The Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage a few months ago were heartwarming and affirming of marriage evolution, but they did not provide true equality and fairness. In some places for same-sex couples, there are weddings, in others there is protective paperwork. In some places there is hope for equality, in others there is still none.
On October 6, in California, I was given the honor and responsibility of officiating at the wedding of my dear friends, Mike and Dan, who had been together as partners for twenty-seven years. Only a few days before, across the country in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie was making efforts to assure that such a marriage would never be officiated in his state. His office was filing an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court to overturn a pro-marriage ruling by a lower court. His intention is to prevent couples like my friends, if they lived in New Jersey, from being granted the right to marry. Six days after I married Mike and Dan, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Christie’s stance smacks of political strategy, which makes it reminiscent of the history of same-sex marriage in California: a moderate Republican governor flirted with supporting marriage equality, but was unwilling to confront the prevailing opinion of the conservative base required for his political success. Governors Schwarzenegger and Christie both vetoed same-sex marriage when it was passed by their respective legislatures. They both pointed a finger toward others to whom they passed the buck to make the decision on the issue. Schwarzenegger said it was the courts; Christie says it should be left up to a popular vote.
Schwarzenegger seemed to evolve by the time the issue hit the popular vote in California in the form of Proposition 8. He came out against the mean-spirited proposition when it was on the ballot. When it passed and the question of its constitutional legitimacy moved to the courts, he refused to defend it.
What changed in Schwarzenegger’s position? Potentially several factors, but one that certainly must have had impact was that in the interim between his vetoes and Prop. 8, he personally officiated at two same-sex wedding ceremonies. He had the chance to see for himself that marriage was about real people and not “political agendas,” as Christie has claimed.
“Say you,” I can hear Christie snidely exclaim.
It makes me wish that instead of running around with court paperwork the governor could have been by my side during the wedding I officiated. Here is what he would have experienced.
I would have walked him on the grounds with me the day before the wedding. It was an outdoor wedding and the grass was green, fresh, and vibrant. The aisle led to a small Greek-style temple and the area was enclosed with tall vine-cloaked walls. Before our rehearsal began, I stepped alone onto the temple steps. There I felt the magnitude of my responsibility. The next day, there would be a hundred people gathered, the community of two families. It was not just the two men who would be united, but an extended family who would mean a little more to one another after the ritual than they had before.
I looked down at the written ceremony in the leather book in my hand. I was ready. I had met with the couple several times and made sure that it spoke to and for them. This was not about some generic marriage commitment, it was about them, their bond, their history, their importance to each other, and their own great and unique love for each other.
I wish Governor Christie had observed the ceremony the next day, so he could experience the personal relevance to this family and to these men. He might see that the idea of millions of strangers voting about marriage is downright absurd.
I would have asked Mr. Christie to watch the beaming faces of those present as I described the context of this wedding in the scope of Dan’s and Mike’s lives, “This wedding started almost three decades ago when two soon-to-be lovers sat up all night talking and watching the moon slowly, lazily cross the sky into morning. It was something out of a movie, but only the beginning. Here we are. We are at the destination scene in that fantastic epic movie. Not the final scene, mind you—just one in the middle—of the great, beautiful romance called Dan and Mike.”
I would have asked Mr. Christie to think, along with the congregation, about the value of marriage, as I read a quote from the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s landmark decision, “Marriage is a vital social institution . . . . Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family . . . . Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.” Mr. Christie would have witnessed two men who have certainly earned both cultural and legal recognition to call each other “husband.”
He would have heard me say, “What Dan and Mike have shown us is that love is stronger than anything. It is stronger than a society that might have denied them this basic right. It is stronger than life’s curves that easily could have killed either one of these men, or at the very least, driven them apart. It is stronger than luck, it is stronger than dogma, it is stronger than life.”
Dan and Mike had been through some of the toughest hurdles that marriages are asked to endure. At one point Dan was felled by severe and life-threatening meningitis. Mike stood by faithfully as his partner battled through it.
Later, only five years prior to their wedding, it was Mike’s turn. He stumbled on a tall cliff and fell a distance that should have killed him. His body was broken, and for weeks it was uncertain whether he would live. Dan’s sister made reference to it in her toast at the reception: “Mike, I was there at the hospital for you, and I was scared. I was scared for you, yes, but I was more afraid for my brother who was completely uncertain how he could go on if he lost the one thing he cherished most, you, the love of his life.”
Mike alluded to this period as well in his self-written vow to Dan, “I know without you, I would not be here at all, Dan. You gave me the gift of life itself,” he said.
It is this and more that I would have had the governor observe and ponder. I would have introduced him to the families and friends who had been touched, nourished, and enriched by this union, this couple, this marriage. I would have him understand the difference between a hypothetical question asked of a million unaffected outsiders, and the deep impact felt by this now-united family. I would have him feel the community come together in declaration: “”Prior to your meeting, you each walked a separate path. Now you remind us that you are not now, and have not been for many years, separate lives. As you two combine into one light, so now are your friends and family joined, through you, into one, reminding us of how important your relationship has been to all of us. With it, you have anchored our community, given us secure harbor and taught us, too, love and unity. And so, this day, they declare before all of us that they shall continue to not only live together in the marriage of their hearts but also in the legal marriage they deserve. Today their feelings are new. No longer unrecognized, partners and best friends, you have become husband and husband and can now seal the agreement with a kiss. Today, your kiss is a promise. You have expressed your love to each other through the commitment and vows you have just made. It is with these vows in mind, by the authority vested in me by the State of California, that I pronounce you husbands and partners for life.”
What Dan and Mike experienced that day mattered. The public definition of their union was appropriate, deserved, and necessary. Like “love,” “honor,” and “consecration,” the intangible value of “marriage” cannot be seen in physical terms but its impact is real. They are nobody’s “political agenda.” They are not fodder to boost up someone’s need to pander to his base of supporters.
The “Dan and Mikes” in New Jersey are being denied what their counterparts in California have just experienced. Again I can hear Governor Christie’s snide retort, “Say you.”
Yes, Governor, say I, and so says anyone who has witnessed a couple like Dan and Mike getting married, including previously veto-hungry, anti-marriage-equality governors. Do the just thing, not only to align yourself with the right side of history, but because it is good, pure, and core to American values. The “Dan and Mikes”—couples who love and are committed to each other, their families, and their country—represent our highest values and the best we have to offer.
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Special thanks to Rachel Hockett for editing help on this article.