On a chilly day in January, 2001, the Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes became perhaps the most publicized clergyman in the world. On that day, Jan. 14, the pioneering Christian pastor performed the first legal marriages of same-sex couples in the world, wedding Joe Varnell to Kevin Bourassa and Anne Vautour to Elaine Vautour.
“There were death threats. I wore a bulletproof vest. There were 50 police officers stationed in the church basement and others outside searching people as they came in the door,” recalls Hawkes, senior pastor at Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), one of more than 200 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered)-friendly MCCs around the world. “There were protesters and at least 80 members of the international media. The paparazzi were everywhere.”
The trailblazing couples circumvented the need for city marriage licences by resorting to the ancient church custom of having the banns of marriage read out in church. And when local authorities refused to register the marriages, Hawkes and his supporters rose to the challenge. “We sued the city, the province and the feds and we won. We were not going to be second-class citizens because of our sexual orientation.”
Since then, Hawkes has performed hundreds of same-sex marriages, and most of the couples are still together, he says. According to the 2006 Census, Canada had at least 7,500 married same-sex couples in that year, more than half of them men, and their numbers continue to grow.
Last month, Saskatchewan’s top court ruled that marriage commissioners cannot use their own religion as grounds to refuse to marry same-sex couples-an outcome that followed the refusal of a devout Baptist commissioner to marry a same-sex couple in 2005. But battles remain to be fought, cautions Hawkes: the rights of the transgendered have yet to be recognized in Canadian law.
Still, there’s been a notable sea change in the social and legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Canada. “As more gays have openly declared their sexual orientation, more people count gays among their acquaintances and realize that they are not a threat,” says Hawkes, a former high school math teacher who became a pastor after moving to Toronto in the 1970s.
On Jan. 14 of this year, when the pioneering couples renewed their vows to mark their 10th wedding anniversaries, there were no death threats, no bulletproof vests and no need for police security. What’s more, MCC is growing, typically drawing 600 worshippers representing 34 faith groups to its main service each Sunday. “We’ve almost outgrown the building,” says Hawkes.
In Hawkes’s view, moderate religious leaders must stand beside secular leaders in confronting social injustice of every stripe. “Whenever there’s a confrontation between secularism on its own and religious fundamentalism, the latter always wins out,” he says. Ω