show the straight world that they can have long-term relationships.

While there have been few same-sex divorces to date, that doesn't mean that gay and lesbian couples don't break up. Common-law splits are perhaps more predictive of divorce trends, and they have become legally messier since common-law spousal benefits and responsibilities were extended to same-sex couples. The prevailing model for heterosexual divorce is that women forgo fair financial settlement to gain custody of children, and men sometimes agree because they're often more interested in holding on to their wealth. According to Radbord, the breakup of a typical lesbian common-law couple can become "very ugly" when both parties fight for sole custody of any children. Although the couple may have argued that there was space for two moms while married, after the split, biological mothers will often deny that the non-biological mom made any contribution to raising the kids. In breakups where there are no children, the higher earner often tries tossing a low ball, claiming that since the relationship was based on a different model than heterosexual marriage, or that because the couple were never financially interdependent, alimony or spousal support should not apply.

For gay men, another dirty trick to escape support is to deny the relationship even existed. "They'll say we can't possibly be a couple because we had sex with other people or lived separate economic lives," says Radbord. "Straight couples might get up to all sorts of things, like swinging, but they usually don't try to deny they were a couple."

Yet for all the nastiness Radbord has witnessed, she gleefully tells me that she married her partner, twice. Before they could do so legally, they threw a lavish party with the gowns, the cake and the reception. The two later exchanged vows the day Ontario made equal marriage available, while Radbord was seven months pregnant with their son. Getting married had a profound influence.

"It changed the world for me and our families in a really powerful way. When love is real and it fits a formula they understand, they go, Okay, you love each other."

Douglas Elliott, one of Canada's pre-eminent gay-rights lawyers, observes many of the same trends that Radbord describes in same-sex splits, and then tells me that he, too, is marrying his partner, of 31 years. I swing the conversation around to my 14-year relationship, because I have yet to find that one good reason why my partner and I should marry, and I'm not above soliciting free legal advice.

I explain that we already have the hearts of our families, we don't want a splashy to-do, and, given that our economic affairs are as hopelessly entwined as our hearts, we're all but married under common-law legislation.

Elliott suggests something we don't have. Common-law relationships, gay or straight, have little status in other countries. "But marriage exists in every legal system in the world. If you introduce your female partner as a wife, they might be surprised, but there's instant recognition of what marriage means."

That night, I relay this to my partner with my usual over-the-top flourish: "So that means if we're travelling in the Amazon and one of us gets sick, everyone will know that we're each other's number 1. There's no question."

My ever-pragmatic partner considers this. But before I can ask her to marry me, she suggests we elope.

I grab the calendar. We set a date.



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