Hundreds of Gay Couples Make Their Way to Ontario to Say 'I Do'

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 22, 2003

TORONTO, June 21 -- The betrothed wore black suits and held hands as they marched down the hall of the courthouse in Toronto. "The Michaels" nervously stood before a judge and repeated these vows:

"I, Michael, take you, Michael, to be my lawful wedded spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward in whatever circumstance or experience life may hold for us."

After the vows, the judge declared: "I, by the virtue of the powers invested in me by the marriage act, do hereby declare you, Michael and Michael, publicly and affectionately known as the Michaels, to be lawful wedded spouses."

And with that the crowd gathered for them at the Ontario Superior Court applauded. Cameras flashed, and the men, Michael Leshner, 55, and Michael Stark, 45, kissed.

The day was a dramatic culmination, they said, for the gay rights movement in North America as Canada became the first country on this continent to grant the right of legal, government-sanctioned marriage to gay and lesbian couples.

"Today is Day One for millions of gays and lesbians in Canada and around the world," Leshner said after the ceremony. "This is a wonderful, wonderful human rights story and a wonderful love story . . . This judgment puts a stake in the heart of homophobia."

Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples have wed in Ontario since an appeals court issued a historic decision last week that changed the definition of marriage in the province from the union of a man and woman to the union of two people. Prime Minister Jean Chretien has announced that his government would draft legislation legalizing same-sex marriages in all of Canada.

The Ontario court's ruling declared "the dignity of persons in same-sex relationships is violated by the exclusion of same-sex couples from the institution of marriage." The ruling took effect immediately.

Court officials in Ontario report that dozens of American same-sex couples have crossed the border to register and exchange vows, hoping that some day their Canadian licenses will be recognized back home. Tour companies have created packages aimed at attracting same-sex couples in the United States to travel to Canada for weddings. Toronto's City Hall plans to remain open for Pride weekend, June 28-29, to give couples a chance to marry.

"I'm hoping more Americans come up here and get married and erode the Defense of Marriage Act," said Kyle Rae, a Toronto city councilor. "I think as more and more Americans come up to get married, states will have a difficult time not recognizing a sovereign state's marriage license."

No U.S. state recognizes same-sex marriages. Vermont recognizes civil unions, which give gay and lesbian couples the benefits and responsibilities of marriage but are separate from a legal marriage. The U.S. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife.

Canada does not require residency for marriage, and marriage licenses issued in Canada have been accepted in the United States. Gay and lesbian rights advocates in the United States are hoping Canada's move to legalize same-sex marriage will encourage court challenges to marriage laws in the United States.

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