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Here come the brides, the grooms and a more equal Canada

In growth and acceptance, Altitude has paralleled the fight for gay marriage, and now the Feds are ready to act

"In the next 15 to 20 years being gay or lesbian is going to be as important as being left-handed."

– barbara findlay, lawyer/activist, on the sociological impact of same-sex marriage

"I started the website to educate people that there is an alternative vacation destination. There are very few places that you can be yourself and be out – Whistler is one them."

Sean Kearn, founder of www.gaywhistler.com

"I think people are just thrilled to have access to same-sex marriage; that it’s so easy and acceptable here,"

–Lizz Kelly, owner of Whistler Gay Weddings

 

 

If all goes as expected, June brides will be wedding each other in record numbers across Canada this summer.

Sometime early next month Prime Minister Paul Martin will be introducing a bill in the House of Commons that will give gays and lesbians across Canada the right to marry. Vancouver-based lesbian lawyer barbara findlay (her preferred spelling), who specializes in law pertaining to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, sees the new legislation as a slam dunk.

"With the support of the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP, the Liberals will have no problem passing this bill," says findlay, pointing out a previous three-party coalition. "It has worked before. They were able to stop the Alliance from passing a bill defining marriage as being only between a man and a woman."

She isn’t the only one optimistic about the bill receiving unencumbered passage.

Before Parliament breaks for summer vacation, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler expects that the right of same-sex partners to marry will be the law of the land.

Cotler’s statements to the Canadian Press came a month after the Supreme Court’s decision on Dec. 9 declaring same-sex marriage valid and giving the federal government the authority to change the definition of marriage. And in a move seemed designed to stem any potential controversy, the court, keeping with religious freedoms outlined in the Charter, reaffirmed those religious officials opposing same-sex marriages would not have to perform them.

The decision, as well as the introduction of the federal legislation, seems almost anticlimactic in the battle for gay and lesbian equality. After all, seven provinces and one territory currently allow same-sex marriage. Gay and lesbian couples can legally wed in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and The Yukon.

On Dec. 21, Newfoundland became the most recent province to come on board. The Newfoundland decision received minimal press. Was it a case of old news, or do we, as Canadians, see these legislative changes as a fulfilment of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s vision for a just society?

To date only Alberta Premier Ralph Klein has gone on the books saying that his province will not allow same-sex marriages and will deploy the notwithstanding clause to do so. Klein had suggested that the issue of same-sex marriage should go to a federal referendum but later recanted, claiming that he was "thinking out loud."

"I have friends who are gays and friends who are lesbian and they’re wonderful people," Klein said in a CBC interview earlier this month. "I do feel that gays and lesbians ought not to be discriminated against in any other form other than marriage because I think that marriage is a sacred thing that exists between a man and a woman."

But Klein will be unable to keep gay marriage from coming.

The decision as to who may marry is a federal one. The issuing of licences is a provincial responsibility. However, any marriage performed in Canada must be recognized by all of the country’s provinces and territories. Therefore, a couple of Calgary cowboys itching to get hitched could travel a few hundred miles east or west, say their vows in B.C. or Saskatchewan and come home legally wed. Then they’d be in the position to legally challenge any discriminatory provincial legislation.

But what will happen if things go awry in the House of Commons and the bill is not passed?

"What would happen is that queers in the other remaining jurisdictions that do not allow for same-sex marriage would go to court to win the right to marry," explains findlay.

She stresses this is very unlikely.

• • •

I came out as a lesbian at 17, bursting with teenage idealism and overflowing with youthful arrogance. I fully expected gays and lesbians would win human rights protection and achieve a decent level of social acceptance.

What my 17-year-old self could not imagine was that gay families, couples with or without children, would be afforded the same rights and responsibilities of our straight counterparts.

• • •

Handsome, intelligent and affable, Sean Kearn is the kind of guy that you’d want your brother to marry. Unfortunately, the semi-retired former software-marketing executive is taken. Kearn, an American citizen and part-time Whistler resident, is the driving force behind the tourism-building website www.gaywhistler.com.

