A Mixed Jewish-Catholic Couple Helps Win the Right for Same-Sex Marriages in Canada

By Gil Kezwer


This article is reprinted with permission of The Jerusalem Report. Visit www.jrep.com.

August 11, 2003. Meet “THE MICHAELS”–Michael Leshner and his partner of 22 years Michael Stark–longtime gay rights crusaders who got married here June 10, just hours after Ontario’s Court of Appeal ruled that homosexuals and lesbians in Canada’s most populous province have the same conjugal rights as heterosexuals.

The same-sex, mixed-marriage couple–Leshner describes himself as “culturally Jewish to the nth degree,” and Stark is a lapsed Catholic–one of the seven pairs of litigants who sued the province of Ontario for that right, were waiting early that morning in a media scrum at Toronto’s colonial-era Osgoode Hall courthouse for the historic judgment to be handed down. Leshner, 55, who was the case’s key activist and served as legal representative, had argued that since section 15 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees equality in matters of gender and sexual orientation, and since the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over who can marry in Canada, Ontario’s refusal to solemnize same-sex ceremonies was unconstitutional.

In a unanimous 3-0 decision, the provincial appellate court concurred. A few hours later the Michaels were drinking champagne in front of those same reporters at a nearby courthouse after becoming Canada’s first same-sex married couple (a big reception is set for early August). Their guerrilla stratagem of hastening to tie the knot before the federal government could file an appeal to the Supreme Court or get an injunction from the “immediate” effect of the judgment proved unnecessary. The province decided not to appeal the ruling.

Hearing the appellate court’s ruling, Leshner, a normally straight-laced crown attorney, burst out in song, belting out “I’m Getting Married in the Morning.”

“I never thought I would see the day where gays and lesbians could marry,” Stark, 45, a project manager for a graphics arts company, told The Report. “It’s thrust us into the public domain to the point we’ve become poster boys for same-sex marriage.”

The couple have been interviewed by media from as far as India, and a section on them in a Japanese-language book on same-sex marriage about to be published was moved to chapter one.

For Leshner, the ruling–and subsequent decision by Ottawa to introduce groundbreaking legislation rewriting the age-old definition of marriage–caps nearly a decade and a half of activism. In 1992, Leshner scored his first major victory by gaining same-sex benefits and pension rights for all Ontario civil servants. The latest marriage ruling, therefore, is purely symbolic, he notes, as financial forms of discrimination had all previously been erased. Still, he says, beaming, “the marriage case meant the end of legally sanctioned homophobia in Canada. There’s nothing left.”

“How you love and who you love is not the business of government,” adds Stark.

“From a Jewish perspective, being the grandchildren of penniless [Eastern European] immigrants, I think Michael and I were immigrants at a time when being gay was symbolically crossing an ocean,” Leshner observes. “My grandparents taught me never to run with Cossacks, and this was a modern-day Cossack story”–state-sanctioned discrimination against gays is as wrong as czar-sponsored pogroms.

Calling homophobia a “post-modern anti-Semitism,” Leshner notes that Jews weren’t innocent of this irrational pathology. “But to their credit they weren’t the obstacle that the Catholic Church and fundamentalist Protestant churches proved to be. By and large, Jews didn’t have the stomach for a cultural war against gays and lesbians.”

Leshner terms his marriage to Stark just another form of intermarriage. His own mother, today 90, was present at the nuptials and sang Canada’s national anthem at the ceremony, he adds. By contrast, four decades ago she had bitterly fought her eldest son from marrying a non-Jewish woman. “She learned that love trumps religion in almost every case,” Leshner says with a smile.

While the same-sex marriage ruling has led to hundreds of gay and lesbian couples coming to Ontario to wed in recent weeks–including some where both partners are Jewish–none have yet been married under a chuppah. Canada’s rabbis, arguing over how to interpret Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, have been sharply split along denominational lines. Reform and Reconstructionist clergy have largely supported the move, while Orthodox rabbis have criticized it. Conservative leaders are divided. “We think that this actually strengthens the Jewish community and our society, and that it’s the right thing to do,” observes Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, outgoing head of the Canadian Coalition of Liberal Rabbis for Same-Sex Marriage.

Toronto constitutional lawyer Ed Morgan, who acted on behalf of the group, applauded the Ontario Court of Appeal for “getting it right.” “This is the proper interpretation of equality of rights,” says Morgan, who is also chair of the Ontario region for the Canadian Jewish Congress. “Our understanding of equal rights was inevitably pushing the courts this way.”

For Leshner, the ruling was the ultimate vindication of his equality. “Being gay and Jewish is a mitzvah, not a shanda.”

(c) The Jerusalem Report


About Gil Kezwer

Gil Kezwer writes for the Gil Kezwer writes for The Jerusalem Report.