For Gays, Toronto Is the Marrying Kind

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By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2004

When John Wagner and Jim Hurlburt decided to get married, they wanted to do it right. Guests would gather in a space decked out with their favorite flowers. The ceremony would be followed by a formal dinner and capped by a late-night dance party. The Cleveland couple also had a dream location in mind for the event: Toronto.

"We didn't just want a legal service," said Wagner, 56, a substance-abuse counselor. "We wanted a celebration of our lives together." He and Hurlburt, 61, had come to know the Canadian city in earlier visits and found it offered the mix of public acceptance and refined culture they wanted as a wedding backdrop.

Across the rapidly changing gay-marriage landscape, Toronto is a standout among the handful of locales in North America permitting ceremonies. The fierce opposition to same-sex unions in many parts of United States, including San Francisco and Massachusetts, has heightened the allure of the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, where gay marriages were approved last year with little fanfare.

Vermont, where civil unions were approved in 2000, is popular with gays who want a low-key service that will give them legal status (although the provisions stop short of offering spousal status). But Canada has the appeal of a foreign destination without requiring arduous travel. The urbane and culturally diverse city of Toronto is a particularly inviting choice for romantic types seeking an event with frills.

"For Americans, we could be a destination wedding venue," said Nizar El-Rifai, owner of Le Petit Liban, a gourmet restaurant on Church Street, Toronto's answer to New York's predominantly gay Christopher Street. El-Rifai said he is hosting weddings next month for gay couples from Ohio and New York.

The gay marriage provisions are "not a problem for us," said Jim McPeak, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, which has given funding to the Gay Toronto Tourism Guild and promoted the city's Pride Week, held every June. "Toronto is a big cosmopolitan city where everybody pretty much gets along with each other."

Although marriages of gay Americans in Canada are not legally recognized in the United States, citizens of any country can wed in Ontario as long as they fulfill certain basic requirements (see box, Page P5). Ever since an Ontario court approved gay weddings last June, about 350 same-sex couples from the United States have registered in Toronto, according to the Globe and Mail, the city's biggest daily newspaper.

The city doesn't provide information about the number of gays from abroad who have applied for marriage licenses. But Ellen Flowers, a spokeswoman for the Toronto Convention and Visitors Association, said the marriage provision "is bound to be a good thing for Americans and for the city." She added that "if Americans can come to Ontario to get married, why not do it in a great, vibrant city like Toronto?"

Toronto has responded swiftly to the rising market. A group of hotels, restaurants and other businesses created a Web site, www.gaytorontotourism.com, that lists gay-friendly venues and a page outlining the requirements for marriage. Dozens of entrepreneurs have come forward offering assistance with every step of the wedding process, from legal details to disc jockeys for the reception to morning-after brunch spots.

Late last month, more than 70 vendors held a gay wedding show in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The Gloucester Square Inns, an upscale bed-and-breakfast complex that has hosted more than 30 same-sex weddings, was there enticing guests with chocolate fudge and a range of wedding packages. Its deals start at $780, which includes a two-night stay, chauffeured car to the ceremony, wine and a wedding consultation. Asti's Limo adorned its booth with a white stretch sedan spacious enough to host an all-night party. Katie's Cakes had a display of delectable-looking creations topped by same-sex duos. There were even special deals from It's My Potty, a company that rents portable toilets for outdoor events.

By most accounts, Toronto offers more than a collection of companies cashing in on a hot trend. "You don't find that kind of tension about gay marriage here that you have in the States," said Michael Roussy, concierge at the Gloucester Square Inns. "In my experience, the environment here has always embraced people from all perspectives, including gays and lesbians. You can stay within the Gay Village and find everything you want. But I don't know of any neighborhood in the city where two men or two women would not feel comfortable holding hands."

Christopher Churchville, the property's gay general manager who emigrated from Las Vegas to Canada five years ago, concurred. "I feel I could go anywhere in this city and just be who I am. I rarely, if ever, felt that in American cities."


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