By Gretchen Dukowitz, email@example.com
I recently attended a very curious heterosexual ritual called a "wedding shower." A man and woman were to be married, so all of the womenfolk from each of their respective clans gathered at the house of the woman's mother. Everyone was required to bring an offering for the woman, an artifact that would help her in her new married life. At one point, all of the kinswomen present assembled around the woman while she opened these gifts. According to their folklore, the woman would have a child for each ribbon that she accidentally broke while unwrapping the presents, so this event was played out with the utmost drama. They also spoke a peculiar dialect, calling each present that the woman received-towels with little cottages embroidered on them, sheets with butterflies printed on them, an iron, forks, spoons, etc.-either "cute," "precious," or "adorable" (I label it strange because I have never before had the urge to describe a towel as "adorable"). Afterward, there was feasting and merriment, and soon each of the guests left to return to her own respective hearthstone.
No, the woman I'm referring to isn't someone I found while thumbing through the pages of "National Geographic," but one of my best friends from high school, Deanna. She got married over the summer, and I was invited to both her wedding shower and the wedding ceremony itself. Weddings are common enough you say, so why did I suddenly feel like an ethnographer in a white, upper middle class environment that I've lived in for my entire life? The answer is simple and comes in two parts: First, my parents, being merciful and kind, decided to spare me the embarrassment of the cheek-pinching and awkward encounters with relatives that usually go on at these sorts of events, so while my mother and father went off to every shower, wedding, reception, anniversary party, and funeral, I stayed home. Before Deanna's wedding I knew the basic mechanics of getting married (bride, groom, aisle, vows, kiss the bride, throw the rice, live happily ever after), but showers, weddings, and receptions were a complete mystery to me. Second, I'm a lesbian, and since gay marriage is illegal in all fifty states, I figured it was never something I would be permitted to do, so I never gave it much thought and let the straight people do all of the fussing over it.
Deanna and I are the same age, twenty, and the idea of marriage should be terrifying to any twenty-year-old, if not simply for the fact that you won't be able to legally drink at your own wedding reception. Of course, there are the more pressing issues, like fidelity and loyalty and trust, and whether or not you can really imagine being committed to someone *for life* ("for life" being a shaky concept for someone who can reach into his or her pocket at any given time and pull out a handful of coins that have been in circulation longer than he or she has). But the idea of marriage can be especially scary and mysterious to young gay men and lesbians, myself included, who are contemplating the shape that their future lives will take. It's difficult to picture yourself getting married when it is not only illegal, but when, to an overwhelming majority of people, gay marriage is simply inconceivable as well. For this reason the recent events in Vermont are particularly fascinating. Last December, the State Supreme Court ruled that the legislature had to find some way to extend the benefits of marriage to lesbian and gay couples, either through domestic partner benefits, or real, live civil marriage licenses. Although the lawmakers balked, stopping just shy of giving same-gender couples the legal right to marry, they did grant gay and lesbian couples a series of rights that amounts to just about the same thing. Knowing that lesbian and gay Vermonters now have the choice to pass the rest of their coupled lives in civilly unionized bliss is suddenly making the once unimaginable is a real possibility.
I don't mind admitting that I was completely floored by the experience of attending Deanna's wedding shower. The ribbon-breaking- as-predictor-of-number-of-progeny thing hit me especially hard, my jaw thudding on the floor when I finally grasped its meaning. Though I've been out for seven years, I could never imagine discussing lesbian sexuality as explicitly as they were talking about heterosexuality, especially in front of my mother and *grandmother*. In essence, each broken ribbon represented a sex act that would produce a child, so as I sat there, watching Deanna open her gifts, I tried to envision what it would be like if it were my wedding shower. What if my grandmother turned to me and said, "Now Gretchen, for each ribbon you break, you're going to have one session of hot, lesbian sex. No kids will come of this of course, but gosh it's going to be fun, eh? Eh?" all the while winking at me and playfully nudging me in the ribs with her elbow? Lord help me, I turn beet red even as I write the thought down.
