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MARRIAGE 101

By Barbara McDowall

Lesbian and gay couples have been legally marrying since June 10, 2003.  Hundreds of couples have tied the knot at a variety of different locations across Canada.

Marriage for lesbian and gay couples is a relatively new thing.  Most of us probably never thought it would be possible.  My wife, Gail Donnelly and I were told when we joined the Ontario same sex marriage case that we were looking at perhaps 5-10 years before it would even get to the Supreme Court.  Events couldn't have moved quicker, and much quicker than anyone could have ever predicted.

Prior to my marriage to Gail, I had previously been married and am the proud mother of two grown children.  Toward the end of that marriage, I came out and about a year later, moved into my first relationship with a woman. That relationship turned out to be a true gift.  As difficult as it was, I did learn a great deal about myself and to take responsibility for my role in what took place within that relationship.  It was the catalyst necessary for me to begin the process of consciously defining myself.

For the first time, I really took a look at me, at who I was and who I had become.  What I saw, I didn't much care for.  I began to examine my life and with that I began the process of self discovery and self definition that will always be a part of my life.

Being prepared to look within, to sift through the misinformation, to consciously let go of some of the old belief patterns that were directly my life quietly in the background has lead me to a much deeper relationship with myself.  I began to live my life more consciously and more authentically.  I came to a place of loving and accepting me.  Once I was able to love and accept and to be in a loving relationship with myself, I was ready to do 'relationship' outside of myself with more success. 

Gail, too, had left a failed relationship.  She had also taken the time to sort things out and to do some inner work.  And when we met in October of 1998, there was an instant attraction that took us from that first meeting to marriage in 2000.  By August 1999, we were hopelessly in love and I proposed.  It was not done impulsively. It took three days of reflection and listening to my inner voice before I was able to use the 'm' word.  Having experienced two failed relationships, I wanted to make sure this was the right thing to do.

We chose to get married, even though it was not legal at the time.  As some couples do who fall in love, we wanted our loving relationship to be celebrated publicly as had our mothers and fathers; our sisters and brothers before us.  However, we also appreciate that not everyone chooses to get married.

We had a magical ceremony officiated by Rev. Brent Hawkes of MCCToronto and Rev. Mary Joseph at Gatsby's Restaurant on Church Street.  Invitations were sent out and over a hundred of our family and friends joined us as we exchanged our vows.  My two children stood proudly with me as did Gail's mother and father.  Many commented it was the best wedding they had ever attended.

Over the days and weeks following the ceremony, we realized something in our relationship had shifted.  Having our marriage witnessed publicly by family and friends now gave our relationship a depth, a weight, a fixed place in time and space that it hadn't had before.

At the end of the day, as wonderful as that ceremony was, it still wasn't legal.  Serendipity connected us to the same sex marriage case here in Ontario.  We immediately joined the case and thus began our transformation into human rights advocates.  It was important to stand up for what we believed in no matter what.

The Court of Appeal decision in June of 2003 allowed lesbian and gay couples the right to marry.  Gail and I 'renewed our vows' in an intimate, legal civil ceremony in a small chapel in Guelph. 

Our relationship over the intervening years has had its wonderful moments as well as its challenging ones.  As we continue to evolve and do the conscious inner work of knowing ourselves better and redefining ourselves with each experience, we have found numerous opportunities to apply what we have learned.  It has truly enhanced who we are and the organic relationship we are in.  With each passing day, its depth grows.

Marrying Gail continues to be one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life.  My love for her continues to deepen with each passing year.  I feel we are an amazing team, an equal partnership.  Our relationship is based on interdependence and the mutual growth of the other.  I am called each day to be the best I can be.

As an ordained interfaith minister, I have the privilege of officiating at many same sex weddings.  Here are some tips I would like to pass along to those couples who are contemplating on marriage:

Take advantage of premarital counseling.  It can help you become aware of the beliefs and misconceptions that are unconsciously brought into a marriage.  The belief systems and ways of relating modeled by our families of origin can unconsciously undermine the success of any relationship.  The more you know about your partner, the better prepared you are to work together.

Be in a committed relationship with yourself first; know who you are.  Know your values and apply them to self and others around you.  Love, accept and be proud of who you are.  All change begins with you.  When you change your thinking you change your life.

Communicate, communicate, communicate, always try to understand before you are understood.  When times get tough, communicate even more.  Ask for clarification.  From that new understanding choose a loving win/win response that allows you to continue to be connected.  Recognize and celebrate these moments as growth moments.

Be willing to admit your mistakes.  If you hurt your partner through something you said or did, seek to make amends.  Don't let things simmer.

Don't take each other for granted.  Take the time to honour each other and revitalize your relationship.  For example, have regular mini vacations.  Set aside one weekend a month where there is no agenda, the answering machine takes your calls and the computer is shut down. 

Don't change your partner.  Love them for who they are right now.

Choose a life template or set of guidelines and apply it.  The Four Agreements is just one of a number of great examples:

Don't take anything personally
Nothing others do is because of you.  What others say and do is a project of their own reality, their own dream.  When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.

