"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Since deciding to run same-sex wedding announcements a year and a half ago, the New York Times has actively recruited gay couples to be part of its pages — though it won’t specify how. “We have expressed our interest in hearing from more couples through our many contacts within a wide range of community, religious and social groups,” said Robert Woletz, the editor of the Times’ Society News section, who would agree to be interviewed only via e-mail. Woletz declined to provide figures on how many same-sex couples are accepted or rejected in an average week.
In the past 14 months, there have been a few weeks when no gay couples were featured — which initially prompted some outcry from members of the gay community. But as gay wedding announcements have become a regularly occurring part of the paper — at least 50 gay and lesbian couples have appeared in the pages so far — those criticisms have faded.
Even more impressive, perhaps, than the number of couples who have been featured, is the national impact of the Times’ decision. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which lobbied the Times for a year to include gays in the section, at least 148 papers nationwide have followed suit. Only three states, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Mississippi, still lack a major newspaper that publishes same-sex wedding or commitment ceremony announcements. Even Bride’s magazine — a 70-year-old publication with a circulation of more than 400,000 — ran a feature story on same-sex wedding ceremonies for the first time in its September-October 2003 issue.
Considering that the Massachusetts Supreme Court recently declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriages illegal — while states such as Hawaii, California and Vermont already legalize same-sex unions and Canada officially allows gay and lesbian couples to wed — it seems certain that the number of gay couples appearing on the nation’s wedding pages will only increase.
Predictably, there has been some backlash from conservatives — the Times printed a letter condemning the policy change soon after the first announcement, groups like the Family Research Council published Op-Eds decrying the move, and a representative from the Traditional Values Coalition even appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball” to condemn the paper. But what’s more surprising is the debate that same-sex announcements have sparked within the gay community itself. While gay couples may be becoming more visible, opinions within the gay community about the significance of being included on society pages remain divided. For many couples, submitting applications announcing their unions is about making a statement, and fighting for a level of normalcy and legitimacy. But others don’t want to be part of a mainstream, some would say elitist, tradition. Still others are fearful of the repercussions of going public.
“There is homophobia in this world, and there’s a safety concern,” acknowledges Glennda Testone, a media director at GLAAD. “These first couples are trailblazers, and coming out on that scale isn’t a step I would force people to make. Eventually, though, we want to make the wedding page an automatic for gay couples, so in preparing for their ceremony, they’ll say, ‘OK, I gotta get the cake, I gotta reserve a wedding hall, I gotta send in the announcement.’”
But some gay activists — and members of committed gay partnerships — say they have better things to do than ape the trappings of heterosexual conventions. Kathy LeMay is 33 years old, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the president of her own social affairs consulting firm in Northampton, Mass. In October, she participated in a commitment ceremony with her partner, Michelle Billings. In other words, LeMay would be a great candidate for the New York Times wedding page.
But she didn’t want any part of it.
“When it comes to where do I choose to put my time to make a real change in society, this isn’t it,” LeMay says. “I don’t feel like I need to put a picture of me and my girlfriend in the Styles section.” LeMay feels that more can be done to advance the status of gays within society by challenging norms, not by being a part of them.
“I think infiltration is one way to do activism, but at a certain level you start to react to what other people have done, rather than setting your own agenda. What if we were to spend time seeing, not how we can be a part of this institution that’s been handed to us, but how can we make things better?”
Sarah Wright, a 36-year-old social work consultant and doctoral student at the State University of New York at Albany, says her decision to stay out of the Times wedding page was more personal than political. Wright has been with her partner, Heather, for more than 11 years. Last year they celebrated their 10-year anniversary by throwing a party with about 40 guests, though they kept the event informal, without a vow ceremony. While she frequently reads the New York Times wedding page — and specifically looks for the latest gay couples who have tied the knot — Wright believes that her private life should remain private.
“I’m happy for other gay couples who decide to be in the wedding section, but for me personally, I’d never aspire to be on the page,” Wright says. “Because it’s so national, it just feels kind of showy, town-criery.”
While activists like GLAAD’s Testone say they respect some couples’ desire for privacy, she thinks there’s a bigger picture to consider. The more gay couples appear in mainstream publications like the New York Times, the more visible homosexuals — and in turn, the rights that they are fighting for — become.
“We won’t know who we are as a community until we allow LGBT couples to tell us who they are,” says Testone. “[Having gay couples featured on the wedding pages] forces politicians at a high level to treat the issues in a human way. Those couples you see in the Times don’t have access to their partners’ Social Security, they don’t have spousal visitation rights, they can’t adopt their partner’s child.”
