"Throughout my youth, everyone either knew I was going to be a lawyer or they were telling me that I should become one," explained the Honourable Gary Cohen, a Surrey Provincial Court judge whose interest in law was noticed by everyone, including his mother and teacher who gave him permission to skip class in high school to watch court proceedings.
Having grown up in a single-parent family in Burnaby, Justice Cohen began working when he was 16 to help contribute to the household expenses. "My mother worked, but was paid so little that welfare regularly had to top us up," remembers Justice Cohen.
This was just the beginning of Justice Cohen's struggles, who also had to deal with discrimination after coming out at the age of 18.
"I learned very quickly what discrimination looked, and more importantly, felt like. I had then just started attending university and I immediately began working with and eventually became president of the SFU gay students' group, in order to be part of the fight against homophobia. It was a natural progression to continue that work as a law student at UBC."
In 1978, Justice Cohen founded and became the first president of the UBC Law Gay and Lesbian Students' Association.
"We put up posters for our first meeting with guest speaker, the openly gay sitting member of Parliament, Svend Robinson. Some of my most memorable moments in law school were connected with that group. The bad memories were that our posters for that first meeting were defaced, torn, and had horrible invective scribbled on them. The good memories were that our first meeting was well attended and became one of our many successful events over the
ensuing three years."
It's his advocacy both as a student and later on as a judge that has attracted much attention from the community. Justice Cohen was recently awarded the CBA 2012 Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference (SOGIC) Hero Award, for his contributions in support of the LGBT communities in Canada. He was also the first judge from outside the United States to be elected president of the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Judges, a position he held for three years.
"I strongly encourage the law school and its students to be active on this front. My hope is that the LGBT community has the courage and support to live their lives openly, without fear and without regret."
As for his time at UBC Law, Justice Cohen's most memorable event was his first date with the man who later became his husband. They went on a date, and in his own words, "the rest is history ... We have now been together for almost 32 years - the last six of them legally married."