Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell are two LGBTQ activists who were married in 2001 in Ontario, Canada in what are considered the two first legally recognized Gay weddings. The couple, along with Anne and Elaine Vautour, were married by Reverend Brent Hawkes. By following traditional Canadian customs for legally-recognized marriage, the double wedding would become the grounds for legalizing Gay marriage in Canada. The Vautours chose to keep a lower public profile than Varnell and Bourassa.
Media attention caused by the announcement of the double wedding inspired the authorities to exercise caution due to anonymous threats of physical violence. Before the ceremony, the church was checked for explosives, the couples were kept under armed police guard, and Hawkes wore a bulletproof vest as he officiated the marriage. The dramatic narrative of their wedding has become historically-based legend in Gay Canadian folklore, and the couples are icons in the LGBTQ movement for marriage equality.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Canadian LGBTQ activists developed a plan to legalize Gay marriage by addressing two primary issues: religion and the laws of the state. Unlike the USA, where same-sex marriage has been framed as a secular issue, Canadian proponents actively sought out religious authorities of many faiths and denominations, reasoning that arguments of most prominent opponents were faith-based and should be addressed the same way.
The multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-religious nature of Canada’s urban population has made coalitions of diverse groups a political reality. By appealing to a national identity as cosmopolitan rather than monolithic, and basing that cosmopolitan identity on acceptance of difference, including difference in orientation, the coalition of religious leaders in favor of same-sex marriage (including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Sikh) was successful in swinging popular opinion over to the side of tolerance in terms of public policy.
On the legal front, lawyers advocating marriage equality analyzed the letter of the law to see whether same-sex unions were explicitly forbidden, and discovered that they were not. Canadian officials would not knowingly issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But the laws of the Province of Ontario offered a religious alternative to civil requirements: banns (public announcements for a marriage in a church) had to be made during services in the church(es) of the couple in advance to ensure that any irregularities could be raised before the marriage took place. In other words, religious marriage certified by the old Christian folk custom of banns supersedes, both legally and temporally, civil marriage.
Burassa, Varnell, and the Vautours were members of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Toronto where Hawkes was the minister. Their banns were read to the Gay-friendly congregation on three consecutive Sundays according to custom. Successfully fulfilling that requirement, the couples announced their plans to be married on January 14, 2001. Bourassa and Varnell had previously been blessed by Hawkes during a holy union ceremony in 1999, and the Vautours the summer of 2000, but neither ceremony had the force of law behind it.
On January 14, the couples arrived at the church. “Before the ceremony, the church was swept for bombs,” Bourassa said. They had a police escort from the limousine to the church, and then from the church basement (where they were kept for security reasons) to the church sanctuary for the double ceremony. “We were surprised and moved by the support that our bodyguards gave us,” Bourassa said. “They encouraged us, telling us everything would be okay.” The potential danger of their situation did not dampen their sense of humor. “If they really wanted to help us,” Varnell said, “they’d have given us the bulletproof vests they were wearing!”
After some legal wrangling, the marriages were recognized by the Province of Ontario in 2003. The rest of the provinces followed suit, and same-sex marriage was legalized throughout Canada in 2005. When this happened, and non-Canadians were allowed to be legally married in Canada, people from other countries (especially the USA) went there to wed.
Criticism from the Gay Community
Not everyone who wanted to silence Varnell and Bourassa was a homophobic Straight person. “We’ve been criticized by some Gay groups for getting married,” said Bourassa. Their reaction to these critics, some of them quite vicious, was to observe and not to react.
Varnell and Bourassa were more troubled by LGBTQ groups that frame Gay civil rights as a war against an enemy. Varnell was emphatic on this point: “There is no ‘them’ against ‘us.’ They are us!” The assimilation of Gay folk into mainstream society, including mainstream marriage, is no threat to Gay identity, they said. “We must realize that we are Gay citizens of the world, not just our own community,” added Bourassa. He gave the following example: “We were asked to support efforts to help GLBT street kids. Our answer is we should help all street kids.”
Nevertheless, they are amused by the notion of post-gay, that assimilation will lead to the death of LGBTQ culture. Varnell and Bourassa said that just the opposite is happening. “With proper assimilation, the full spectrum of the rainbow can shine forth,” said Bourassa. “Limiting us to our own spaces also limits our options.”
Dispute at US Customs
The couple has been reluctant to go to the USA. “We cannot fill out the declaration forms in the airport as being married to each other,” said Bourassa. “We refuse to compromise the truth of our relationship.” This happened on January 18, 2003 while on their way to a conference in Georgia, which was to be opened by Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s widow. An official informed them that they could not enter the USA as a family. If they wanted in, they would have to file separate forms as unmarried men. Inspired by the African American civil rights movement, Varnell and Bourassa had what they called “our own Rosa Parks moment.” Just as Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 (a racist custom in the then-segregated South), they refused to sign separate forms, and they were refused entry.
Six days later, the Concerned Women for America (a homophobic Christian organization) issued an article about the incident, entitled “Homosexuals Pose New Threat to U.S. Border Security.”
Bourassa and Varnell were labeled “domestic terrorists.” But both men love Americans deeply. “We don’t blame [Americans] for the actions of [their] government,” said Bourassa. They vowed not to return to the USA until they could enter as a legally-recognized married couple.
Although they did not show up in person, they gave a teleconference presentation during the Qualia Festival of Gay Folklife in 2006 on their marriage and their life as marriage equality activists.
Bourassa, Kevin and Joe Varnell. Just Married: Gay Marriage and the Expansion of Human Rights. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2002.
Jordan, Mark. Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005.
Lahey, Kathleen Ann and Kevin George Alderson. Same-Sex Marriage: The Personal and the Political. Toronto: Insomniac: 2004.
Laroque, Sylvain. Gay Marriage: The Story of a Canadian Social Revolution. Toronto: J. Lorimer, 2006.