Don't make assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want.  Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.  With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Be impeccable with your word
Speak with integrity.  Say only what you mean.  Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Always do your best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick.  Under any circumstance, simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

Cultivate patience and a sense of humour and don't be afraid to ask for help.
Sometimes situations can be resolved by getting another perspective from someone outside the relationship.  They can be an impartial sounding board allowing you to connect to your wisdom in bringing resolution.  Be gentle and patient with yourselves.  Life is too short as it is not to have fun!

According to German philosopher, Karl Maria Rilke, 'the point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of their solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.'

Successful marriages are those built on a foundation of mutual trust, respect, love and ongoing communication. 

EVOLUTION:  From Lesbian & Gay Rights to Human Rights
By Barbara McDowall

The same sex marriage court challenge of the past three years has had a profound impact on my life.  It has provided me with a number of defining moments, much like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.  But what started, as a very personal journey became a journey that included all of humanity.

The values of authenticity, truth, courage, equality and respect are an important part of the conscious relationship that my wife Gail and I share.  Honouring these values is what propelled our decision to participate in the same sex marriage court challenge from the outset. 

I grew up in a family that believed in marriage.  My first marriage was a heterosexual one and I have two wonderful children as a result.  I married as my mother and father had with the same rituals in place: engagement, showers, marriage/reception and honeymoon. Ultimately, that marriage ended in divorce.

Some years later, I met and fell in love with Gail.  I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Personally, that meant proposing, getting married and going on a honeymoon.  Our love is no different than that of a heterosexual couple, yet we could not marry legally and have society's blessing. The hypocrisy didn't make sense to me. 

Gail and I were deliberate from the beginning in referring to our ceremony as a marriage/wedding not as a holy union or commitment ceremony. We felt it was demeaning to call it anything less.  We were married on June 3rd of 2000 in the presence of many friends and family who celebrated with us as we danced into the night.  Many told us that our wedding was the best they had ever attended.  It was one of the most profound moments of my life.  I have never loved anyone so deeply.  We left very early the next morning on our honeymoon to Vancouver Island.  We were proud to share our story with those we met. 

Upon returning to Toronto in the middle of June, we discovered Michael Leshner and Michael Stark had launched a civil suit in Ontario for the right to marry.  We felt very strongly about our right to choose to marry legally and viewed this as an opportunity to end the discrimination of lesbian and gay couples who wanted the choice of marriage.  It was an opportunity to stand up and be counted.  After connecting with the lawyers involved, we joined the case as one of eight applicant couples, which required applying for our marriage license at City Hall.  For us, participating in this case felt like the right thing to do.  It was in alignment with who we are and everything we stand for. 

We were told to expect the legal proceedings to take anywhere from 5 to 10 years to be resolved.  From the outset, we were prepared to do whatever it took for as long as it took to realize our dream of a world that supports all loving, committed relationships, a world that truly embraces the richness and the diversity that surrounds us. While that dream has not been fully realized, I believe we are beginning to see encouraging steps toward change right here in Toronto. Our dream demands that we consciously close the gap between who we say we are and who we demonstrate ourselves to be.

In 2000, I was program coordinator and deacon at Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT). Later that same year, MCCT became involved in the same sex marriage issue.  Douglas Elliot (legal counsel for MCCT) and his advisors realized that the wording of the Ontario Marriage Act specifies marriage between 'any two persons'. Historically, churches have had the power to perform marriages through the publication of banns.  The publication of banns is the public declaration by a minister during 3 consecutive church services of two people's intention to marry. This provided an opportunity for the recognition of same sex marriage in Ontario.  Brent Hawkes, senior pastor of MCCT, invited Gail and I to speak to the media (and therefore to Canadians) about the desire for gays and lesbians to marry legally.  We were able to speak to many people and to put a human face to the issue. We met with much support from the different media.  The minimum negativity we did encounter did our case more good than harm.  Gail and I simply allowed these people to present their point of view without trying to change their minds.  Unfortunately, at the end of one short week it was discovered that my previous marriage disqualified us from participating in the banns process, which has three requirements; couples must be of legal age, not directly related to each other, and not previously married/divorced. 

MCCT's commitment continued and we were able to contribute in other ways. In January 2001, Gail and I walked Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell down the aisle at the historic marriages at MCCT.  Kevin and Joe, as well as Elaine and Anne Vautour exchanged vows on January 14.  It was an incredibly emotional, exciting and meaningful day!

Several months later, the Registrar General of Ontario refused to register these marriages. At that time, MCCT and civil cases became one.  As applicant couples, Gail and I along with Kevin and Joe, teamed up to dedicate ourselves to educating the public, both gay and straight about the importance for same sex couples to have a choice in marrying legally.  It was exciting and energizing to speak with individuals and groups and to hear their questions and concerns.  We learned much about the need for people to be able to share their views (for or against) in a safe space without having to change their minds or hearts.  We intentionally created a space that would foster understanding, that would open up the possibility for a new way of thinking somewhere down the road. 

