What Will Their Vows Allow?

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

TORONTO _ Their white stretch limousine, punctuated by a “Just Married” sign, led the way.Newly anointed as the Scheuerman-Stallones, Brent and Steve waved at onlookers piled onto the sidewalks from their perch above the limo’s sunroof. Each tilted a glass of champagne against a bright Toronto sky and savored the moment: The Scheuerman-Stallones, riding at the front of a gay pride parade last month, were the embodiment of the successful move to legalize same-sex marriage here.

“He’s finally made an honest man out of me,” Steve shouted to the crowd. “It’s legal now.”

It’s legal in Toronto, but it isn’t clear how U.S. law will view the couple, jewelry store owners from Kansas City, Kan., who had married at Toronto City Hall the day before the parade.

They occupy new and uncertain terrain, with at least 53 other couples from 26 states. All the couples crossed the border to obtain marriage licenses in the month since an Ontario court made the Canadian province the third place in the world where same-sex nuptials are legal. (Belgium and the Netherlands are the others, and the Canadian province of British Columbia followed suit last week.)

The Scheuerman-Stallones soon will apply for a change in their driver’s licenses to reflect their new name. That and every other claim to married status made by bearers of Canadian licenses will be a closely monitored challenge to federal and state laws in the United States.

“We’re all watching what happens,” said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, one of several gay-rights groups tracking the U.S. couples who marry in Toronto.

“But for us, it’s not a chess game,” he said. “This is not about test cases and tactics. This is about real families who are now legally married and seek the same respect that every other married couple has.”

The federal Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and 37 states bar same-sex marriages.

About 15 percent of the licenses issued in Toronto to same-sex couples have been to U.S. couples, and activists on both sides of the border hope those couples will, like the Scheuerman-Stallones, push for recognition once they return home.

“We encourage Americans to come up and to export the legal rights we now enjoy here,” said Kevin Bourassa. “Make no mistake. What you see happening here in Toronto is what the future looks like in the U.S.A.”

Bourassa’s wedding to his partner, Joe Varnell, at Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church in 2001 sparked the legal fight for gay marriage in Canada. The gay-friendly church’s founder, Californian Troy Perry, plans to follow their example by marrying here Wednesday.

Already there are legal challenges pending in the United States. Same-sex couples in New Jersey and Massachusetts are suing those states for marriage licenses, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court may rule on the issue soon. But U.S. couples who marry in Canada could force the issue, because all states and the federal government have recognized licenses from other countries.

Despite the legal skirmishes, the Scheuerman-Stallones said they did not go to Toronto as activists.

“We didn’t do it for political purposes,” Brent Scheuerman-Stallone said. “If we can help in the struggle, we are willing to do that. But it was for ourselves.”

So it was for John Higgins and Niall Maloney, Bostonians who exchanged vows before a justice of the peace at Toronto City Hall as the June 29 parade ended a few subway stops away.

The wedding chapel, a sparse room with a heart-shaped briar on the wall, was still, except for a camera’s occasional click. Higgins and Maloney locked eyes.

“I, John, take you Niall,” Higgins said, “to be my wedded spouse, to have and to hold . . .”

They had done this before, two years ago in a Unitarian church outside Boston. Then, there had been an organist and a sanctuary full of friends and family. Now, a Handel march issued from a CD player. The only guests were the impromptu witnesses they had met in the lobby 15 minutes earlier.

“For better, for worse . . .”

Higgins’ voice was a whisper, cracking. He slid a gold band – engraved with their initials and their previous wedding date – on Maloney’s ring finger: “And thereto, I give you my love.”

Higgins’ eyes were now red and watery. He didn’t expect this ceremony, meant to give legal standing to an existing relationship, to be as emotional as the last. But it was.

“This is a very personal moment for us,” Maloney said. “It’s part of our saying to the world we are a couple and would like to be respected as such.”

For now, that respect is only symbolic. Maloney still has to pay taxes on health-care benefits for his partner. And relatives abroad still have more right to visit either man in the hospital than the other does.

That could change, however, as the cross-border nuptials force the legal contradictions to a crisis point.

“The U.S. is going to have to figure out how to handle this border,” said Robin Lee Pearson, a Philadelphia native who married her partner, Tracy, in Toronto last month. “Are they going to recognize a legal document from Canada? All of a sudden, is a marriage license going to be OK for some but not for others?”

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