The Meaning of Marriage, Revised Standard Version
April 5, 2009
It had been a six month train ride and it ended here, in the dark, with the stacked-up chairs, the rented canopy, the portable potties, and a pile of fat black plastic trash bags next to the building. Memorial Hall, North Calais. August 17, 1997.
The guests had all departed. Our extended families were snaking their way back down County Road, caravanning towards the Inn at Montpelier, my father’s car barely missing a moose that had stepped out of the darkness, and my mother so happy she could die. She actually said that, to my startled younger sister, “You know, Judy, I can die now. Danny is finally married.”
Six months earlier, to the day, I had asked Jo to marry me. She said yes and from that moment we were tied to the calendar, to dates, places, people, to decisions that had to be made, where, when, who, how.
It came down to the Old West Church, near Kent’s Corner, my old friend and former seminary classmate Tom as minister, and Memorial Hall for the reception, with the same old friend and former classmate as musician and dance master, leading the motley throng in contras, squares, and circles.
But now the great day was over, darkness had fallen, the lights and extension cords all coiled and boxed. Tom was the only other person there, collecting his things by the picnic table under the one flood light. Jo and I drank in the cool air coming off Number 10 Pond.
“There’s one more thing,” Tom shouted. The train had not quite stopped. The marriage certificate. We still had to sign it. We walked past the garbage bags over to the damp table, the knot returning to my stomach. Another “I do.” The famous “piece of paper from the City Hall” that seals the deal, that makes this real, permanent and binding as permanent can be. I had thought we were done. And then this final detail.
But here’s the thing: there were three lines for three signatures – husband, wife, and officiant. We all had to sign. I stared at the paper and hesitated – not because of the knot, but because of the irony, bitter and painful, that Tom, the man who had helped guide us through this process, led the ceremony, delivered the homily, a respected pastor and preacher and dance master, whose signature was necessary on the certificate, could not himself sign on the spouse line in his own wedding. He whose signature made the certificate legal and binding, and who had signed many such certificates at many happy weddings would not be allowed to sign his own.
Like so many other people drawn, called to ministry, Tom was, is, gay, an orientation which he had wrestled with most of the years I had known him. He had had to wrestle with it, of course, because it wasn’t “normal,” not accepted by society, because it makes straight people uncomfortable, forcing them to wrestle with things they would rather not think about. But Tom’s wrestling was over, he had found some peace in self-acceptance, had come out, even though it likely meant he would be booted from the Methodist pulpit. For the time being he could continue to minister, to preach, to marry and bury, as long as he was single. He could be gay, but not do gay, as if there was a difference.
He had told once about the double bind that gay people have found themselves in, that same-sex relationships have had no legal standing and thus were seen as immoral, and that they are seen as immoral and thus not given legal recognition. A vicious, tight circle that has stifled and crucified countless human beings, fellow citizens, co-travellers on life’s journey.
Above the pulpit, where Tom spoke at our wedding, arching across the wall above his head, were large plain black letters spelling out a warning from the Book of Proverbs: “REMOVE NOT THE ANCIENT LANDMARK WHICH THY FATHERS HAVE SET.” The beating rigid heart of conservatism, its essence, yet absurd and laughable. We humans seem to love the idea of eternal verities, of things that don’t change, that must not change. Yet change is everywhere. The divine right of kings has crumbled before the rise of democracy –the “natural order” that places women below men, regards them as weaker, not fully human, has been discredited — fundamental and ancient assumptions about “race” are now discarded– how many of these landmarks have been exposed as walls meant only to keep certain people out, allow certain others in? How many have now been happily pulverized, reduced to gravel and stone dust, put to better use fertilizing our fields?
My father used to tell me that while he sympathized with interracial couples who wanted to marry and raise a family he felt it was not a good idea — since the children would suffer, be ostracized, and not know who they were, White or Black. Forty years later, a blink in the eye of history, the United States has a biracial president. Are we not the better for it?
Some landmarks need to move, including some really old ones. Some definitions need to change. Any linguist will tell you that the meaning of a word rests ultimately not in dusty dictionaries or obscure Indo-European roots, but on the tongue and in the heart and mind of the living speaker and the living listener. Meanings change. Words change, grow, and shrink, because we change. The scary and wonderful truth of language is that it is continually discovered, rediscovered and recreated. It is our birthright and our duty. We are the authors and arbiters of meaning, as were our ancestors, and we are not bound — unless we choose to be.
We all signed the certificate. The evening ended. Our married life began. Tom eventually met someone and got booted from the pulpit. Such a loss to the Methodists. And so unnecessary. It has been a long and generally painful train ride through Western civilization for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, people who have added so much to our shared humanity. Changing a few lines on a marriage certificate, expanding the definition of a word, an important word, may not usher in a new world of peace and harmony, but it can be done and I believe we will all be the better for it.