On Marriage

Alex

When I was 17 years old I got married to my dear friend Chris. I don’t remember who proposed to whom or even what inspired us to have a ceremony, but I remember the service well. It was held at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbus, GA, which is where at least twenty of us had set up camp, our sleeping bags covering the floor, after our pilgrimage to protest the School of the Americas at Fort Benning.

The ceremony was conducted fully in pirate-speak, officiated by our friend Duncan, who I was convinced was endowed with the power to do so by virtue of claiming to have once been a captain of a ship. Whether or not his credentials were legit is rendered moot by the fact that we were not in international waters at the time, not to mention the detail that we were both minors. But we had a flower girl, who somehow rustled up some baby’s breath, and there was even someone who objected to our union on purely fraudulent terms just to add some drama.

My love for Chris was something that I couldn’t seem to explain in words anyone could understand. Ours was a fierce, intimate, platonic love. Our marriage gave us a way to express in no uncertain terms that we would always love each other, that we were committed to the friendship we had for life. The rings we made each other out of beads and pipe cleaners gave me something solid to remind me that my real world existed outside my high school building, that the dominant teenage culture wasn’t my home and there was something more and real in my life.

I share this story as a way of trying to give voice to this larger thing that is similarly hard to explain in words that people can understand—that for me, the government has no bearing or role in who I love or who I commit myself to and form family ties with, and the idea of the government needing to sanction my sacred commitments feels inauthentic to me at the very least.

I don’t know how to tell you how strongly I believe that the government’s role is to promote and safeguard the well-being of the country’s people. That being the case, family law should protect—not police—families. Furthermore, I define my family, not the government. When I write a will, I get to decide who to provide for in whatever small way were I to die. I get to define who my family is for the purposes of that decision and I’m able to depend on the government through the legal system to uphold my truth.

Whenever my immediate family changes, it makes sense to me that I should be able to decide whether and when to declare that new family relationship to the government and request protections in whatever ways are offered to families in the eyes of the law, depending on how to best protect and promote the well-being of my family.

If I decide to commit myself to another person ’til death do us part, that’s a sacred conversation between me, my partner, and the divine. The government does not get a vote in my book. It’s up to me and my partner what ritual we use to most authentically honor that conversation, and it’s up to us whether and when to declare ourselves to the government. So to me the act of making a sacred commitment is absolutely and completely separate from the act of seeking legal recognition of my relationship and my family.

When I was 17 the most authentic ritual to mark my everlasting, un-tethered, and unconventional love for Chris was a pirate wedding. There was never any question to us that our union had nothing to do with the government and we wouldn’t be involving the law in our relationship, but that didn’t make our commitment any less real or weighty.

When it came to committing my heart, body, and soul to the person who was and is my life partner, the ritual that felt most authentic wasn’t any more conventional. It was one that needed no witnesses, no intermediaries to God, and certainly no intermediaries to the U.S. government. It was a ritual that honored our direct experience of the divine, a ritual and experience free from the cultural trappings that would only have undermined the true expression of our love, our commitment, and our selves.

I struggle with the history and current reality of the institution of marriage very much, although I certainly respect and celebrate the choice that many people make to be a part of it. But the point I want to make here isn’t a sociopolitical argument (check out On Equality for a little of that), it’s a soul-deep spiritual and cultural one. The dominant U.S. cultural practice of marriage feels foreign and inauthentic to me. It’s not true to my spiritual and cultural reality and needs.

So if you see a ring on my finger, please don’t assume it signifies a relationship to the U.S. government. But do know that it means I have made a weighty, authentic, and sacred bond stronger than I can express in words.

Teo

I’m nearly 46 years old and standing here with tears in my eyes watching you audition for solos with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. So in love with you and my heart wide open to you. There is a magic and a joy to you when you are just at play in your authenticity. That is the heart of a spiritual commitment for me. That I can love the person in front of me, not the illusion of who I may have wanted someone to be when I was younger. Showing up. Believing that love over a lifetime is possible despite being let down before. Being willing to build a life with you without trepidation when all of my life experience would tell me to be wary.

Like you, I struggle with the institutions that claim to allow me access if and only if I play by certain rules. If and only if I am willing to assimilate. I do grapple with the real world need for protection and shelter afforded by legally sanctioned unions. I can even hear my grandmother’s admonition “to not cut off my nose to spite my face” (something I heard often from her in my stubborn phase.) The reality is that I am a financially and medically vulnerable human being with a $40,000/year pharmacy tab. The tension between pragmatism and principles is palpable.

Yet, those struggles aren’t the root of my quiet reluctance to fanfare and ceremony. There are so few spaces where all of me (you, and us together) can show up without struggle or fear. However, sitting with you on a rock at the waters edge of Lake Champlain, a sacred place for me, felt like home. It is one of the very few places where my memories of childhood are filled with wonder and joy. Walking a spiritual path with you does allow me to creep out and be seen. And in being seen, allow myself to be loved and cared for. Much like my devotion to a sense of the divine, I am fiercely protective over the tender place in me where hope somehow survives. What I will call upon in moments of struggle is the memory of being surrounded by a sacred, quiet place with a boi I adore, able to breathe fully and deeply, anchored to all I could touch and see.

