Bojan Fürst

Saint John receives gay tourists ‘with open arms’

In Print on June 25, 2009 at 5:49 pm
Gay couples from across the United States arrive to Saint John where many of them will be married under the Canadian law that allows for gay marriage.

Gay couples from across the United States arrive to Saint John where many of them will be married under the Canadian law that allows for gay marriage.

MARK LEGER AND BOJAN FÜRST Special to the Globe and Mail

It was a typical Saint John summer day when the Norwegian Dawn docked at Long Wharf last Tuesday – thick, cool fog enveloped the massive ship as it pulled into the harbour. Much less typical was the group of gay and lesbian activists congregated at the end of the wharf waving rainbow and Canadian flags, waiting to greet Rosie O’Donnell and the other 2,200 passengers aboard the gay cruise ship.

As the passengers passed through the security gate they were greeted with smiles, handshakes and hugs. But many of them were not headed for the Canada’s oldest city market or the Reversing Falls. Instead a dozen or so couples and their families walked straight to the bus adorned in wedding decorations waiting to take them to a Saint John courthouse. For them, this was a big day indeed.

Since Canada’s same-sex marriage law passed in 2005, hundreds of gay U.S. couples have crossed the border to tie the knot, many of them aboard gay cruise ships. But the nuptial spectacle, and the presence of Ms. O’Donnell, was a first for Saint John.

A city such as Saint John may not seem like a natural port of call for a gay and lesbian cruise ship; after all, it is the home of Elsie Wayne, a popular former mayor and deputy leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party and a vocal opponent of gay marriage.

But lawyer Nathalie Godbout says those views aren’t shared by the entire community.
“It’s a forward thinking province and city, and we see this as an opportunity,” she said. “I see no reason why we would not receive these folks with open arms.”

Ruth Steinberg and Kate Hammon kiss in front of the provincial courthouse in Saint John after their civil marriage ceremony. They were surrounded by 23 family members who accompanied them aboard cruise ship Norwegian Dawn. The ship brought over 2200 gay couples and their families to Saint John.

Ruth Steinberg and Kate Hammon kiss in front of the provincial courthouse in Saint John after their civil marriage ceremony. They were surrounded by 23 family members who accompanied them aboard cruise ship Norwegian Dawn. The ship brought over 2200 gay couples and their families to Saint John.

Gregg Kaminsky, co-owner of R Family Vacations, which operates the Norwegian Dawn, says the city came highly recommended.

“We’re very careful in choosing where we go,” said Mr. Kaminsky, recalling the protests they encountered in the Bahamas on their first cruise in 2003. “It’s not like Nassau where we have any fear that our guests will not be well received.”

Ms. O’Donnell’s partner, Kelli O’Donnell, started R Family Vacations with Mr. Kaminsky to offer family-friendly gay cruises. The Norwegian Dawn left New York July 13 and travels to Saint John, Halifax, Bar Harbour Me, Provincetown, Mass. and Newport, R.I., before returning to New York.

In Saint John, Rosie O’Donnell did not attend the wedding ceremonies, but later in the day she disembarked to greet a crowed of adoring fans and visit the Reversing Falls, Saint John’s natural landmark.

Judith Tax, 66, and Nancy Wiener, 50, were one of nine gay and lesbian couples that married at the courthouse. The couple had previously been joined in a civil union in the United States, but Ms. Tax says they wanted a “real marriage” in Canada, “a solid, legal one,” she says.

Outspoken advocates of gay and lesbian rights, Ms. Tax and Ms. Wiener, who is a rabbi in New York City, were heartened by a recent decision by the government of New York to recognize same-sex marriages performed out of state. They are still fighting for the right to marry at home, but decided in the meantime to marry in Saint John.
“It’s one step along the way,” said Ms. Tax. “We might as well take advantage of it.”

Maryann Sullivan, 50, and Elaine DeBerardine, 42, who are also from New York, felt a more pressing need to get married soon. As the foster parents of a two-year-old girl, Grace, they needed to get married to adopt her as a couple.

Grace “knows us as mommy and momma,” said Ms. DeBerardine. “She only knows that we love her and care for her.”

The fourth floor of the provincial courthouse on Charlotte Street is a typical mash of offices and courtrooms. But on Tuesday it was crowded with people smiling and laughing, hugging and even crying. The loud applause from the courtrooms could be heard all the way down at street level.

“I could not believe that it was actually happening. After 15 years!” said Ms. DeBerardine. “It’s fantastic. It will facilitate the adoption process. It will be so much faster because we are legally married.”

Mr. Kaminsky says the gay and lesbian community admires Canada for its progressive policies on gay rights. On board the ship, they’re holding a “red-and-white” day in recognition of Canada’s same-sex marriage law.

Mr. Kaminsky says they’re asking passengers to dress in red and white clothing, and engage in group discussions on Canada’s role in advancing the cause of gay and lesbian rights.

This is the second cruise Ms. Wiener and Ms. Tax have taken with R Family Vacations and they say even though New York is an easy place to be gay, they feel more accepted on the ship.

“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve experienced,” Ms. Wiener said of their cruise experience. “New York City is a comfortable place to be out, but there are more than 2,000 people from gay and lesbian families on the ship. It’s impossible to say what that feels like.”

Ms. Tax said there’s something comforting about being surrounded by people that share your sexual orientation. “It feels like, ‘wow, this is home,’” she said.

Ruth Steinberg and Kate Hammon, partners for 15 years who brought 23 family members on board with them to witness the occasion, shared that sentiment. “We are very grateful to Canada,” said Ms. Steinberg. “Very grateful.”

A lesbian couple walks out of the provincial courtroom after the civil marriage ceremony in Saint John.

A lesbian couple walks out of the provincial courtroom after the civil marriage ceremony in Saint John.

  1. For some real true stories about what happens on cruise ship, check out:

    http://www.cruiseshipstories.com

    Thanks,

    Sean (former crew member)

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