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America - My Best Friend's Gay Wedding

George Bush wants to outlaw same-sex marriages, but for now, in some states at least, gay couples can get hitched. Dea Birkett sees an old friend tie the knot

Friday September 3, 2004 - The Guardian
Chris & Jo

Last November, in the final throes of the New England fall, my best friend Josephine Ross was driving her son to school in her Honda stickshift. (She always drives a manual rather than an automatic, to conserve fuel. In today's America, even the car you drive is a political statement.) The news came over the car radio. The Massachusetts supreme judicial court had made a majority ruling: "We declare that barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a member of the same sex violates the Massachusetts constitution." Within six months, Jo's home state would become the first in America to grant civil marriage licences to gay and lesbian couples. Jo, 46, and her son Sam, 13, whooped with joy. Jo, who has a celebratory disco song to belt out for every occasion, began, "It started with a kiss. Never thought it would come to this ... " and Sam joined in.

That evening, as Jo came down the stairs, her partner of 21 years, Christine Guilfoy, was waiting on her knees. "Will you marry me?" she asked. Jo replied, "Yes, yes, yes, yes !" So last month, I flew to America, and there I was, giving a blessing at their wedding.

One hundred and fifty guests lined the long wooden pews of the Universalist church in the small fishing port of Gloucester. Jo is Jewish and Chris was raised a Catholic, so they were married under a huppah (the traditional Jewish wedding tent) with the taut and wiry Rabbi Karen Landy and the avuncular Reverend Wendy Fitting presiding, two clergy from central casting. (They couldn't marry in a synagogue not because they are women - liberal and reform synagogues premit same-sex marriages - but because Chris isn't Jewish.)

When Massachusetts first recognised same-sex marriages, there was an unseemly rush up the aisle. Within a week, 1,800 marriage licences were issued to same-sex couples, the vast majority of them women. Long-term lesbian unions tend to be even more monogamous and enduring than straight marriages. Men, it seems, gay or straight, are simply far less eager to commit.

Already Jo had been to the gay marriages of many of her friends, hurried through on a wave of enthusiasm and the underlying worry that the decision could be reversed (as it has in California, where last month 4,000 same-sex marriages were annulled). Many of these were conveyor-belt weddings, so that guests witnessed not only their friends' marriage but several that came before as they waited for their friends' slot. Jo remembers watching two older gay men she had never met. The reverend announced that this was a special day for them, not only because they were getting married, but because it was their 33rd anniversary. "Their 33rd," said Jo. "They'd had to wait so very, very long."

Jo, a lawyer and relentless organiser, was determined that her wedding would not be rushed but a properly planned event. There would be fresh flowers and live music and appropriate readings. Everything had to be perfect. She became a wedding bore. Did she really need to email me full details of who would be making which toasts and for how long, when I didn't know half the other guests anyway? Did Jo think that being gay made her agonising over where to hold the reception (the local arts association hall or a more expensive hotel), and what should be on the menu (mini pizzas or angels on horseback) any more interesting?

On the day itself, the family gathering resembled the line-up at any wedding: there was Jo's 85-year-old father and her two-year-old niece, there were women in lilac and men in suits. Jo's lilac silk trouser suit might have worked just as well at a church wedding in Tunbridge Wells, although perhaps not on the bride. But the opening "statements of appreciation" by the betrotheds were determinedly different.

"I love you for agreeing to do things that wouldn't have been your first choice: tennis lessons, family bridge games, a large wedding," Jo began. (Chris, eight years older and far more cautious, would have gone for something more modest.) "I love you for your drive to accomplish things in your life - and in mine," Chris responded. They are so unalike, and yet they have never attempted to change each other, as so many heterosexual couples do. "I imagine growing old together, driving you crazy with my chatter," said Jo. Chris ended: "I look forward to rocking on the porch in our old age, me still in my pyjamas, dreaming of companionable silence; you wearing running shoes, chattering about the plans for the day."

Sam, beaming down on his two moms (he is taller than both of them), handed the rings to Rabbi Karen. As the marriage licence was signed, she announced: "With the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I now pronounce you finally, and at long last, legally married, bound together in body and soul." The glass was crushed beneath their feet, and we all cheered, "Mazel tov!" It was one of the few moments in theceremony that the couple hadn't written themselves.

At the reception (Jo went for the cheaper local hall in the end), friends took turns reading out poems, recalling shared experiences, and belting out songs they had adapted for the day. To the tune of New York, New York, we all sang, "Start spreading the news./The court gave its OK./ They ruled for full equality,/For Chris and Jo ... "

When Jo's older brother got married four years earlier, he had to shoulder all sorts of family obligations, and his father had insisted he invite all his work colleagues. Jo escaped all of this; everyone who was at her wedding was there because they wanted to be. And Jo and Chris were getting married simply because they both really, really wanted to - and had done for a very long time.

