Gay magistrate judged a hero

  • August 12, 2012

Source: The Province
Byline: Jennifer Saltman

A Surrey judge's willingness to be open about his sexuality and advocate on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and two-spirited community has earned him an award from the Canadian Bar Association.

B.C. Provincial Court Judge J. Gary Cohen is the winner of the 2012 Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference Hero Award - an honour that caught him a bit by surprise. "I kind of feel like this is a lifetime achievement award, but I'm not dead yet," Cohen said with a laugh. "It feels great."

The list of Cohen's achievements is long, but he takes particular pride in creating "a huge stir" as an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University, where he was president of the Gay People of SFU from 1976 to 1977, and his recent position, which he held from 2005 until 2008, as the first non-American judge to be president of International Association of Lesbian and Gay Judges.

However, Vancouver lawyer Preston Parsons, who nominated Cohen for the award, said Cohen's most significant contribution to the law and to the lives of LGBTT British Columbians has been his willingness to be "out" at work.

As one of the first openly gay judges, Cohen said as soon as he joined the bench in 1999 he made a point of dropping the word "gay" into conversations to make people more comfortable with the term.

Cohen said judges now use him as a resource when dealing with cases that involve LGBTT youth and their families.

Parsons said Cohen has changed judges' attitudes toward members of the LGBTT community.

"This shift among the judiciary was undoubtedly a significant one, as it affects every LGBTT person who comes into contact with B.C.'s busiest court," Parsons said.

In spite of being outspoken about his sexual orientation, Cohen said he has experienced "very little" discrimination.

"I've found the more open you are, the less you run into issues. The more you try to hide, the greater problems you face."

Other local award winners are Canadian Bar Association B.C. Branch executive director Caroline Nevin (Jack Innes Achievement Award) and corporate/commercial lawyer Valli Chettiar (2012 Touchstone Award), both of Vancouver.

Nevin received her award Saturday, while Cohen and Chettiar will accept theirs at a reception on Tuesday, held in conjunction with the bar association's Canadian Legal Conference.