Sunday, June 22, 2008

Celebrating a Marriage and Marriages in General

Despite unseasonably sweltering heat, West Hollywood Park was humming yesterday with the celebration of marriages on the first weekend that same-sex marriages are legal here in California. A great number of gay couples who have waited years for that opportunity were joyously seizing it. The City of West Hollywood anticipated the high demand, and set up a city park to handle the ceremonies. They had a registration tent, where several people who had been deputized by the County Clerk processed the marriage license paperwork, and then a half-dozen white canopies set up under the trees for ceremonies to take place.

It was in that setting that we were delighted and honored to witness the wedding of our friends Tom and Art, who have been together for 16 years. In some sense, they have been married for many years, and I witnessed their marriage in San Francisco in 2004 (those marriages were officially annulled by the court). And in that sense, today's ceremony was really a "renewal of vows" or a "state recognition ceremony". (Tom and Art viewed it as their second, and hopefully last, civil ceremony, and intend to have a church wedding with the big reception after November.) But despite those technicalities, and the inevitable sense of making a political statement, once it got down to it, it was clear to all of us there, including the participants, that this was a wedding, with all the same solemnity and all the joy of weddings everywhere. We all got choked up at the vows, and caught up in watching two people reaffirm their commitment to each other, and to an ideal celebrated by us all -- to love, honor, and cherish, for better or for worse, so long as they both shall live. There's something about the public declaration of a high noble purpose that strengthens and ennobles the declarers, and better enables them to reach their lofty aim. I think that's part of what makes weddings so emotional, that they are positively transformative.

That ideal, of a lifetime together through better and worse, is one of the highest and most celebrated in our culture. And there's nothing gay or straight about it. It is a human ideal, a calling of the values we were raised with, gay and straight alike. One thing that has struck me about the gay weddings I have seen is how not different they are from straight weddings. The content of the ceremony -- the promises and vows exchanged, the prayers, the blessing of the rings -- is identical. The form is entirely familiar. The joy, the solemnity, and the emotion are the same. The only notable differences are the additional emotion of long-awaited justice (in every ceremony last week, there was a big whoop when they got to the "by the power vested in me by the State of California" part), and in the duration of the relationships of most of the couples getting married. With most straight weddings, the vows are entered into with hope at the outset of their lifetime together. With most gay weddings (at this point in time, though it will change in the future), the vows entered into have substantial years of proof behind them backing up the hope for the future. Couples like Tom and Art (together 16 years), or our friends Steve and Scott (together 14 years) who married earlier in the week, or the many other couples we've seen in the papers who have shared decades (like the women in San Francisco who'd been together 55 years!), those couples know a thing or two about what it takes to stay together for better or for worse. And many of those in our community know too well about "in sickness and in health". Often at the beginning of a wedding ceremony, the celebrant will say something about how marriage is a solemn estate, not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly. We know. Some of us have been practicing marriage for quite some time. And we do not enter into it lightly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You observe how "not different" gay weddings are to straight weddings, yet I recall you saying something fairly different 15 years ago at my legally non-existent yet ceremonial wedding, which was a ill-fated as Clinton's promise to allow gays to serve openly, both of which occurred in 1993.

If you still have your speech for Doug and my wedding, consider reviewing it to determine to what extent gay marriages have evolved, starting with the fact that couples today don't have to labor of what to call the thing, which was major delimma at the time. We thought "wedding" or "marriage" would be offensive or a gross overstatement. We thought "commitment ceremony" sounded like admission to a mental institution, which while likely apt for the interrelationships of many couples, didn't conjure the image we sought to project.

It's easy to assess the legal evolution of gay marriage, but how about have we as gay couples evolved in our ceremonial gestures, and our personal definition of what it means to be married? Frankly, I believe gays have advanced the definition of marriage beyond some of the limitations imposed by the long history of straight marriages, particularly with respect to honesty, and individualizing whether or the extent to which monogamy is adhered to be a particular couple.

When the dust and rice settles from the slew of gay marriages, straight couples may well have much to learn from our examples, and like we did, they will pick and choose aspect from our marriages that they want to adopt.

-- Jeff Hersh