Joe Varnell and his husband Kevin Bourassa are reluctant human rights heroes.
They, along with Anne and Elaine Vautour, were the first same-sex couples to be married in Toronto at Riverdale’s Metropolitan Community Church on Jan. 14, 2001. The couples will renew their vows in a tenth anniversary celebration this Friday at the church.
While neither marriage was officially recognized by the Ontario government until the courts deemed them legal in 2003, the 2001 ceremony represents a major milestone in Canadian civil rights.
Bourassa remembers a wedding day like no other. The ceremony was a mix of terror and love. It took place under heavy police guard and Reverend Brent Hawkes performed the service wearing a bulletproof vest.
“Our constitution made the marriage possible, Pierre Trudeau is a hero still to us and we were married with red roses,” he said.
The day before their marriage, fearing their lives could be in danger for the vows they were about to exchange, the couple said farewell to their families and to each other.
“We said goodbye to people, we told them we loved them,” said Bourassa, now 52. “We were told we were under threat. The last words police officers said to us as we went down the aisle was, ‘If you hear a shot don’t move, somebody will move you, just stand still.’
“We were told if a shot was going to come it would most likely be when we signed the papers because they’d try to stop us from signing.”
Hawkes remembers being driven to the service by bodyguards who used a different route to get to the church. Dozens of police officers attended.
“Marriage is the ultimate right. With marriage comes everything else — the right to work, to adopt children, to visit people in hospital,” he said. “This really has changed things and it has shifted the conversation away from just who you can have sex with to who you can love. The public responds to that.”
And what happened after the service for Varnell and Bourassa — the threats, the life changes as the couple became human rights leaders and in-demand public speakers — is something Bourassa could never have predicted.
Bourassa, who took great pride in his rising banking career, ended up leaving his CIBC position to take on the same-sex marriage battle full-time. “We were doing hundreds and hundreds of interviews, public appearances. We spent hundreds of thousands of our own dollars on this,” he said.
Bourassa saw none of it coming when he said the simple words, “I do.”
“If I knew then what I know now, I would have said, ‘No, are you crazy? No bloody way,’ ” he said. “Joe would have. He would have done this. He is my better half. But this changed me to become a better person — involuntarily. For this, I am glad but it came at great personal cost.”
To this day, Varnell, 41, and Bourassa still can’t fly into the United States. “Homeland Security won’t let us in because we declare ourselves a family,” he said.
While love fuelled Varnell and Bourassa, a chance to improve the law motivated Toronto lawyers Douglas Elliott and Martha McCarthy.
It was Elliott and McCarthy who came up with the idea to seek legal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Elliott said when he put the word out to colleagues they were of immense help. It was Queen’s University professor Kathleen Lahey who told Elliott she believed same-sex marriage could occur through a banns ceremony — an ancient practice around for nearly 1,000 years.
Lahey told Elliott all he needed was a willing church and there would be no need for city hall to issue a license. Hawkes volunteered the Metropolitan Community Church to be that champion church.
On Jan. 14, 2001, the marriage ceremonies took place. Immediately following came the court challenges after the province refused to acknowledge the nuptials.
The first win came from the Ontario divisional court in 2002. The court said the law denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional but the court did give the government two years to consider alternatives.
The government appealed the ruling but in June 2003, the Court of Appeal refused the delay and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said he would not challenge it. Federal Attorney General Martin Cauchon went a step further and said he’d extend same-sex marriage across the country.
For her part, Elaine Vautour said she is proud of the historical significance of her marriage.
“It feels fantastic,” she said. “We helped change the world.”