Unlike the union of so many straight couples, gay marriages are not about the bonding of two clans. In fact, they are usually the very opposite. A gay marriage is often the last straw for a family that can't accept the homosexuality of one of its members. Two of Chris's brothers (one with his male partner) and one of her sisters came to the wedding, but her mother, a staunch Catholic, refused to attend. She missed a great wedding.

Perhaps, as gay marriages inevitably become more common, this wonder will lessen, and they will deteriorate into formulaic, impersonal, duty-bound events, just like the sort we have all been to many times before. Lesbians will get married to their long-term lovers because it will please their mothers. Gay men will tie the knot because that is what men who have been living together for some time are expected to do. Of course, this can't happen until straight and gay relationships are regarded as equal. Then, ironically, beautiful weddings like my best friend's could be a casualty. Equality can make you dull.

Already some guests at Jo's wedding were getting cynical. Kate and Lyn had married in May, as soon as they could, after 11 years together, driving an open-top limousine through downtown Boston with a "Just Legally Married" banner tied across the bonnet; Lyn proudly introduced Kate to me as "my lovely wife". "We always thought of marriage as a conservative thing," confesses Kate. "Now we're all clamouring for it." Lyn knows why - it is because they have become professional, middle-aged women. "Feminists used to be really against marriage because it was all about property, and we didn't have any. Now we're all for it, because it's all about property, and we've got some," she says. It is estimated that, in America, some 1,400 constitutional rights are denied to non-married couples. (The situation is better in Britain, where the state provides a financial safety net.) In America, with privatised healthcare and few social benefits, the legal status of marriage becomes more important. Even so, neither Kate and Lyn's, nor Jo and Chris's, nor any other same-sex marriage is recognised outside the Massachusetts state borders. If Jo and Chris moved to Missouri, they would be single again.

Gay marriage remains a central political issue in the US, and in the forthcoming presidential election. George Bush wants a change in the constitution, to keep "the meaning of marriage from being changed for ever". On August 17, to prevent prospective gay brides and grooms flocking across the border, a supreme court judge ruled that out-of-state couples were barred from marrying in Massachusetts. Since the initial Massachusetts ruling last November, more than 35 states have introduced legislation aimed at preserving the definition of marriage as only between a woman and a man.

Jo knows that, however wonderful her wedding and strong her relationship, it is possible that her marriage may not last. Last February, Meg and Lauren, wedding guests from California, queued for three days outside San Francisco city hall to tie the knot, one of more than 4,000 same-sex couples who took advantage of a change in the Californian state law that lasted just a month. Meg told me how she felt a thrill every time she ticked the "married" box on surveys. But last month, after California's highest court nullified every one of those licences, Meg and Lauren's marriage was dissolved. That small gesture of ticking a box marked "married", which gave Meg such pleasure, has now been denied her.

But here, for now, were Jo and Chris, just legally married, dancing at their wedding reception in the arts association hall. It was a night of disco anthems - I Am What I Am, We Are Family, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves.

Then came, "It started with a kiss", bellowing out as I danced and danced at my best friend's wonderful wedding. Thank goodness that, for a few, and for a while at least, it can now come to this.

Two is a couple ... sometimes

In the US

  • President George W Bush is seeking a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages across the US. John Kerry does not endorse gay marriage, but believes that decisions on such matters should be taken at state level.
  • Vermont was the first US state to introduce same-sex civil unions in 2000, giving gay couples some of the entitlements of married people. The first state to permit legal marriages was Massachusetts in May 2004. Gay marriages are currently illegal in 38 US states.
In the UK
  • The civil partnership bill, which is yet to be made law, would give gay couples similar rights and responsibilities to married couples once they register their partnership. The earliest the bill could become law is late 2004, becoming effective from late 2005.
  • Ken Livingstone pledged to establish the London Partnerships Register when he first ran for Mayor of London. Ian Burford and his partner, Alexander Cannell, were the first gay couple to sign the register in September 2001. Manchester, Brighton, Leeds and Swansea now run similar schemes.
  • Gay marriages are recognised in Belgium (since 2003), the Netherlands (since 2001), and some Canadian provinces. There are plans to introduce full legal status to same-sex marriages in Sweden and Taiwan.
  • Nine EU member states and some regions of Australia recognise civil partnerships.

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