I've always been a little wary of the prospect of marriage, because even before I knew I was gay, I knew that I was female. Marriage should seem a little bizarre to any woman who values her autonomy. The father walks the bride down the aisle and *gives* her away to the *possession* of her husband? Brides must love, honor, and *obey* the men they wed? A bride has to subsume her identity into her husband's by taking *his* name, and whenever she uses her birth name, she suddenly becomes a "maiden"? What's with all of that? When she told me she was engaged, I thought Deanna was certifiably crazy. But, when the day finally came, and I saw Deanna standing at the altar with her friends and family seated around her, all smiling and misty-eyed, I couldn't deny the power of what was going on. Although I thought the ceremony was garish and cliched (I have a natural aversion to lace, lavish flower arrangements, and bad renditions of "Ave Maria"), that was entirely beside the point. Everyone understood the weight of the ritual they were witnessing, that it meant that Deanna and her fiancée were declaring their love for one another, and that they were committing themselves to each other (barring the possibility of divorce) *forever*. I left the church that day planning my own future ceremony, wanting very much to get married myself.
The ruling in Vermont is actually just the latest chink in a long chain of events that constitute the fight for same-sex marriage rights. Lesbians and gay men have been going to courthouses trying to get marriage licenses for the past thirty years, but the first real push for the legalization of gay marriage came in 1993 when several same-sex couples in Hawaii sued the state for the right to marry. When the case made it to the Hawaiian State Supreme Court, the mainland freaked. Through a useful little passage in the Constitution called the Full Faith and Credit Clause, any state will honor a marriage license issued in any other state. This way, couples that decide to move don't have to start collecting marriage licenses like quaint souvenirs, having to remarry every time they cross state lines. The thinking was that if Hawaii legalized same-sex unions there would be a mass exodus of lesbians and gay men to Hawaii where we'd all get hitched, maybe attend a luau or two to celebrate, and then filter back into our native states where the legality of our unions would have to be recognized.
Armageddon would then follow, or so that's what I assume some people thought, judging from the reactions of a few of our most astute Congresspeople. In 1996, they sprang into desperate action and drafted a piece of legislation entitled The Defense of Marriage Act. The bill whizzed through Congress, the need to quash the right of lesbians and gay men to legally declare their coupledom apparently being much more important than other minor issues like health care reform, saving social security, and funding for educational programs. Because of DoMA, states do not have to honor marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in other states. Individual state governments, thirty-two in all, including Illinois, the state where I live, have passed anti-gay marriage measures. Even if I were to get married in Vermont, all of the benefits that would come with my vows would evaporate as soon as I crossed the border. While the court ruling in Vermont is an important victory for lesbians and gays everywhere, at this rate I have a better chance of realizing the dream of cold fusion than of ever getting legally married.
We lesbians and gays are a resilient bunch though, and many in our community still choose to marry. Even though it carries no legal weight, gay and lesbian couples gather their friends and family around them and exchange vows, sometimes with the help of a clergyman or woman, sometimes not, in what are commonly called commitment ceremonies. These are the types of displays that worry politicians and turn the stomachs of conservative religious types. These people start repeating proscriptive Bible passages like broken records every time gay marriage is mentioned, and call the idea of same-sex unions a mockery of the sacred covenant of marriage (though, none of them ever mention the fact that nearly half of all heterosexual marriages fail, which, at least to me, indicates that straight people are doing a fine job of mocking marriage without any help from the gay community whatsoever). However, I think these ceremonies are the truest forms of marriage. Since gays and lesbians can't marry for benefits, or to legitimize a living arrangement or pregnancy, we marry for two reasons: for love, and because we have faith in the power of the gaudy, cliched, and glorious symbolism that, for better or for worse, has come to represent marriage in America.
Do I want to get married someday? Absolutely. Does it have to be legal for me to do so? Absolutely not. It would be nice, since it would cut down considerably on the paperwork, but the true meaning of marriage doesn't lie in the license, but in love and in the ceremony itself. Besides, someday, I'd really like to have a cake with two little plastic brides on top of it, and I'd like to invite Deanna to share a piece of it with me.