Published on Monday, July 3, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Gay and Lesbian Scouts Received With Open Arms in Tolerant Canada
Same-sex unions legally recognized
by James Brooke - New York Times
TORONTO -- With knotted rainbow kerchiefs and maple leaf flag patches on their khaki uniforms, members of Scouts Canada's Rover Crew 129 stepped smartly down the route of this city's annual Gay Pride Parade last week, drawing cheers from many of the 800,000 people here for the world's first official gay and lesbian scout troop.

``It's our perspective that sexual orientation has no bearing on the ability of a person to participate in or deliver our programs,'' said Andy McLaughlin, spokesman for Scouts Canada, the organization that authorized the gay troop's investiture two weeks ago. He compared the new unit to other specialized troops in Canada, such as those for Mormons or Cantonese-speakers.

Allen Richardson, center John Hryniuk for The NY Times

Canada now has gay Scouts. From left are Jeff Peters, Sara Evans, Bonte Minneara, Christopher Paulin, Susan Maybe and Elaine Evans.

In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Boy Scouts of America has a right to exclude gays from its ranks because opposition to homosexuality is part of the organization's ``expressive message.'' In the American Scouts pledge, boys promise to be ``morally straight.''

But as the new gay and lesbian troop here indicates, the United States shares North America with a country that is one of the world's most tolerant regarding homosexuality.

On Friday, a bill became law in Canada that erases virtually all legal distinctions between heterosexual marriages and same-sex unions.

Changing 68 federal statutes, the new law guarantees equality in areas that include income tax filing, bankruptcy protection, alimony, pension and veterans benefits for widowed spouses, and prison conjugal visits.

The bill does this by rewriting the legal definition of ``common law marriage'' to include same-sex and heterosexual couples who have lived together for more than one year. A separate bill, expected to be passed this fall, would extend immigration privileges to same-sex couples and their dependents.

In a concession to conservatives, the new omnibus law defines marriage as ``the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.''

But today in Canada, the only remaining privileges of marriage appear to be the ability to change family names and to get divorced.

``This legislation is about tolerance and fairness,'' Justice Minister Anne McLellan said when she introduced the bill.

The new laws came after five years of court decisions largely based on a clause banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that is in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Conservative provincial governments, such as Ontario's, have complied with these court decisions, erasing virtually all legal distinctions between same-sex common law unions and heterosexual marriages.

According to Scouts Canada and to members of the gay troop, there have been few complaints about the new unit. Scouts Canada, which has about 150,000 members, said it encountered greater negative reaction two years ago when it admitted women. The only direct link between the American and Canadian groups is their membership in the World Organization of the Scout Movement, an umbrella group.

``It's a bunch of people getting together to have fun. It's a great way to meet new people,'' said Bonte Minnema, a 24-year-old University of Toronto women's studies student who leads the Rovers group, which is composed of a dozen men and women, ages 18 to 26.

Other members of the troop, or crew, recalled that when they were teen-agers their scouting units ostracized them for being gay. "After I had been out for a while, I started to feel uncomfortable in Scouting," said Sara Evans, a 20-year-old video documentary maker.

Her partner, Elaina Evans, agreed, saying she spent 10 years in the Girl Guides movement. "When I was 16 and just coming out, I had some severe homophobic experiences in Guiding," she said.

The couple have a four-year-old daughter whom they want to start this fall in Scouts Canada's youngest program, Beavers.

Enthusiastic about Scouts Canada's plans to authorize a Beavers group, known as a "colony," for children of gay parents, Elaina Evans added: "It's important for her to be in contact with other kids who have gay and lesbian parents."

2000 San Francisco Chronicle