It gets better - my story on gay marriage

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Growing up, I never paid much attention to people getting married. For me, a wedding was a big party with lots of food and dancing. When I was a teen and when girls would talk about their dreams of their own wedding, I didn't see it as something that was going to happen to me. It may have had something to do with the fact that I was in the closet, or at least that I wasn't sure what was going on with me in sexual terms. My parents were always very supportive but, like most parents, didn't know much about gay culture; they wanted the best for me, but knew that it wasn't an easy life to be an openly gay man.I remember the first time that I showed interest in a girl. We had met on a family vacation. My mother said to my father: thank God he's “normal”. She meant simply that she was relieved that my life would be easier. Others in my family -- cousins, aunts and uncles -- probably had their suspicions, but thankfully they would encourage me to be my own person and figure it out by myself.We moved to Ottawa in 1993. At that moment I decided I would no longer go on dates with girls and pretend to be someone I was not. I was 17 years old. In the years ahead there would be fake girlfriends, some discrete rendez-vous with other guys, but it wasn't until the summer of 1999 that I would go to gay bars. By Thanksgiving of that year, my friends and whole family knew I was gay.My mother took it pretty hard; she wanted the wedding, and more importantly she wanted the grandkids, and her dreams -- or, more precisely, these dreams -- were shattered.Young people in 2015 are more assertive about their sexuality. They know that marriage may be possible and some of them think, maybe even dream, about it. When I came out of the closet, marriage was not a possibility. There was no reality ahead of me other than to live an open gay life.In 2000, the federal government, under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, passed legislation that would give gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits as common-law couples with regards to pensions and income taxes. I was working for Ottawa MP Mauril Bélanger at the time, and he was a strong supporter of the gay community and our rights. He replied to every constituent who called or wrote, telling them about the importance of recognising human rights and why the Liberal Party had a duty to support such legislation. I never thanked him for his support. I don't know why I didn't.By September 2003, the Canadian Alliance which had evolved out of the Reform Party before becoming part of today's Conservative Party, introduced a motion in the House of Commons defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Prime Minister Chrétien voted against the motion, but some Liberals voted in its favour, including Helene Scherrer, MP for Louis-Hebert, whom I was working for at the time. I recall when she told me she was going to vote for the motion. She knew I was gay. She had come back from the summer break and, a little apologetic, she said she felt that the people of her riding would not support the idea of same sex union and she had a duty to represent their voice in the House of Commons. She also told me she felt like a dinosaur. I told her, politely, somewhat loudly, that dinosaurs are extinct. Thankfully, the vote did not pass: 132 YEAS, 137 NAYS, 30 ABSTENTIONS. She worked very hard later in her political career to gain the support of other Members of Parliament for same-sex marriage, and we remain good friends today.I started working with the Minister of Social Development, Ken Dryden, in August 2004. Ten months later, a week before the vote on Gay Marriage in the House of Commons, the two of us were coming back from an event in Montreal when Minister Dryden asked me to take a look at something he had written. It was titled “Why I Support Gay Marriage”. It was the draft of an op-ed he was hoping to have published which detailed his own path as to how he came to support the bill. Not surprisingly, it was a thoughtful piece, but I knew it was risky politically. He had looked back into his own childhood, remembering classmates who only years later would he come to realize were gay, how difficult and cruel it must have been for them, how overwhelmingly their lives had been transformed by their sexuality. How unfair that was. Dryden referred to one particular passage from the Bible that he had learned in Sunday school: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” saying that “I'm not sure I have heard 11 such simple, non-pushy words that offer a better personal or societal path to life.” He ended his article this way: “So, all these decades later, with a vote ahead of me, where am I? To me, man and woman, man and man, or woman and woman, marriage is for two people who love each other, who want to be with each other and who privately and publicly commit to each other.”When I was done reading the piece, I thanked him. I knew that if his article was published it was in my interest, yet it was my job to offer him my best professional advice, and this was not necessarily in his own interest or in that of the government. I decided to leave it to our senior staff and to the Prime Minister's communications team to determine if it should be passed along to the newspapers. I found out the next day that the PMO had requested that it not be sent. And so, when I came into the office a few days later, I was surprised to see “Why I Support Gay Marriage” published in the Toronto Star. I asked our chief of staff if the PMO had given its permission to release the article; he said no. I asked him why we had sent it in anyway. He said we didn't. The minister had sent in the article himself.It is for reasons like this that I have involved myself in politics all these years. You get the chance to work with people who do things, not because those things are popular, not because of power, but because it is the right thing to do. I will always be grateful to have people like Ken Dryden in my life.The vote on the Civil Marriage Act Bill took place June 28, 2005. I asked the Liberal Whip's office for passes to attend the vote in the gallery. I wanted to be there for the history of the occasion, but I also wanted to see how each MP voted. I was wondering who among my friends, my network of colleagues -- those people I had helped over many years and won and lost elections with - would vote to deny me the right to marry. I mentioned this to Ken before entering Parliament. He looked puzzled and stopped me in my tracks. He told me that if I thought this way I'd never be able to appreciate the greatness of what was about to happen.I made my way inside. The gallery of the House of Commons has two large seating sections for the public and for groups such as schools or organised visits on the north and south sides, and two more narrow sections on the west and east sides for parliamentarians' guests. My seat was on the east side, in the front row, facing the Liberal government. Members of Parliament, including Prime Minister Paul Martin, made their way into the chamber. I could feel the excitement and nervousness everywhere. As the Speaker of the House read the preamble of the bill, the Prime Minister looked around the gallery. I was watching him as he saw me. We made eye contact, and when the Speaker said “All in favour please rise”, the Prime Minister gave me a salute and rose to this feet.I was told later by someone close to me that when Prime Minister Martin saw me in the gallery, it confirmed to him that he was doing the right thing.Now ten years later, the world has not come to an end. Straight people are still getting married, but gay people are too, just as others are not getting married or are choosing to live together as partners. And all of us, gay or straight, still live the same ups and downs, possibilities and problems, because marriage, partnership or living together requires hard work and true commitment, no matter to whom one chooses to commit one's life.One thing did change, however. Young people, gay or straight, can now grow up thinking about long-term relationships, marriage, and family life. There are still difficulties to confront in gaining family acceptance and dealing with the loss of some friendships, but Canada's progressive approach to this issue has made it possible for gay people to find love, to build their own families, to make new friends and to share special moments, whether it's a wedding day, the arrival of a child (whether by adoption, surrogacy or otherwise) or just growing old with a loved one.For those who wonder, my mother had her big beautiful wedding, with lots of dancing and my husband and I now have a wonderful son who has changed and continues to change our lives in the most wonderful ways. And on this eve of Canada Day we feel extremely lucky to live in a country that accepts us for who we are and gives us an equal opportunity in the life we choose.Thank you to the many progressive, broad-minded parliamentarians who helped make this a reality ten years ago.Louis-Alexandre Lanthier is Senior Advisor at Summa Strategies. He worked for many MPs and Ministers on Parliament Hill since 1994, including as Executive Assistant (and Campaign Manager in Papineau) for Justin Trudeau from 2007-2014.