The Defiant Self-Absorption of Having 8 Weddings

The documentary film Married and Counting follows a couple as they get married in every state where gay marriage is legal.
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Married and Counting

Two-thirds of the way through the documentary Married and Counting, Stephen Moffett's father invokes the bridezilla. Stephen and his betrothed are going from state to state to have multiple weddings. This, dad says looks to him like a "colossal show of egotism and expense." To some degree, this seems like a fair cop. After all, Stephen isn't only getting married over and over in multiple venues throughout the country; he's also filming the results for public consumption. Still, Stephen has a good response. "We can't just get married where we live," he says. "So we are traveling to all these places...and we get to make a statement."

Stephen can't get married where he lives because his husband is Patrick Dwyer, another man. The statement they're making--complete with George Takei as narrator--is a demand for marriage equality. The two fortysomething arts professionals--Stephen's a photographer, Patrick's an actor--have been together for 25 years. But they live in Hell's Kitchen, and at the time of their anniversary in 2010, New York State did not allow same-sex marriages. So for their silver anniversary, the two men decided to get married in every state that would let them--which at that time meant Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Iowa, Washington D.C., and, as a bonus, California, to protest that states' decision to revoke marriage equality through Proposition 8. (When New York legalizes gay marriage, they have a ceremony there as well.)

I myself went to some lengths to avoid a big wedding, so the thought of having five or six is somewhat nauseating. This documentary did not in any way make me regret not having a blow-out gala. On the contrary, all the elements that made me and (especially) my wife avoid a large ceremony are visible. There's the immense logistical stress. One of the first things we see Pat and Stephen doing is bickering bitterly as they drive from state to state to pick up their marriage licenses. There's the strain of dealing with family members who have their own ideas about what you should be doing, and know where all your buttons are. And, finally, as Stephen's father suggests, there's the gaudy tastelessness of it all, as the couple goes from a hippie tree-hugger wedding to a literary wedding (with inevitable quotes from e.e. cummings, king of Hallmark modernism) to a Jewish wedding (neither of them are Jewish), and so forth in an extended self-indulgent alternaculture smorgasbord.

Even if you avoided a big wedding yourself, though, and even if your heart is a big old lump of rock like mine, it's pretty hard to work up any real bile here. In part that's because Stephen and Pat are so clearly crazy about each other--and their friends are so clearly crazy about and happy for them. Twenty-five years and three weddings in, the two still burst into tears as they say their vows. Stephen's cheerful pride at the somewhat dorky Pat's flailing efforts to ice skate is as thoroughly irresistible as Pat's pride at Stephen's determination to tell his father how much he wants him at their wedding, even though he knows he's going to refuse to come. The two men's sincerity sells the gooiest, most overworked romantic clichés. Who could resist Pat's story of falling in love with Stephen--or more precisely, Stephen's butt--at first sight?

It may be egotistical to believe in freedom and love, but that's a kind of egotism we could all stand to have more of.

More than the personal details, it is the political context that makes this particular wedding excess not merely tolerable, but heroic. "We are fighting for liberty," Pat says, which may sound hyperbolic but is nevertheless true. Weddings can seem self-indulgent in part because they're a public statement that your personal life matters and that other people should care about it.

But for Pat and Stephen, other people already care about their personal life. The majority of states in the union, the federal government, and to some extent Stephen's own father, who refused to attend any of the weddings, have gone out of their way to tell them that their commitment isn't right or normal and should be banned. "There's something aggressively joyful about it," Vince, one of the officiants says of Pat and Stephen's wedding tour. That could be said of all weddings, perhaps, and it's part of why they can seem gauche and pushy. But when you're being oppressed, there's little middle ground between being gauche and pushy and being utterly silenced. Perhaps the Supreme Court will invalidate DOMA this week, and gay people will finally have the same rights to love and marry as straight people do. Unless and until that happens, though, gay couples who marry have little choice but to be aggressively joyful in the face of a federal law which objects to their love and to their happiness.

"Who can object to love?" Stephen asks at one point. But the truth is folks can object to anything, and often do for all sorts of reasons. In particular, people often object to weddings and to marriage, or to particular weddings and to particular marriages, because weddings and marriage are one of the main places that the personal and the public intersect. Society is organized in lots of ways, but one of the central ones is through how people choose to live out their love. Those choices can be embarrassing or crass--as one of the couple's friends makes clear with a glancing reference to Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? But this documentary, and gay marriage in general, is a reminder that they can also be beautiful and necessary. It may be egotistical to believe in freedom and love, but that's a kind of egotism we could all stand to have more of. As David, a reader at one of the weddings says before launching into the Bible's famous "love is kind" passage, "There are people who would say that these words are not for you and they do not apply to you. And I think it's important for us to remember that these are ours. They are no one else's to withhold."

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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