Canada offers preview of gay-marriage impacts

Denver Post
July 4 2004

Canada offers preview of gay-marriage impacts

The unions, legal in three provinces, have not been the burning issue
that they are in the United States.

By Anne C. Mulkern
Denver Post Staff Writer

Post / Helen H. Richardson
Apraham Niziblian, 30, right, and Michel Niquette, 49, a couple for
over two years, who believe fully in gay marriage and the rights of
homosexuals, share a moment in the couple’s kitchen.

Montreal – In the kitchen of a home in Canada’s second-largest city,
Rene LeBoeuf and Michael Hendricks fix a dinner of sauerkraut and
sausages while drinking beer and playing with their golden retriever,
Oscar Wilde.

The pair slide back and forth between French and English as they talk
about their recent wedding and upcoming Miami honeymoon. Occasionally
correcting each other and finishing each other’s sentences, LeBoeuf,
49, and Hendricks, 62, look and sound like any married couple. Except
both are men. They married three months ago, the first gay couple to
do so in Quebec.

“We’re a typical married couple,” Hendricks said. “We get home in the
evening, we make dinner. We have a garden. We do our shopping. Normal

“Normal” is a word many gay people in Montreal are embracing with new
fervor. Located 30 minutes by car from the New York border, Montreal
has been friendly to gays for at least a decade. But in the last few
months, it has become even more welcoming.

Montreal sits in Quebec province, one of three in Canada where gay
couples are allowed to legally marry. Ontario, just west of Quebec,
and British Columbia, in the far west, also allow the marriages. The
three are the most populous regions, housing three-fourths of
Canada’s 30 million people.

As the United States wrestles with the issue of gay marriage, Canada
offers a window into what might sit on the horizon.

Polls show about half of Canadians oppose gay marriages, about the
same proportion as in the United States. But the largest Canadian
courts – as with the Supreme Court in Massachusetts – decided
marriage laws must be rewritten to include gays and lesbians. The
same-sex marriages started in Ontario about a year ago.

Last week, Canadians retained the Liberal Party as the controlling
force in Parliament. The Liberal Party has said it supports
legalizing gay marriage nationwide, as do two of the three other
parties in Parliament. Gays who feared the country’s Conservative
Party would try to overturn marriage laws know that’s not likely, at
least not now. Of Parliament’s 308 members, the majority comes from
political parties that endorse an expansion of liberalized same-sex
marriage laws. The Supreme Court of Canada, meanwhile, is considering
the issue. Popular thinking is that the court will support gay

Post / Helen H. Richardson
Rene LeBoeuf, 49, left, and Michael Hendricks, 62, were the first gay
couple to get married in Quebec. They sit amongst placques they have
made from many of the front pages of the local newspapers that show
the large amount of media attention they got surrounding their union.

“It’s a fait accompli, more or less,” said Apraham Niziblian, 30, who
lives in Montreal with his gay partner, Michel Niquette, 49.

Niziblian commutes between Montreal and Washington, where he lobbies
on Armenian issues. Legalizing gay marriage has given all gay couples
legitimacy, he said, the kind not found in the U.S.

That feeling of freedom was seen on a recent day in Montreal as two
men sat entwined outside a coffee shop. One caressed the other’s
thigh, then leaned in for a long, passionate kiss. A few blocks away,
two other men drank sangria and kissed repeatedly on the balcony of a
two-story restaurant. Behind them, the sun slipped below Montreal’s
gothic cathedrals.

“It’s just more of a mainstream thing,” Niziblian said of gay
relationships in Montreal. “Even people who are opposed to the
marriage issue, you won’t find people who are opposed to people being
gay. You won’t hear people say you chose to be gay.”

Across the U.S. border, the issue is anything but settled.
Massachusetts is the only state to allow gay weddings, and Vermont
the only one to allow civil unions for gay couples.

The U.S. Senate plans this month to consider a proposal – sponsored
by Republican Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado – to amend the
Constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman. U.S. Rep.
Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., was the first to offer the amendment.

President Bush says he supports the measure. Sen. John Kerry, the
likely Democratic nominee, opposes both the proposed amendment and
gay marriage, but he favors civil unions.

Several polls show Americans split about evenly on whether to amend
the Constitution to preclude gay marriages. A June poll conducted for
The Denver Post showed that in Colorado, 50 percent opposed the
amendment effort, while 41 percent favored and 9 percent were
undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

As in the United States, religious groups, including a Canadian
branch of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, have been the
loudest opposition to legalized gay unions. Focus on the Family last
year spent $600,000 on radio and newspaper ads that talked about
upholding families.

Post / Helen R. Richardson
Stephane Ricard, 23, right and Guillaume Demers, 19, feel free to
express their interest in and fondness for one another while they
have lunch on a date in the village. The village is how this
neigborhood is referred to by gays and lesbians and is an openly gay
neigborhood in Montreal that is very well-known in the community.
“We believe in mom and dad,” said the newspaper ad, which showed a
man and woman with a child. “We believe in marriage. The family is a
schoolroom for life, and lasting lessons come from a man and a woman.
… Traditional marriage, if you believe in it, protect it.”

The president of Focus on the Family’s Canada arm, Darrel Reid, calls
Canada the “canary in the coal mine” for the United States. James
Dobson, who heads the United States group, agrees.

“We’re headed in the same direction as Canada,” Dobson said in an
interview. “I think it’s just a matter of time.” He called gay
marriage “the most serious social experiment that ever has been
perpetrated. If it occurs … it will destroy the family.”

