On the first Sunday of December 2000, Rev. Brent Hawkes announced to his congregation at Toronto's Metropolitan Community Church that he would begin conducting legal same-sex marriages early the following year. Hawkes had recently discovered that practicing the centuries old tradition of reading the banns of marriage provided a legal loophole that would allow MCC, which serves a diverse congregation including many gay men and lesbians, to legally issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Whether these licenses would be recognized or registered by the province was not known at the time. If nothing more, the act of legally marrying gay couples would incite a dialogue on same-sex marriage and force the courts or the government to act.
Ironically, Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell, authors of Just Married, missed Sunday services that morning. But when contacted by Rev. Hawkes the following day and asked to be part of this history-making event, they accepted immediately. Bourassa and Varnell had affirmed their devotion to each other through the ritual of a Holy Union, a commitment ceremony offered by MCC, but both men still longed for the legitimacy of a "real" marriage. And not surprisingly, from the moment they accepted Hawkes' offer, their lives became the centre of a media frenzy.
Just Married is a detailed record of the soundbite-filled weeks preceding their wedding ceremony. Writing alternate chapters, Bourassa and Varnell discuss the shock of being thrust on to the national stage with little warning and the stress and frustration of trying to plan a wedding and stay focused on personal aspects of the impending marriage while under constant media scrutiny. It's interesting to see how quickly the men evolved from being tongued-tied and worried about the extra pounds the camera adds into media savvy spokespersons. Interesting too, is that both of them continued to shun the term "activist" while embarking on what many view as one of the most significant acts of civil disobedience in the history of the Canadian gay rights movement.
Still, Just Married is hardly propaganda for the cause of same-sex marriage or gay rights. While it does recount some of the important historical wins for Canadian gays and lesbians, particularly Pierre Elliot Trudeau's landmark decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, and the harassment of the Toronto bath raids of the 1980s, the book is more personal than political. Both men discuss coming out, their relationship with their families and why being legally married is so important to them. This is perhaps the book's greatest weakness; neither of the men succeed in clarifying the motivation behind their need to have their non-traditional love publicly sanctioned by church and state through an institution as traditional as marriage.
For this reason, it seems wise that Just Married approaches the legalization of same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue. Bourassa and Varnell argue that denying gays and lesbians the right to marry is the denial of a basic right. Through this approach, readers are forced to look at the kind of prejudice, hatred and fear that still exists towards gays and lesbians, from the outright hate crimes practiced by terrified religious leaders to fence-sitting politicians who nervously wait for the courts to do their job. It bravely bares the underlying bigotry and hypocrisy of clergy who fear that the noble institution of holy matrimony will be sullied and the family unit felled if same-sex unions become legal. And it portrays so-called Liberal politicians as cowards, unwilling to expand the definition of marriage for fear of being punished for their loose morality in the polls. Just Married clearly acknowledges that as a society, we should be beyond the point of asking whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry; instead the book asks how a significant percentage of Canadians can be openly denied this basic legal right in a just and tolerant society. In addition to fending off resistance from the mainstream, Bourassa and Varnell are well aware that there is also opposition to same-sex marriage within the gay community. Many gay activists view marriage as a means of normalizing and controlling the behavior of gays and lesbians, one more axe chipping away at a disappearing gay culture. Some argue that gays and lesbians who want to marry are assimilationists, conformists desperately seeking the acceptance of straight society by any means. By positioning the ban against same-sex marriage as the denial of a civil right, Bourassa and Varnell manage to tread lightly on this divide that exists within the gay community.
Admittedly, there is that sense of assimilation present in Just Married. Bourassa and Varnell live a seemingly comfortable, conformist middle class life with good jobs and relatively good relationships with family. They are regular churchgoers, monogamous, and from the descriptions of wedding clothes and party preparations, willing consumers. They pose little threat to the mainstream status quo¨ after all, they "seem" so normal. And there's an insularity to Just Married that tends to gloss over the fact that they weren't the only ones involved in this history-making event. Hopefully, readers will wonder whether lesbians Anne and Elaine Vautour, who also took legal vows on that fateful day in January, had similar experiences. The media all but ignored their story. One can't help but wonder if the image of two men kissing over a wedding cake is far more aberrant and disturbing to the average Canadian than the thought of the same act shared by two women. And while it's obvious that Bourassa and Varnell both have a great deal of respect and admiration for Rev. Hawkes, he is occasionally portrayed as controlling, almost manipulative. It's clear that many of his decisions are necessary for both security reasons and to ensure inscrutable credibility once the license makes its way to the provincial offices. Still, one develops an uneasy hunch that both couples were to some extent pawns, hand picked for their squeaky-clean lifestyles and placed into position to accomplish Hawkes' greater good of legalizing same-sex marriage.
One could view Just Married as a look at how far gays and lesbians have come in their battle for social acceptance and equality. But it also demonstrates just how far there is yet to go. Bourassa's mother has to approach several bakeries in her small town Ontario home before she finds one that will decorate a wedding cake bearing the names of two men. During the ceremony, there are pickets in front of the church, bodyguards and bulletproof vests inside and more security and media coverage than during most state visits. And when the province of Ontario refuses to register the marriages, no one is surprised.
On July 12, 2002, weeks after Just Married was published, the Ontario Divisional Court ruled that the Federal government's ban on same-sex marriages violates the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights and should be struck down. A recent poll within the Liberal party shows a split, with a slim margin in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage (48% for and 43% against). Despite this, and the belief that legal same-sex marriage is inevitable thanks to high levels of support among younger Canadians, the Federal government filed to appeal the Ontario court's decision near the end of July. With a long and expensive court battle poised to begin, Canadians are now facing a "speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace" situation that began with the history-making event described in Just Married. ˛