How They Met: Canada’s first legal same-sex marriage 20 years later

In 2003, Michael Leshner and Michael Stark, also known as “The Michaels,” made history as the first same-sex couple to legally be married in Canada. Now, ahead of their 20th anniversary on June 10, Michael Stark tells us the story of how they met and the secret to 42 years of happiness.

How they met

Our first meeting almost did not happen. It was the Victoria Day long weekend, May 23, 1981, and I was supposed to go see a movie with a friend.  She cancelled at the last minute, and I decided to go out anyway. 

I hadn’t been out very long; in fact, when I got to the former gay bar Buddies’s entrance, I walked around the block several times — I was so nervous and didn’t want anyone to see me enter!  I finally gathered up the courage to enter the bar, and the rest is history, so to speak. Michael approached me, started talking, and we have been together ever since. There was a very short-lived breakup that lasted only a few hours.

The courtship

A typical date was to meet at By the Way restaurant or a schnitzel spot along Bloor Street than a double bill at the Bloor Cinema. Michael was a huge movie buff and loved all the old classics. I was a movie novice and enjoyed soaking up all these amazing movies.

One of our annual rituals that we started in our first year was a fall trek to New York City to bask in the glow of Broadway.

As a lawyer, assistant crown attorney and grandson of Jewish immigrant grandparents, Michael was keenly aware of discrimination and really wanted to play whatever role he could in ending legal discrimination for gays and lesbians in Canada. We attended the first Gay Pride Parade in the summer of 1981 — more a march and demonstration, as there was virtually no goodwill between the police and the gay and lesbian community. We were angry, the bathhouse raids had taken place a few months before and as we marched passed 51 Division, there was a lot of yelling.  This was another event that many gays and lesbians thought long and hard about participating in — what if your picture was posted in the paper and your family and co-workers saw it?  It really was a very difficult time to be openly gay. We didn’t have any legal rights and were subject to the whims and prejudices of society.

As a gay couple in the ’80s, we really didn’t have any role models or a roadmap to follow.  We just knew we wanted to be together and managed to maneuver the various challenges along the way.  

But we really did have a wonderful life together, enjoying time with our many friends and family members.  We lived in a very protective bubble and only had to leave it for work mostly.

After being together for several years, Michael was getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that his colleagues’ spouses were covered by the work benefits and I wasn’t, and he was paying into them.  Finally, in 1988 he went to the Attorney General to see if this could be changed.  The request was denied, so Michael decided to file a human rights complaint. After a four-year process, the decision was finally reached and he won! And thus began his gay rights activism.

We developed a recognizable brand to Toronto as The Michaels along with our very handsome miniature schnauzer Mikey, and then Schmikey.  The final piece of the puzzle was same-sex marriage. We were asked to join a case with nine other same-sex couples in Ontario.

The proposal

The decision of the initial case for same-sex marriage was in 2002, and the court found in our favour but gave the federal government a year to amend the laws involving marriage. During the press conference Michael turned to me and asked if I would marry him. I looked at him and said yes! Quite the proposal! We arranged a wedding shower, which we celebrated with friends and family.

The marriage and honeymoon

This decision was appealed and in 2003 we won again. We had hoped for this outcome, so Michael had lined up three judges that would marry us — just in case two became incapacitated! 

On the morning of June 10, 2003, we hopped on the Bay bus with our suits and wedding rings in our pockets, hoping we would be able to marry in a few hours.  We went to Osgoode Hall to pick up the decision.  We had won, and the judgment took effect immediately. Michael left Osgoode Hall singing, “Get Me To The Church On Time” from My Fair Lady — a heady moment!

We got a wedding licence at city hall, and in the early afternoon we went over to Superior Court at 361 University Ave. to get married. Because we didn’t know if we would be able to marry on that day, we didn’t tell any of our family or friends — they learned about it on the news!  

Two months later we hosted a wonderful reception for family, friends and special supporters — a truly beautiful, emotional experience. We went to California a few weeks later for a family wedding that we added an extra week to for a honeymoon with Schmikey!

The kids

No children but two miniature schnauzers, first Mikey and then Schmikey — the loves of our lives!

The secret to success

Communication and common core values. Being in a successful relationship requires work and effort, and when it works, it’s a wonderful thing.

The future together

Our 42 years together have been an exhilarating  journey. Like most couples, we have had ups and downs; fortunately the ups far outnumber the downs. One of our roles we enjoy fulfilling is that of gay “ambassadors” nowadays, spreading the word and acting as mentors and positive role models to our community and the greater society. 

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