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Categories: Activism, Faith, Identity | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “On Marriage

  1. You know I couldn’t agree more with you about government marriage vs. spiritual, personal commitment, and for that reason never see myself getting “married” (though, like Teo, I understand the practical value of protections.) And I am beyond thrilled that the depth of your connection needed no witnesses — how profound. And… I deeply believe in celebration! So for my own purely selfish sake, I hope one day you have a celebration that other people who love you get to be a part of. I know you probably don’t need a toaster (heh) or new table linens or whatever, but I would love to raise a toast and beam at you beaming at each other.

    P.S. Second best part of this post (after the content) is that one of the tags is ‘pirates’.

  2. It’s the role of lexicographers, not legislators to define marriage. Lexicographers are keely aware of current usage and understand how usage reflects, shapes, defines, and enriches language and culture. They are sensitive and respectful to archaic structures, but understand that in a living language, meanings evolve, gaining depth and adding richness to our language and our lives. We will soon be at the point where civil unions and gay marriage will just be known as marriage in the language and in the law. Various religious institutions have a right to their rites. But holding non-practioners to those rites, isn’t right.

    • Uncle Tony,

      Thank you for your participation in the conversation! I agree that legislators are ill equipped to speak on behalf of a living language and an ever evolving landscape of human connection. I would love to see a true separation of “church” and State where one can seek the rights and responsibilities afforded by the government and then seek out a religious or spiritual ceremony if one should also choose. Removing the role of religious professionals from the legal sanctioning of relationships would be a good start.

      I would also love to move away from a traditional understanding of marriage to a broader understanding of family that recognizes the multitude of ways we organize our lives, loves and support systems. As my friend, Louis, says- “my mama needs my health insurance coverage much more than my wife does.” The error of the “gay rights” movement was to move away from an effort to redefine family in response to the AIDS crisis to a more hetero-normative quest for marriage. Far more people would benefit form a redefinition of family.

  3. I would love to see a true separation of “church” and State where one can seek the rights and responsibilities afforded by the government and then seek out a religious or spiritual ceremony if one should also choose.

    We really do have that. It is not so evident in the US as in countries like France, where people routinely go and do both things, separately, but it is true. The rights and responsibilities of the legal contract kick in when the authorized people sign the license, and it’s registered with the proper official; the ceremony is completely irrelevant. Laypeople think that the marriage becomes civilly recognized when the clergyperson says “By the power vested in me by the state,” but the fact is, that declaration has nothing to do with it. I’ve solemnized weddings in which the people had already been civilly married (one needed to get onto the other’s insurance before he retired), and I think I’ve solemnized at least one in which they had no intention of being civilly married.

    In no case have I signed the license during the ceremony. I do it right afterwards–which goes to show that most people value the ceremony more. They don’t want all those words and rituals to be window dressing–they want them to be the real thing, and then tie up the legal details in a small room afterwards.

    As a minister, I find it convenient to be automatically endowed with the power to sign a marriage license; I regard it as a courtesy the state provides to people who are frequently involved in weddings. I’d give up the convenience if it really helped us to clarify the distinction between spiritual and legal marriage. (Here in California, anyone can be deputized to perform a wedding, and I would just apply as often as needed.) I think the debate about marriage equality has already brought the distinction to light. But let’s not fool ourselves: there are still plenty of people to whom “marriage” means “big Catholic church wedding, blessed by priest” and cry, “You can’t make me call two men married!”–and they are not going to stop just because everyone starts having to go to City Hall to make it legal.

    • alexkapitan

      Amy, I’m glad that for you, the distinction between spiritual ceremony and governmental contract is clear, as it is for Teo and I, but this clarity is not upheld in the United States whatsoever. Far from a convenient courtesy, the fact that ministers are automatically endowed with the power to sign marriage licenses is an intentional blurring of church and state. Our culture’s dominant understanding of “marriage” that you spoke to is a direct result of this intentional blurring. I can’t say that Teo and I are married and expect anyone to understand that we made a deep and permanent spiritual commitment to each other and whether or not we announced our union to the government isn’t anyone’s business but ours. As far as U.S. mainstream culture is concerned, “married” means both spiritual commitment and legal espousal, inseparably. And for Teo and me, it’s really important for them to be separate.

      So no, we don’t have a true separation of church and state in the United States.

  4. E

    I was thinking the other day that Teo and I have been friends for more than 15 years. I have vivid memories of different moments we’ve spent together, and one that pops up – of us talking on the phone soon after we met (I’m sitting in an apartment that is lovingly referred to by my friends as “The Padlock Palace.”) Alex and I have never met, though we have many overlapping friends and acquaintances.

    My wife and I went the legal route (but not spiritual, I’ll note – because neither of us is) – for many reasons but primarily because of the pragmatism of marriage and kids and benefits and all the rest. Even though until recently, we were nothing more than roommates to our government in Colorado, we had hope in the universe’s bent toward justice.

    I have a photo of Teo from my wedding that I just love. He’s adorable. (Not that this is unusual.) It is one of the reasons that I’m glad that one of the things we spent money on was a photographer. I love our wedding photos. And I love the photos of my friends’ weddings – the whole business just makes me weepy. (Note, so do the photos of the two of you dancing at a friend’s wedding – I think – that Teo has on FB. I’m a cryer.)

    This is a long-winded way to say – I’m with Johnny. I want to raise a toast to the two of you. But, it’s not about me, I’m well aware. As I get older, I enjoy the trappings of ceremony (traditional or not) to celebrate our lives, and I selfishly want that with you. Again, not about me… I know. I’m not sure I can round this up into a point… so I’m giving up. I’m so happy to see Teo so happy, and I hope I get to meet Alex one day to tell him that in person.

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