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Same-sex marriage confusion has couples wary of what happens next

Toronto resident Kevin Bourassa's legal battle to wed Joe Varnell opened the door to legalizing same-sex marriages in Canada.

There was the initial shock as they wondered if they were still legally married. And then sadness and disappointment at a country that was dear to their hearts.

Ever since same-sex couples were allowed to marry here, Canada has gained a special status among gays and lesbians.

Then came news this week that the Canadian government is arguing that same-sex marriages of non-residents are legal only if they are also valid in the couple's home country. The Department of Justice also contends that couples who came to Canada to be married must live here for at least a year before they can obtain a divorce.

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In Portsmouth, Va., 62-year-old retiree Kathy Heggemeier turned to Elaine, her partner of 28 years, and said, "Well honey, I guess we may not be married after all."

In Seattle, sex columnist Dan Savage quipped that "when I got out of bed, I was a married man and as soon as I got on my Twitter feed I realized I had been divorced overnight."

The federal government's argument remains at this point a legal opinion filed in a divorce case. On Thursday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said, however, that Ottawa will consider changing the law to ensure non-residents married in Canada can obtain divorces. He also said the government "has no intention of reopening the debate on the definition of marriage."

"Sanity will prevail," said Kevin Bourassa, the Toronto resident whose legal battle to wed Joe Varnell opened the door to legalizing same-sex marriages in Canada. At the same time, he recalled American gay couples singing O Canada when they came to Toronto to get married.

"They were so proud of this country. I wonder what they feel now," Mr. Bourassa said.

For many, the disappointment was tinged with nostalgia. "It was pleasant to think that we could always go to Canada where people like us and are kind. Sigh," Kathy Bundy said in an e-mail from Raleigh, N.C.

She married her wife, Jill Kidd, in Halifax in 2010 and got such a warm welcome they considered moving to Nova Scotia some day.

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New York documentary maker Brendan Fay said he, like many married American gays, displayed in a prominent place in their homes their framed Canadian marriage certificate.

Mr. Fay founded the Civil Marriage Trail Project, helping hundreds of same-sex couples, from the United States, but all the way to Poland and Russia, come to Canada to tie the knot. "It is so devastating," he said, looking at his own marriage certificate, issued when he came to Canada to wed his partner in 2003.

"I'm pretty mad at Canada and at Mr. Harper," Ms. Heggemeier said. "I'm angry but more than anything I'm sad because what I see is another craven politician going after a minority."

While same-sex marriages are not legal in Virginia or in North Carolina where the couple lived previously, Ms. Heggemeier said they have been able nonetheless to use their Canadian marriage certificate to obtain spousal benefits from employers and be recognized as a couple by their doctor.

"I am wondering what this would mean for us when we're visiting Canada, or if we decided to emigrate. Would our marriage be recognized in Canada or not?" asked Andrew Bertke, a Web developer in Minneapolis who married Joe Agee in Toronto. "Ottawa can't erase 7½ years of marriage."

Jacqui Russell, a Canadian who immigrated to Ireland a decade ago and works a shop assistant in County Westmeath, waited until same-sex marriages were legal in the Maritimes before tying the knot with her girlfriend, Emeline, before friends and family in Halifax in 2005.

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"I was always very proud. When you're an immigrant you glorify the country you came from … it's really disappointing and embarrassing, you know, my country was always so amazing and now, wait, what's going to happen next?"

Globe readers react to the federal government's policy reversal on same-sex marriage

There is no such thing as "same sex marriage" in Canadian law; there is only "marriage." The distinction [federal lawyer]Sean Gaudet is trying to make is no part of Canadian law. We have only one form of marriage: equal marriage. - Stan Wright at

How can a legal representative (minister, judge, etc.) marry a couple if it is not really legal? … Is Canada in fact false advertising when we announce that gay marriage is okay here, so come and spend your money to get married here? - Margaret Cook at

If you marry in Canada your marriage is recognized in Canada … What other countries do is none of our business. Canada does not allow "quickie" divorces but requires 12-month residency before hearing an application for divorce. Quite straightforward. - Brenda Morley at

My wife and I got married on June 11, 2003, the day that the law changed in Ontario. We were among the first three couples in Ottawa to get married and were very, very proud of being at the forefront of that change. - Jesse Clark in Globe online chat

My husband and I were married in a very small civil ceremony in Rose Bay, N.S., in June of 2008, on what was officially our honeymoon.… In short, the whole situation [now]stinks. I expect better from Canada. - Mel Vassey in an e-mail to The Globe

I am absolutely freaking out about this news. Does this mean Carrie and I aren't married? Or were we never married? @YanethYrael via Twitter

I believe what we have here is called incremental conservatism. "I have no intention but my darn lawyers do." @RickMercer via Twitter

I cried openly when Canadians got the right to equal marriage. Now I feel like crying again, for all the wrong reasons. @OakBayBoy via Twitter

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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