Some argue that the stories of gay couples meeting, falling in love and forming healthy relationships that appear in the Times each week are, in and of themselves, subversive. In Steven Goldstein and Daniel Gross’ announcement — the first one in the New York Times’ history, which appeared on Sept. 1, 2002 — for example, Gross revealed what it was like to tell his parents that he had fallen in love with another man. “My mom said, ‘You seem like everything’s great,’” [Daniel] recalled. “‘You seem like you’re in love.’ I said, ‘I am.’ They said, ‘That’s great.’ I said, ‘His name is Steven.’ My mother said, ‘Oy,’ and was silent for a while.”
“That was awesome that they put that story in there,” Goldstein says. “It wasn’t just that Buffy Worthington III told her mother she was marrying John Pennington IV, and her mother said, ‘That’s wonderful, darling.’”
Before gay couples started appearing in the Times’ wedding pages, Joe Tom Easley, a legal affairs lecturer who lives in Florida and New York, was never interested in them — even though his longtime boyfriend, Peter Freiberg, loved to read them. Then in August, the two got married in Canada after spending 21 years together. Suddenly, the whole announcement idea didn’t seem quite so silly anymore.
“I always thought of it as the page for indefatigable publicity seekers,” Easley says. “Now I’ve become one of them.”
Their announcement, which appeared on Aug. 24, 2003, provided more than just a moment of fame and self-congratulation. Easley and Freiberg believe their appearance had an impact on people’s attitudes toward gay marriage and homosexuality in general.
“It’s important to let people know that there are gay couples out there in love,” Freiberg says. “Just like straight couples.”
Evan Wolfson is a longtime activist and executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York group devoted to advancing the cause of gay marriage. Wolfson, long a reader of the wedding page, says that by making a political statement with their presence on the page, gay couples are ensuring that eventually their stories will be looked at as simply human, and not just representative of an embattled minority.
“A straight American will see a picture of a gay couple, and he or she will be forced to ask the question, ‘How am I going to treat this couple? Am I going to discriminate against them, or treat them like everyone else?’” Wolfson says. “Most people’s instinct will be to do the right thing.”
Of course, there will probably always be a certain segment of society that refuses to see gay marriage — and certainly gay couples on the wedding page — as simply normal. Guardians of “traditional” marriage feel that the inclusion of same-sex partners in the wedding section undermines the sanctity of marriage as an institution.
“On the same page, we may have pictures of two guys over here, and a guy and a girl over there. And we can be glad that they all found happiness, but this couple over here just is not the same as that couple over there,” says Glenn Stanton, author of “Why Marriage Matters,” and senior analyst for marriage and sexuality at Focus on the Family. “The implication, however, is that the two pictures are morally equal, which means that either the male or the female member of the heterosexual couple just didn’t matter — they matter as people, but the deepest part of their humanity, expressed in their maleness or femaleness, is diminished.
“By denouncing gender roles,” he continues. “These announcements diminish our humanity.”
So even as conservative opposition to same-sex marriage grows — led by talk of a constitutional amendment banning it — some segments of society are accepting a homosexual role in what has been a traditionally heterosexual institution as par for the course. The acceptance of gays in the wedding pages is just one part of this changing attitude.
Nick Gottlieb, 38, whose marriage to Macky Alston was one of the first gay announcements in the Times, definitely wanted to make a statement. His mother, Linda, who produced the hit movie “Dirty Dancing,” even made a few calls to friends at the paper to make sure her son got in. Not that Nick really needed any help — he graduated cum laude from Yale and earned a master’s in social work from Smith, while “Macky,” or Wallace McPherson Alston III, holds degrees from Columbia and the Union Theological Seminary. But Nick wanted to make a point; he wanted to make sure that their marriage would serve as an example of a gay couple that was just as successful, loving and committed as a straight couple.
The point was made. But something else happened, too. Beyond the politics of the situation, Nick found himself enjoying the moment. For Nick, who grew up in New York, the Times was his local paper. Seeing himself pictured next to his partner on its pages made him feel like a real part of the city he called home.
“With all of the time and attention the paper gave us, it was really nice to feel held up by your community,” Nick says. “We were made to feel very important, which is exactly what you want on your wedding day.”
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We want to make you a part of this series. What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: Any writing submitted becomes the property of Salon if we publish it. We reserve the right to edit submissions, and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to email@example.com.)
Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.More Christopher Farah.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)