In commemoration of October being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer (LGBTQ) History Month, Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) is posting a new story here every Wednesday chronicling the evolution of marriage equality in the United States.
When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, it signified the US had become a sovereign country, separate and apart from England. The Constitution, signed eleven years later, gave designated freedoms to certain members of the population while essentially disregarding the rights of women and slaves. Declaring independence for the country did not translate to independence and rights for everyone, and the country has struggled to overcome many forms of prejudice. Over the years, we grappled with changing societal mores to be more inclusive of our declared freedoms, emancipating slaves, giving women the right to vote and enacting civil rights legislation, to name a few. Our current struggle, recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry, is rapidly gaining momentum with ruling after ruling striking down same-gender marriage bans as unconstitutional.
In recognition of LGBTQ history month, this week’s profile recounts the “Civil Marriage Trail Project.” Founded in August of 2003, the project initially assisted gay and lesbian US couples in reaching Toronto, Canada, where same-gender marriage was legal. Brendan Fay and his partner, Tom Moulton, had recently crossed the northern border for their own wedding and, upon returning, Fay, along with fellow activist Jesús Lebrón*, decided to organize a “trail” for other couples to follow. They took their cue from the famed Underground Railroad, where slaves hoped to find their own freedom and equal rights among Canadian communities. Fay and Lebrón compiled information about Canadian marriage requirements and set the first group trip for Valentine’s weekend, 2004. Any couple wishing to be married would meet up at the marriage bureau in Toronto to apply for a license. Given the lack of Canadian residency requirements and Toronto's proximity to Buffalo, New York, this was a realistic option for those who did not want to wait for the right to marry in their own state.
Several couples made this initial trip to Canada 150 years after Harriet Tubman began her own journeys northward. Among them were Frank Jump and Vincenzo Aiosa, together since 1990. You can see their special day documented here, along with their AP press release. (However, it wasn’t until 2008 that New York announced they would recognize gay and lesbian marriages performed legally outside their jurisdiction.) In May of 2004, a second project trip to Massachusetts celebrated the first legal same-sex marriage performed in the United States. As other states allowed the expansion of marriage rights to all couples, destinations for the project no longer required a journey to Canada. First Massachusetts (2004), then Connecticut (2008) expanded marriage rights to include all couples. In fact, couples from around the world traveled to Canada and the US to get married through the project’s efforts.
The Marriage Trail hit a bump in the road in 2012 when Canada, facing a divorce case involving an out-of state couple, made some rulings that muddied the marriage waters. First, the Canadian government stated the legality of a marriage performed in their country was valid only if recognized in the couple’s home country, essentially leaving couples in limbo while the details were ironed out. Second, while there was no Canadian residency requirement to get married, there was a one-year residency requirement to acquire a divorce. Most couples took it in stride as the courts debated how to handle the large number of non-Canadian marriages already on the books. This 2012 article in the Globe and Mail covers the basics of what was happening at the time. As of this writing, C-32 has not been passed due to discussion on non-marriage related parts of the bill. Canada has affirmed they will not be redefining same-sex marriage and the proposed rules are already being applied as if they were law.
Many things have changed in the past 11 years, with twenty-nine states now allowing same-sex marriage (this number is changing quickly). As the Underground Railroad eventually became obsolete with the abolition of slavery, so will the project when same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. In the meantime, Fay and Lebrón deserve to be recognized for their contributions in the advancement of marriage equality and for helping others find the path northward when rights and equality were not present in their home countries.
* Jesús Lebrón is also one of the early founders of Marriage Equality New York (MENY), which later merged with Marriage Equality USA. See Our History.