Activist, mother, grandmother, wife. Born Nov. 22, 1929, in Cape Town, died April 4, 2012, in Victoria of breast cancer, aged 82.
Marion Marks learned about the importance of social justice from her father, George Tobias, who came from a family of Jewish socialists from London’s East End.
From a young age, Marion was appalled by the discrimination she saw around her in South Africa. She refused as much as possible to enjoy the privilege granted by her white skin. She wouldn’t swim in whites-only swimming pools.
Her sense of guilt and outrage led her to join the Trotskyist Unity movement in her early 20s. In it, she pushed for boycotts and other strategies to overthrow apartheid despite the real dangers of doing so in the 1950s. This led to a major confrontation between Marion and her father after police came to her parents’ house to warn them about her political activities. Soon after, Marion married Gerald Marks, and in many ways seemed to take on the role of the perfect 1950s housewife. As Gerry pursued a successful scientific career, she followed him from Cape Town to Johannesburg, then Ottawa, Chicago, London (England), Edmonton and Kingston.
But Marion always did it her way. Her children, Lynne and Saul, were born during Marion and Gerry’s three years in London. They benefited greatly from her fierce and warm love and care, and also learned from her about the importance of social justice.
In Kingston, where she and Gerry lived for 37 years, she took on her second major social passion: lesbian and gay rights.
She founded Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Kingston in the early 1980s, and was the organization’s president, sole phone-line volunteer and general mainstay for many years.
She also worked relentlessly to have sexual orientation included in the Human Rights Code of Ontario and in federal legislation.
She badgered friends, family and neighbours to send letters of support for these initiatives. She worked hard to overcome her fear of public speaking, becoming a passionate and effective advocate for gay rights in various public venues, including a Senate committee.
She once reduced the Mayor of Kingston to tears, speaking from her heart about why the city must declare Pride Week. She wanted her son, and everyone, to have equal rights and privileges.
She was not without contradictions. She could be the traditional Jewish mother, expressing excessive concern about her children’s health and safety, while at the same time dismissing some of their political activism as too “wishy-washy.”
She never lost her political edge or sense of humour about the absurdities of the world, but in her final years in Victoria she focused much of her energy on showering love on her grandchildren, Dori and Mira, who gave her much joy.
Lynne and Saul Marks are Marion’s children.