The refusal to register those MCCT marriages lead us in November 2001 to the Ontario Divisional court at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.  Gail and I attended the full week of legal presentations and continued interviews with media and talks with high school and university classes.  I had the sense that there was something bigger at work behind the scenes.  I like to think of it as divine intervention.

In July of 2002, the Ontario Divisional Court decided unanimously that to deny marriage to same sex couples was discriminatory and unconstitutional.  All governments involved (municipal, provincial, and federal) were given 2 years to make the necessary changes.  The Ontario government and the City of Toronto declined to appeal this decision.  The federal government chose to appeal.  As a result, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon put together a committee to travel across the country to find out what 'average' Canadians had to say about lesbians and gays getting married. 

In April 2003, Gail and I attended the 2-day long committee hearings in Toronto.  We had been scheduled to speak when the committee hearings began in Ottawa in February.  However, daily reports emerging from these meetings revealed disrespect, negativity, and bias by committee members towards those who spoke in favour of same sex marriage.  There were no clear rules of conduct and no clear leadership.  Gail and I chose not to subject ourselves to such abuse and I contacted Andy Scott, the chair of the committee to let him know we would not attend and why.

At the Toronto hearings, I observed a noticeable change. Presenters were cautioned about the language they were to use and told any derogatory language would not be tolerated.  A number of presenters had to be reminded.  At the end of the first day's proceedings, those in the audience who wished to speak were given 2 minutes to address the committee members.  There were many who spoke out on behalf of same sex marriage including Gail and I.

Days after the conclusion of the committee hearings, the appeal of the Ontario Divisional Court decision of 2001 was being heard at Osgoode Hall.  I sat with other observers and listened to the arguments.  It was an amazing opportunity to see history being made.  After the presentations, there was a real sense that we could actually win at this point, rather than having to wait for a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada.  It was exciting to see how the panel of three justices really understood what was being argued, and what was at stake.  Their understanding of the purpose and intent of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was powerful. 

The panel of three justices, including Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, ruled unanimously that it was unconstitutional and discriminatory to deny same sex couples the right to legally marry.  The respective governments were instructed to make the necessary changes immediately.

However, our federal government reserved the right to decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.  On June 10, 2003 they announced that they would not appeal.  The moment Gail heard the news she left me a voice mail asking me to marry her.  We were ultimately married through Guelph City Hall with my proud 81-year-old mother in attendance.  Ironically, my first marriage had been in Guelph almost thirty years before.

I am very grateful to have been a part of this historical court challenge.  Within an amazingly short period of time, Gail and I have realized our dream of being legally married with all the rights and obligations that other Canadians enjoy.

I have learned more about who I really am with many opportunities for self-definition.  I have a deeper understanding of my responsibility for my brothers and sisters less fortunate than I am.  I have truly felt a divine presence watching over the events of the past three years guiding the process and providing exactly what was necessary to ensure success.  I have a deeper commitment to being the change I seek in the world, to closing the gap between who I say I am and who I demonstrate myself to be

This case was not just about gay and lesbian rights.  It was about the rights and freedoms to be enjoyed by every human being.  As lesbian & gay couples are released from this particular prison, another group is ready to fill the vacancy.  Will it be you or someone you love?  Will you stand up for them?  If not, who will?  If not now, when?

Chronology:

  • July 2000 - Civil suit launched by Michael Leshner and Michael Stark and apply at Toronto City Hall for marriage license.
  • November 2000 - MCCToronto announces it will perform same sex marriages based on wording of Ontario.
  • Marriage Act that refers to any two 'persons' .
  • January 2001 - Gay couple and lesbian couple married at MCCT.
  • January 2001 - Registrar General of Ontario refuses to register marriages.
  • January 2001 - MCCT sues the federal, provincial, and municipal governments.
  • 2001 - Civil and MCCT cases merge.
  • Creation of an articulate, well-informed team of legal minds representing Egale, and both sides of the case
  • Those involved in the case speak to the media resulting in growing support.
  • Some Senators, Human Rights Commission, Law Commission of Canada, growing number of Canadians, more faith groups begin to speak out in support.
  • November 2001 - Case heard by Ontario Divisional Court in Toronto.
  • July 2002 - Unanimous decision by Ontario Divisional Court that declares it is unconstitutional and discriminatory to deny equal access to marriage for gay and lesbian couples.  Respective governments are given 2 years to make the necessary changes. Federal government decides to appeal Ontario decision.
  • February 2003 - Parliamentary hearings commence in Ottawa and travel across the country to determine what Canadians think about marriage for gays and lesbians.
  • April 2003 - The appeal of the July 2002 Ontario Divisional Court decision begins in the Ontario Court of Appeal
  • Presentations by Egale, MCCT, civil side now with the participation of the Human Rights Commission.  There is a sense that we can win at this level without having to go to the Supreme Court of Canada.
  • June 2003 - decision of the Appeal Court of Ontario that it is unconstitutional and discriminatory to exclude gay and lesbian couples from the right to marry and to make the necessary changes to legislation immediately. 
  • June 2003 - Federal government decides not to appeal and supports making the necessary changes and verbally supports same sex marriage for gays and lesbians.

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