A Surrey judge has won a national award for his work in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and two-spirited (LGBTT) communities in Canada.
B.C. provincial court Judge J. Gary Cohen will be given the "Hero Award" today (Tuesday) at the Canadian Bar Association's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference (SOGIC) in Vancouver. For Cohen, it feels a bit like a lifetime achievement award.
"I'm not that old and not dead yet, but it's nice to receive an award like this, for sure," Cohen told the Now.
"It's always great to win an award, and I do consider this a rather prestigious award."
Cohen's activism in the mid-1970s included time as president of the Gay People of SFU group, and founder and first president of UBC Law Gay & Lesbian Students' Association.
As an openly gay lawyer in the 1980s and 1990s, Cohen helped raise the profile of LGBTT members of the law profession and community.
"Throughout his career," wrote Kael McKenzie, chair of the SOGIC awards committee, "(Cohen) has served as a role model and mentor to many, and has effectively brought about a cultural shift amongst lawyers and the judiciary in terms of how LGBTT people and issues are considered."
Cohen was among the first lawyers to recommend LGBTT clients marry at sea, which could be argued as valid in many countries.
"That was in the early 1990s," he said, "and it mostly involved transgendered clients of mine. Things have changed considerably since then."
Today, Cohen lives close to the Surrey courthouse, where he hears family, civil and criminal cases. He has been married for two years to Bruce Fraser, whom he met in law school. Among other achievements, Cohen was the first non-American to be president of the International Association of Gay and Lesbian Judges.
"It's always an American as president of it, but I was in there from 2005 to 2008 and I brought their meeting to Vancouver."
Cohen knew at age 12 that he wanted to be a lawyer. By Grade 11, he was skipping school to attend trials in New Westminster, with the blessing of his teachers.
"I never really had planned to become a judge (in 1999) - that kind of came along by accident," he added.
According to Preston Parsons, who nominated him for the SOGIC award, Cohen's willingness to be "out" at work is his most significant contribution to the law and to the lives of LGBTT British Columbians.
Cohen has always made a point of using the word "gay" and discussing LGBTT issues when in conversation with other judges, which has helped lead to a shift in attitude in the courts.
"This shift amongst the judiciary was undoubtedly a significant one, as it affects every LGBTT person who comes into contact with B.C.'s busiest court," Parsons wrote.