Social Studies October 2005

At a Same-Sex Wedding, the New Is Made Old Again

This marriage, so radical by some lights, aspires to reconstruct the deepest of marital traditions.
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A cloudy afternoon on a recent Saturday in western Massachusetts. Rain sprinkles the Berkshire hills. Strolling in twos and threes along paths between broad lawns, 80 or so wedding guests make their way to a performance barn on the grounds of Jacob's Pillow. Rustling, cheerful, curious, they take their seats. Gray light filters through high windows and casts soft shadows among the rafters. The barn is not a sanctuary, but it feels like one today.

A violinist, one of the relatives, begins a Corelli prelude, and the wedding party enters. Both grooms wear tuxedos and boutonnieres. The minister, a young seminarian in the United Church of Christ, tall in his robes, begins. Under order of the state Supreme Court, same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, and today the minister will marry Jamie Beckland and Michael Pope.

"Every relationship of love is holy, sacred, and worthy of public affirmation and celebration," he says, with a touch of emphasis, slight but sufficient, on the word every. "We pray that this couple will fulfill God's purpose for the whole of their lives." Emphasis again, this time on the word whole. Not everyone in the hall picks up the inflection, but the grooms do.

Jamie is 27, originally from Wisconsin, now a development officer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Michael, also 27, works at a private research company. They plan to move to Massachusetts, the place where Jamie lived when they met and the only state where their marriage has legal force. Jamie is taller, blond, bespectacled, thin, with the bearing of the former dancer that he is. Michael is dark, heavyset, as reserved as Jamie can be bubbly, a product not of the liberal Upper Midwest but of conservative southwestern Virginia, a state notorious for its gratuitously anti-gay legislation.

For all the differences, Jamie and Michael and their families have this in common: divorce. The newlyweds' immediate families count eight divorces between them, four on each side. Michael's parents divorced when he was 6, Jamie's when he was 10. "I think there's a whole generation of kids from broken homes who only want to be married once," Michael says. This marriage of two men, so radical by some lights, aspires to reconsecrate the deepest of marital traditions.

A few weeks before the wedding, over coffee at Starbucks, I asked Jamie why he wanted to marry. For my generation of gay men (I am 45), legal marriage was unthinkable, and emerging into the gay world often meant entering a cultural ghetto and a sexual underworld. Jamie, who could just about be my son, replies with an answer that turns the world of the 1970s and 1980s upside down. Once he realized he was gay, he says, he simply expected to marry.

"Why does anybody get married?" he asks. "I wanted the stability, I wanted the companionship, I wanted to have a sex life that was accepted, I wanted to have kids. For me, it's not a choice. A marriage evens you out."

The couple met on May 18, 2002. The next day, they exchanged telephone numbers at church (both are Christian). Within weeks, they knew it was serious. In February of this year they took a trip to Massachusetts and went snowshoeing on the grounds of Jacob's Pillow, a dance center where Jamie had worked when they met. There, on an outdoor stage, Jamie got down on one knee. "Which was hard, because we were in snowshoes."

He gave Michael a compass inscribed, "May we always find our way together," and launched into his carefully planned proposal, doing fine for about a minute before starting to cry. Michael began laughing, Jamie pulled himself together long enough to propose, and the two kissed, their faces stung by freezing tears.

Most weddings occasion unambiguous joy, but at this one, reactions run the gamut from delight to incredulity. Jamie's mother, Laura, freely confesses to having been a "monster mom" when Jamie first told her he was gay, seven years ago. He recalls her blaming a demon that might have possessed him one day while he was using a Ouija board. Today, however, she is fighting a losing battle with her false eyelashes as the tears flow, and the tears are happy ones. "It's amazingly wonderful and appropriate," she says of the marriage, "and it breaks my heart"—not that Jamie is gay or is marrying a man, but that he is making this final transition out of childhood.

Laura's parents, Lee and Ludene, both in their early 70s, have shown up at their grandson's wedding on the advice of their priest, who counseled support for their family even if they could not condone a same-sex marriage. They say they are open-minded Catholics, but today's event has pushed them to their limit. "I feel that it's wrong," Lee volunteers. "I don't think it's real. I kind of wish it hadn't happened." He loves his grandson, no doubt about it. But "this is hard for me, to see it happen." Ludene, who believes that marriage is for procreation, struggles to find a more conciliatory note. "We're living in a different age," she says.

Jamie's two younger brothers are enthusiastic about the marriage. It never occurs to them to regard a same-sex marriage as anything but real. His father, Kim, has been supportive all along. But his paternal grandparents, Jim and Carol, are guarded as they sit on a bench awaiting the ceremony's start. "We love Jamie, and I'm not going to drive a wedge in the family," Jim says. Carol mentions that both are Christians who are close to the Bible. "This will be interesting," she says. "I'm not the judge."

Opponents of gay marriage have argued that same-sex couples, especially men, will undermine marriage by regarding it merely as a path to legal benefits, rather than as a moral and spiritual commitment. Gay couples may get married, goes the criticism, but will not act married. To judge by Jamie and Michael, there is little cause for worry on that score.

For their part, gay couples have had reason to worry that their marriages, however valid in the law's eyes, might be regarded as less than authentic in the eyes of family, friends, religious institutions, employers. After all, a marriage is a marriage not just because the law certifies it but because the community accepts and underwrites it.

Jamie's and Michael's relatives will face a question that never comes up after a straight wedding: whether to inform their friends, neighbors, and colleagues that their son or grandson or brother or nephew is married to a man. Among the parents' and grandparents' generations, most people said they would share this information selectively, or they would play it by ear, or they just didn't know what they would do. The marriage is no secret, but neither does it bask in the social sunlight that straight spouses take for granted.

Yet marriage has its own dynamic, one that deepens bonds between spouses and forges links to kin and community. From time immemorial, parents have expressed ambivalence, even dismay, over their children's choice of spouse, yet have been won over, if not to the choice, then to the marriage and the stability it provides. Michael's mother, Kathy, is from the town of Buena Vista, Va. She was raised in a strict Brethren Church but now considers herself "spiritual." She has been married and divorced twice. "This is truly not what I expected to see in his marriage," she says of Michael, her only son. But she adds: "I hope this is going to be a stabilizing factor in his life, because he's been at loose ends for a long time."

Marriage creates kin, a process in evidence today. Laura, Jamie's onetime "monster mom," toasts the couple with the words, "I'm so happy to have a fourth son." Jamie's father says, "I've seen these two together enough to know that this is the kind of relationship that marriage is about." Times may change, and marriage may change, but parents are ever parents.

It is almost 5 p.m. The minister has given his blessing, invoking Solomon's song that many waters cannot quench love. "Remember this," he says, "remember this, remember this. Amen."

Then: "Before God and all present, do you, Michael, enter into this marriage with an open mind and heart and promise to love Jamie as long as you both shall live?" Michael firmly answers yes, and then Jamie, less steadily, gives the same answer, wiping away tears as he says, "Most importantly, I will work every day at loving you better." The minister calls for the rings, and laughter relieves sniffles as Jamie, flustered, offers his right hand.

That mistake corrected, the minister makes a pronouncement that I never thought I would live to hear. "By the authority vested in me by the state of Massachusetts, I declare that you, Jamie and Michael, are joined in the covenant of marriage, with the blessing of Christ's church. You may kiss."

They do. It is done.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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