In Foreign Parts: Granting gay marriage puts Quebec in the pink

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The Independent US

The sun beat down on the packed decking of the Sky Bar, a roof-top venue in the heart of Montreal's gay district, the Village.

The sun beat down on the packed decking of the Sky Bar, a roof-top venue in the heart of Montreal's gay district, the Village.

The talk was of Mado Lamotte, the queen bee of the Village's drag scene, who had hosted a record six hours of drag bingo at the casino, and of Homorama – "a night of leather, latex and fantasies". These were just some of the events to launch the city's 10th annual Gay and Lesbian Pride festival, which attracted about 800,000 people to its parade last Sunday.

Montreal's pride week is the fourth-largest in the world after New York, San Francisco and Toronto, and the Quebec government has sensed the power of the pink dollar: the festival brought Montreal an estimated 60m Canadian dollars in tourist revenue last week – a taste of things to come when the city hosts the international Gay Games in 2006.

This year Quebec's gay community has much to celebrate. Last month saw the province's first civil union – a marriage in all but name and jurisdiction – between two men, Roger Thibault and Théo Wouters, who have lived together for 29 years in Pointe Claire, a middle-class suburb of Montreal. In traditional go-it-alone fashion, the Quebec government bypassed a stalled debate on same-sex marriage at the federal level, and crafted its own civil union law, which was passed unanimously in June. It is one of the reasons Claudine Ouellette, the director general of Quebec's gay and lesbian coalition, describes the French-speaking province as "an oasis of equality" in Canada. The law is not recognised outside the province.

"The federal government holds a copyright on the words 'marriage' and 'divorce', so it was an act of creativity for us to make a clone of marriage and call it civil union. Regarding divorce, we called it dissolution," she said. "We could either wait for the federal government or we could do our own thing. Why wait?"

Civil unions give straight or gay couples the same rights as married couples – including the right to adopt children or gain parental rights over a partner's offspring – making the law among the most progressive of its kind in the world.

Mr Thibault, 56, a photographer and Mr Wouters, 60, a clothing designer, always wanted to adopt children, but say they are too old now. After having their home and car vandalised over the years, they have long sought the recognition and legitimacy civil union gives them, as well as the right to claim the other's pension.

Those who would dictate to them are a dying breed: in a 2001 poll for the newspaper La Presse, 61 per cent of Québécois were in favour of same-sex unions and 30 per cent were opposed.

Montreal is going to lengths to plug into the gay tourist market. Is the strategy working? "Some tourist boards describe their cities as 'gay friendly' – like, hey, we'll be friendly to you!" said John Catania, a visiting American television producer. "I'm always sceptical of that. But Montreal doesn't need to do that because it's just 'gay'."