"I started the website to educate people that there is an alternative vacation destination (to San Francisco and other traditional gay meccas)," says Kearn. "There are very few places that you can be yourself and be out – Whistler is one of them."

Kearn points to a letter on his website from Mayor Hugh O’ Reilly.

"How many other places has the mayor rolled out the red carpet?"

Having attended Altitude – Whistler’s gay ski week – for 10 years, Kearn couldn’t figure out why the Whistler Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Whistler weren’t taking advantage of capitalizing on the extremely lucrative gay market.

The marketing analysis firm Witeck-Combs, estimates the buying power of the gay and lesbian market in the U.S. to be $485 billion.

Trained to recognize opportunity, Kearn has jumped on the idea of showing the world that Whistler is a gay-friendly destination 365 days a year. The website, which features the predicable accommodations and activities areas, also showcases gay-friendly businesses and offers information on same-sex unions in Canada. Launched on Dec.1, the traffic to the site has been high, with upwards of 20 per cent of viewers spending time looking over the marriage information.

Kearn is pro-marriage. He married his partner, Mark, last summer in what he describes as very traditional ceremony.

"Forty-five minute ceremony, sit down dinner for 150, a band, a DJ, the whole thing," reminisces Kearn. "You couldn’t get more traditional."

However, since he and his partner wed in their hometown of Seattle, Kearns’s marital status legally means nothing. But this may change.

"In King County, where we live, there is an initiative to recognize all marriages, no matter where they were performed," explains Kearn.

Kearn expects that he and his partner will marry again in Whistler this spring. Where they will live remains undecided.

• • •

Last February it seemed that San Francisco had opened the floodgates for gay marriage in the U.S. Within a matter of days more than 4,000 couples were wed at city hall. Other jurisdictions within the U.S. followed suit. All of those marriages, with the exception of the ones performed in Massachusetts, have since been deemed illegal. And marriages performed in Massachusetts are not recognized outside of that state.

While in Canada negative reaction to same-sex marriage has come from churches, some Members of Parliament and right-wing lobby groups, in the U.S. it has come from the top down. Same-sex marriage was presented as an important issue in last year’s U.S. election, with President George W. Bush announcing he was prepared to amend the constitution to prevent gays from marrying.

The reason for this overreaction may have been that Bush was heeding the advice of one of his re-election advisors, James Dobson, founder of the ultra-conservative Focus on the Family. The fundamentalist minister has gone on record stating, "Homosexuals are not monogamous. They want to destroy the institution of marriage. It will destroy marriage. It will destroy the Earth."

• • •

By 1984 – from my lofty 21-year-old perspective – I was beginning to realize that political change generally occurred at a snail’s pace. As one of these snails, I felt obligated to debate queer politics everywhere, from bad lesbian potluck dinners to painfully politically correct conferences.

At the dance for the 4 th Annual BC Regional Gay and Lesbian Conference I was given the unenviable dual task of selling drink tickets and getting people to sign political postcards. Sitting behind an arborite table at the entrance to the UBC Student Union Building ballroom I lobbied my fellow homos to send Prime Minister Brian Mulroney a postcard demanding inclusion in Section 15 of the Charter.

Most people seemed more interested in getting their first gin and tonic instead of getting sexual orientation added as prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I remember thinking that this rights thing was going to be an uphill battle.

• • •

In 1967, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau declared that the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation. Two years later Canada legalized homosexuality.

Groups such as the Vancouver Association for Social Knowledge and Gay Alliance Towards Equality, took up the challenge to secure gay civil rights. But at a time when the majority of gays and lesbians were closeted, it was difficult for these groups to maintain momentum. And at a time when being public about one’s homosexuality could have dire consequences in terms of housing, employment, social and family life, few were willing to take the risk.

The ’70s, which saw the flourishing of minority and women’s rights developing alongside sexual liberation, provided fertile ground for gay liberation to take root. Gay newspapers, magazines, organizations and vibrant communities sprung up in cities across North America.

