Hawkes was born in Bath, New Brunswick to a Baptist family. Hawkes earned Bachelor of Science (1972) and Bachelor of Education (1973) degrees from Mount Allison University, and Master of Divinity (1986) and Doctor of Ministry (2001) degrees from Trinity College, an Anglican institution at the University of Toronto.
Hawkes was appointed as senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, a church openly affirming for LGBT parishioners, in 1978 to succeed Bob Wolfe.
Hawkes has served on the advisory committee of PrideVision TV, and served on the board of directors for advocacy group Egale Canada. In addition to his advocacy work on LGBT issues, he has supported anti-racist initiatives, drawn attention to poverty and poor housing, and advocated the ordination of female priests.
On January 14, 2001, Hawkes gained national attention by performing a wedding ceremony for two same-sex couples at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. Although city clerks would not issue marriage licenses for same-sex marriages at this time, Hawkes employed the alternative provided in Ontario law for regular church attendees to publish official banns for three consecutive weeks, and thereby conducted a legal marriage without requiring prior government permission. In the spirit of the banns as a public opportunity for interested parties to raise legal objections, the church also issued a press release in late 2000 announcing its intentions. The government of Jean Chrétien did not endorse the marriages, although Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson sent a personal letter of support. The city clerk refused to register the record of marriage, leading to a court battle. The church sued the city, the province and the federal government. On July 12, 2002, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that the marriages performed by Hawkes in January 2001 were legal, but stayed its decision pending a possible appeal, and on June 10, 2003, the Court of Appeal for Ontario declared the common law definition of marriage as "invalid to the extent that it refers to “one man and one woman” in the ruling of Halpern v. Canada, immediately striking down all barriers against same-sex marriage in the province.
Hawkes was the officiant at the state funeral of Jack Layton, Leader of Canada's Official Opposition and head of the NDP, on August 27, 2011 at Roy Thomson Hall. A fellow New Democrat, he spoke highly of Layton who had touched millions of Canadians with his sudden death. In the end, he thanked Jack Layton for his work with the gay community and HIV/AIDS, issues the NDP leader had championed when they were not popular.
He is slated to retire as pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in fall 2017, and will be succeeded by Jeff Rock.
Hawkes briefly entered political life in the mid-1990s. In the Ontario provincial election of 1995, Hawkes ran as a candidate of the social-democratic New Democratic Party of Ontario in the riding of St. George—St. David, which has a large LGBT community. Running in protest against the Bob Rae government's handling of the failed Equality Rights Statute Amendment Act of 1994, he finished a strong third with 9,672 votes – less than one thousand votes behind the winner, Progressive Conservative Al Leach. Hawkes's strong showing played a major role in defeating incumbent Liberal Tim Murphy.
Hawkes lives in Toronto with John Sproule, his partner of more than thirty years. They married on March 7, 2006.
In 2009, Hawkes received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree for his continuing work in activism and human rights in Canada from York University. In 2010, Hawkes was presented with an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Mount Allison University, and in 2011 received an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Trinity College, Toronto.
Hawkes was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Michaëlle Jean in 2007 for his achievements as "a champion of human rights and social justice for decades" and was formally invested into the Order in a ceremony on February 22, 2008.
In 2012, Hawkes was named one of the "500 most influential gay men in the world" by the European gay magazine Mate; and in 2013 he was inducted into the Q Hall of Fame, as an individual who made significant contributions to LGBT human rights.
Hawkes has been the recipient of the following awards:1994 – City of Toronto Award of Merit
1995 – United Nations Association in Canada Global Citizen Award
2002 – Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal
2003 – City of Toronto Pride Award for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Two-Spirited Issues
2009 – New Brunswick Human Rights Commission Pioneer of Human Rights Award
2009 – American Psychological Association Clarity Award
2012 – Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal
2014 – 2014 Inspire Lifetime Achievement Award, for his life’s work on LGBT rights.
2014 – Grand Marshal of the 2014 World Pride Parade
2014 – Achievement Award from Toronto City Hall for his contributions to World Pride
2015 – Order of New Brunswick