If Canada begins allowing gay marriages nationwide, it will be the
second nation to do so. Belgium allows all gay couples to wed.
Denmark, France and Germany allow civil unions.

The issue in Canada is more nuanced than in America, however.

While gay couples lined up to wed in Massachusetts and in San
Francisco when municipalities allowed it, Canadian gays and lesbians
aren’t running to the courthouses. There’s no official tally of how
many gay couples have wed, but gay-rights groups put the number at
about 3,000 nationally since Ontario first legalized the marriages in
June 2003. Of those, they estimate 1,000 were Americans who then
returned home.

This is happening as Canadian marriage rates are declining. Canada in
2001 recorded 4.7 marriages per 1,000 people, compared with a rate of
5.1 for the four previous years, and a 7.8 rate in the U.S.

Quebec province has the lowest rate of marriage in North America, at
three marriages per 1,000 people.

Quebec residents said in interviews that the nonmarriage trend is a
rebellion against the Catholic Church, which they feel controlled
their lives for decades. The province is still about 90 percent
Catholic, but as Niziblian explains, “The church doesn’t have the
same sort of influence on Canadians.”

Canadians differ from Americans culturally in other key ways, said
those tracking this issue. Americans focus on individual freedoms,
while Canadians focus more on the rights of all members of society.

“It’s the difference between a revolutionary country and a country
that never revolted,” said Iain Benson of the Center for Cultural
Renewal in Ottawa, which opposes gay marriages. Canadians, he said,
operate as though they still live under a monarch.

Most trace the beginnings of gay marriage in Canada to the late Prime
Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s famous statement in 1967, “The state
has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.” No-fault divorce and
decriminalization of gay sexual acts soon followed.

In 1982, Trudeau removed the Canadian Constitution from the British
Parliament’s jurisdiction. He incorporated into it the Canadian
Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is similar to the U.S. Bill of
Rights. Soon, a series of court cases began to rule that the charter
granted gays the same kind of anti-discrimination rights that all
citizens shared.

Gay and lesbian groups began to demand the right to marry.

Parliament reacted in 1999 by voting overwhelmingly to affirm the
definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. It was
similar to a measure approved by the U.S. Congress and President
Clinton in 1996.

But Canadian courts continued to rule in favor of same-sex marriage.
In 2002, supreme courts in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec said
the existing definition of marriage was discriminatory. The Ontario
court told Parliament to resolve the issue. When Parliament failed to
act, the court declared gay marriages legal in June 2003.

Gays began marrying the next day in Ontario.

Hendricks and LeBoeuf, who’ve been together 30 years, won their
lawsuit against Quebec in March 2004.

In Canada, gay marriage brings only a few more tangible benefits than
gay and lesbian couples already enjoy. Since 1997, gay couples that
registered with the state have had most of the benefits of married
couples, such as community property rights, tax benefits, the right
to jointly adopt children, and some survivor benefits. It’s called
conjoint de fait, French for “spouse in fact.”

Among Canadians who oppose gay marriages, many endorse civil unions
or say gay couples should have the same rights to legal benefits that
heterosexual couples enjoy.

But gay couples say they want to be treated like everyone else, even
if they never decide to get married.

“It’s important to get the choice, but I don’t really want to get
married,” said Luc Vaillant, 37, of Montreal. “It’s for the égalité,”
he said – equality. “Just feeling as the others.”

Nick Williams, 38, is marrying his partner of five years, Mark
Tessier, 45, in September. Outside a voting location on election day,
he said he supported anyone but the head of the Conservative Party,
which opposes gay marriages.

“I don’t want to live in the Stone Age,” he said. “I like the fact
that in the 21st century, we’re starting to recognize gay couples as
couples that should be recognized.”

Not all gays agree that legalized marriage is a positive thing. At a
dinner party at Niziblian’s home, two gay men debated whether the
right to marry is an advancement.

“I just don’t identify with an institution that was created for
straight people,” said George Berberian, 32. “It doesn’t really suit
gay people and their lifestyle.”

Berberian said gay men primarily are motivated by sexual desire and
stay together for shorter periods than heterosexual couples. He said
that fighting for gay marriage is equivalent to conforming to
heterosexual lifestyles and that gays instead should fight to be
recognized for their differences.

Paul Dumont, 29, who also is gay, would like to get married.

“I still believe one day I’ll meet the right person. I know it’s
going to be true love, and I want to celebrate that love,” he said.

“You can celebrate it some other way,” Berberian said.

“No, I want that ring,” Dumont said with an impish grin.

Canadian groups that oppose gay marriages – most of which are
religious – say redefining marriage violates their rights. It’s
equivalent to condemning one definition of marriage, they said, and
imposing a new one.

“It’s really the states and the courts imposing a particular moral
code on some societies,” said Daniel Cere, director of the Institute
for the Study of Marriage, Law and Culture, a think tank.

As she voted on Monday, one new mother agreed. “I don’t want schools
teaching my daughter about same-sex marriage,” said Leslie Suderman,
29, of Montreal, whose daughter Sparrow is 10 months old. “I want her
to learn my thoughts on that. I view homosexuality as something that
would be abnormal.”

But even those opposed shrug their shoulders when asked what should
be done to stop the marriages.

In the 1,800-population town of Van Kleek Hill, known for its old
gingerbread mills, resident Lorraine Wade, 48, opposes the marriages
but acknowledges, “Most people are going to live their lives the way
they’re going to live their lives.”

Denver Post researcher Regina Avila contributed to this report.