By the ’80s it looked like equal rights were a matter of time. Nobody knew that the community’s focus was about to take a dramatic turn with the advent of AIDS. Not only was energy redirected to AIDS education and prevention, but also many early activists were among the first to succumb to the disease. Communities that were once described as thriving were now better characterized as merely surviving.

• • •

In 1994 I found myself sitting in the editor’s seat of the fledging Vancouver gay and lesbian biweekly

Xtra West! The third Altitude was that year’s first cover story. A positive lifestyle story about 400 or so healthy, happy homos taking to the slopes for four days of alpine fun and frivolity was a good fit.

Unlike the early liberationist publications, Xtra West! was a professional- looking rag that backed up a hefty rate card with solid marketing stats. What had once been considered an undesirable minority had been reborn as a marketing dream amidst images of unlimited disposable income and lesbian chic.

Some construed Absolut wanting us to buy their vodka as carrying the same weight as equality.

• • •

In 1992, Pierre Beaulne and his American partner Todd Leyland applied for, and were denied, a marriage licence in Ottawa. They began a legal battle intent on going as far as necessary. Gay rights leaders from across the country discouraged the two from taking their fight to the Supreme Court.

"We knew it wouldn’t win, the public had to be softened up on the issue," says findlay, one of the activists consulted.

That softening came as a result of increased visibility of gays and lesbians in the media and a number of high profile Supreme Court cases.

In 1991, Delwin Vriend, a gay lab instructor was fired from a Catholic college in Alberta because of his sexuality. Vriend successfully sued on the basis that the province’s human rights legislation contravened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Four years later, B.C. resident Jim Egan’s fight to get spousal pension benefits for John Nesbitt, his partner of 47 years, ultimately failed. However, the case further helped Canada’s highest court define what constituted a spouse and illuminated the discrimination that gays and lesbians faced. In 1999, the Supreme Court further defined how spousal laws applied to gays and lesbians in Ontario’s M v. H. case. The lesbian couple in question ran a successful business together. When they broke up H left M with nothing. M successfully argued that laws protecting heterosexual couples when they break up must also extend to same-sex partners.

The following year, the Liberals, under Jean Chrétien, passed bill C-23 which extended the definition of "common-law relationship" to include gays and lesbians who have cohabited in a marriage-like relationship for more than a year. The legislation gave same-sex couples the same social and tax benefits as their heterosexual common-law counterparts.

With the definition of spouse having effectively been decided in the Supreme Court and the House, the last frontier was for gays and lesbians to legally become spouses.

And so same-sex marriage challenges began. Some ended up in non-decisions, where the judiciary would concede that while marriage law discriminated against gays and lesbians, it was justifiable discrimination.

On June 10, 2003 Ontario became the first province in Canada to recognize gay marriage. Less than a month later, July 8, B.C. followed suit becoming the second province to allow same-sex marriage.

In response, the satirical news program This Hour Has 22 Minutes Sexual Affairs Correspondent Babe Bennett (Cathy Jones), offered the opinion that, "The only problem with same-sex marriage is it’s the same-sex, over and over and over…" In Canada if same-sex marriage was a joke, it was a good humoured one.

By the end of 2003, 735 same-sex couples had exchanged vows in B.C. Today eight regions in Canada have amended their laws to allow for same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court has paved the way for the federal government to change the definition of marriage for all Canadians. Thousands of couples across the country have married and, in contradiction of the Focus on the Family founder’s dire prediction, it has not destroyed the Earth.

• • •

It’s 2004 and I’m sitting in another ballroom, this time at the Chateau Whistler waiting for Suzanne Westenhoefer, the headliner for Altitude ’04 comedy night. The popular event is a fundraiser for Camp Moomba, a camp for HIV-affected children. There is a sad undertone to the proceedings. The event has been renamed The Brent Benaschak Charity Auction & Comedy Night in honour of Altitude’s founder who committed suicide New Year’s Eve 2003.

I am struck by two things: despite Benaschak’s death a month before, which could have easily marked the end of the event, Altitude is rocking; and that the community of Whistler really does see thousands of gay men and lesbians descending on the resort for a week as something to be celebrated.

