Pioneers

Written by scott on March 12th, 2012

by Gerald Fierst

Gerald Fierst is a wedding officiant in the NYC  area.  His book The Heart of the Wedding discusses marriage and ceremony in 21st Century  America.

www.theheartoftheWedding.com  


Alice and Hazel (I use pseudonyms because they  fear discrimination at the work place if their story  is known) are getting married after a ten year  relationship. They will be wed with a civil union  certificate since New Jersey does not yet have marriage equality.

“We’re the first of our friends, the pioneers,” they say. “We have friends who get rings, go away to someplace friendly like Provincetown to exchange them, and that’s the end of it.” Many of their friends have discounted the advantages of civil unions because “state rights mean very little. Without the federal government behind it, a marriage between a same sex couple means very little.” Why didn’t Alice and Hazel do the same?

They recognize that a wedding is not only a celebration, but also a moment of transformation, a psychological turning as well as a public declaration. Hazel says “The best way to define it is our parent’s stairwell. That stairwell has pictures of the entire family. They have pictures of their step grandchildren who have their boyfriends and now husbands and are up there, and we’re not up there. The minute we get married and we have a professional wedding, that ceremony we will be up there on that wall. They’re not ashamed, but there’s a difference. The minute we get married, it will be different.”

In fact, their parents have “been on their backs” for years, saying “come on when are you going to tie the knot?” Their families want the best for their children and have long ago recognized the bond which connects their daughters, but choosing to have a same sex wedding demands courage even with a supportive family and in a state that recognizes civil unions.

“The location we’ve chosen for the ceremony has a restaurant with a big glass window. Lot’s of people will be looking. I know some folks will be shocked to see two brides in wedding gowns,” Alice says, ““Its going to be an incredibly long time before it is unacceptable to be discriminatory against gays and lesbians. It’s just passively accepted. I work for a government institution and our equal employment administrator says fag in a derogatory way, and everyone accepts it. I never forget that. So, on some level I do not feel accepted.

I feel its important, even aside from all the legal benefits it may bring- which are few and far between, is to tell people we are good enough. We’re not that different when it comes right down to it. We are as legitimate a couple as any one getting married, and we are going to do what you do. We deserve it, and that’s another reason I want to do it. It definitely will make people think twice.”

Alice and Hazel don’t see themselves as confrontational people, but by the nature of our society, they understand that their choice to ask friends and family to witness their connection to each other challenges the dominant cultural preconceptions of the wedding ceremony.

Hazel tells the story, “My nephew Cody, my sister’s son, is blind and autistic. He is mainstreamed in a local public school which prides itself on its inclusivity. Recently, the children were asked to list why they felt grateful. – Cody, he listed his family including his aunts and uncles ending with Aunt Alice and Aunt Hazel. ‘Who are they married to?’ The teacher asked. ‘They’re Aunt Alice and Aunt Hazel” Cody replied. . ‘But where are their husbands?’

The teacher was insistent that Cody understand that woman need men. ‘They don’t have husbands. They have each other.’ Cody stuck to his guns. He knew Aunt Alice and Aunt Hazel belonged together. That day, the school sent home a note worried about Cody’s confusion. The teachers were so shut in by their own restrictive thinking that they never considered that Cody was telling the truth. In fact, he clearly understood what the authorities could not conceive. He had always received love from these two partners and, in his narrow world, saw the fundamental emotional truth of their nurturing relationship to him and to each other. His teachers were not anti-gay; they were culturally impaired and could not see.

The ties of marriage, despite the protestations of the conservative religious, have never been solely gender dependent. From ancient times, marriage has been based on a variety of practical issues including property, division of labor, and social status. In our modern era, immigration and residency, health insurance and estate planning, trophy wives and political and business acumen, all become part of the rational for a marriage. Yet, most states will refuse to issue a license to same sex couples that want to have society acknowledge their emotional commitment to each other. Our laws are culturally impaired.

At their fifth anniversary, Hazel and Alice felt that the time had come to deepen their commitment to each other. They wanted a ritual to mark the emotional progress of their lives. They went to a jeweler to purchase commitment rings. Alice explains, “It was a sign to society that I love you and you love me. I pledge myself to you.”

At this moment in their lives, if they had been a straight couple, they might have gotten married or at least announced their engagement. As a same sex couple, they didn’t have these options. They decided to wear the rings on their right hands until they could in fact be married, but modern life is too complicated to be neutral. They had created a private ritual, but we all have public lives. When you try to live without telling, people want to know.

Clients and co workers asked “Are you married?” to which they would reply, “No, not yet.” “Isn’t that a wedding ring,” the questioner would insist. “No, not yet.” was the reply. “What’s his name,” was the friendly follow up, to which they would have to reply, “I’m sorry. I keep my outside life outside my work.” While many of their coworkers might not care, the reality of their jobs is that their career advancement will be affected if they acknowledge the fact of their partnership.

Without active malice, the majority culture expresses prejudice through small indignities which unwittingly dehumanize the person to whom we are speaking. When critics of gay marriage urge “don’t ask, don’t tell” they are asking people like Alice and Hazel to hide and sacrifice the reality of their humanity.

Alice and Hazel sadly accept that the federal government denies them the benefits of a married couple, but they want their relationship to be as emotionally full as any other marriage. Five years after buying their commitment rings, they have made the decision to turn them into wedding rings. Part of the process of our becoming a couple comes from how we are viewed by our community.

Alice and Hazel decided that they wanted their ten year anniversary to reflect the maturation of their relationship. They wanted to have another ritual. Since their first exchange of rings, their home state of New Jersey had legalized civil unions, and they wanted to express their connection in front of the family and friends who had supported them for a decade. As she thinks about her upcoming ceremony, Hazel says, “A legal document can’t say this is who you are emotionally. You’re not tied to it, but if you have the ceremony in front of other people, it is more of a commitment. I think it creates a statement. You take it more seriously and work harder.”

Alice and Hazel see this wedding as a threshold event in their lives together, a crossing over into a new status. “You are making the announcement that your priorities are changing,” Hazel explains, “My primary family is now my spouse. When you are growing up your primary family are your parents and your siblings and, now, you’re saying this is my family, this is my primary family.” Hazel decided to propose at the same local restaurant in which they had their first date.

The restaurant was very excited and helpful and arranged to seat them at the same table at which they had sat ten years before. Hazel bought a more formal ring with stones to give to Alice and had it hidden in the menu that the hostess would bring to them after they were seated.

Usually a marriage proposal will ripple through a restaurant, eliciting congratulations and toasts, but a woman kneeling before her partner, or two women holding hands and kissing across the table, is a dangerous image in a public forum. For Alice and Hazel, however, their decision to hold a wedding gives them the opportunity to be open and excited about who they are and how much they love each other. They plan to arrive at their wedding by boat with a bagpiper leading the procession up from the dock. I will read a Shelly poem to greet their arrival:

The Fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle –
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdain’d its brother:
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea –
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

 

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