• • •

Whistler Gay Weddings, a subsidiary of Platinum Weddings, helped add to last year’s Altitude celebratory feel by co-ordinating the weddings of two male and one female couples during the ski week. Not bad considering the new company had been in existence for only a couple of months.

Owner Lizz Kelly says that the weddings were for couples residing from the East Coast of the U.S. A fourth female couple elected to get married outside of Altitude to allow for their families to attend.

While she has no confirmed dates for this year’s Altitude, she does have two large same-sex weddings planned for this summer.

"I think people are just thrilled to have access to same-sex marriage; that it’s so easy and acceptable here," says Kelly.

From finding suitable locations for receptions to people to officiate at ceremonies, she has experienced the same openness and professionalism as she does when planning straight weddings.

"I usually use one particular marriage commissioner in Whistler, Luise (Zinsli) and she’s amazing at making everyone feel very comfortable and welcome" say Kelly.

All marriage commissioners in Canada are currently required to perform same-sex ceremonies. Eight marriage commissioners in Saskatchewan and 12 in B.C. have resigned their positions in protest. None served the Whistler area.

• • •

It is highly possible that the federal government will introduce the same-sex marriage bill during Altitude ’05, which runs from Jan. 29 to Feb. 9. Lee Bergeron, the new owner of Out on the Slopes (the company which produces Altitude) expects attendance to this year's festivities to be close to 4,500 – on par with last year’s numbers.

"The fact that Whistler is a very open community to gays and the gay travel dollar is looking for other venues made it very attractive," says Bergeron of his decision to purchase the company.

The former party promoter was appointed to the Out On The Slopes board of directors following Benaschak’s death and assumed control of the company last fall, finalizing financial agreements with the estate in November.

While some financial problems, such as outstanding contractor bills, remain unresolved from the transition year of 2004, Bergeron is confident that Altitude ’05 will be the best one yet.

And he has plans for future expansion.

"I want to add events to make this more of a festival. The parties are great, but I think to attract a wider demographic of the gay community, and others, we need to add more festival-oriented events," says Bergeron, citing Cornucopia as a model.

Currently, Altitude’s primary demographic is men 25 to 45, with lesbians making up about 15 per cent of the participants. Bergeron hopes to be able to offer more to gay men aged 45 to 65 who may be looking for things other than large dance parties.

He describes the women’s programming as an ongoing struggle, with the events either losing money or breaking even.

"We need greater numbers of the lesbian community to come for us to justify spending more money on events"

Bergeron says the responses from the merchants and residents of Whistler towards Altitude are incredibly positive.

"We hear it’s the week they look forward to the most," he says.

• • •

The growth and acceptance of Altitude can be seen to parallel the fight for gay marriage. What began as a few hundred men and women coming to ski for a few days has grown into an event attracting thousands and has, according to Tourism Whistler, had a $1 million impact on the resort. When Benaschak first conceived of Altitude, the idea that same-sex marriage legislation would be achieved within 15 years seemed terribly unlikely.

Then, one case at a time, the Supreme Court came to recognize the rights of gay and lesbians and public opinion was swayed.

From the mid ’90s onwards, Angus-Reid / Ipso-Reid polls indicated that the majority of Canadians favoured same-sex marriage. (An October 2004 Ipso-Reid poll saw 54 per cent of all Canadians favouring gay marriage, with approval from younger people a full 10 percentage points higher.)

By joining Belgium and the Netherlands in giving gays and lesbians the choice to marry, Canada is leading the world in gay civil rights. Same-sex marriage is on the table in Spain and will undoubtedly be a staple of lawsuits in the U.S. in the coming year.

But what will be the long-term sociological impact of same-sex marriage?

"In the next 15 to 20 years being gay or lesbian is going to be as important – as much a distinguishing feature of a person’s makeup – as being left-handed," predicts findlay.

If the attitudes in the mountain microcosm that is Whistler are a reliable indicator, she’s probably right.




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