The secret history of gay marriage

Same-sex weddings were happening in this country for decades before the Supreme Court permitted it

Topics: Books, Writers and Writing, History, Same-sex marriage, Gay Marriage, Gay Rights, Marriage,

The secret history of gay marriage

On October 10, 1987, nearly 7,000 people witnessed a wedding on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Men and women cheered and threw rice and confetti as family, friends, and community members took part in the largest mass wedding in American history. After the celebrants exchanged rings and were pronounced newlywed, guests released hundreds of balloons into the air. Brides and grooms, dressed in formal wedding attire, cried and embraced after an “emotional and festive” ceremony. Like so many brides and grooms, participants identified the wedding day as one of the happiest, most meaningful days of their lives.

But this was no ordinary wedding. And these were not typical brides and grooms. This wedding held special significance for its participants. Beyond the “mass” nature of the celebration, something else was unique. The newlyweds that fall Saturday paired off as brides and brides, grooms and grooms. “The Wedding,” as it came to be known, marked the symbolic beginning of nearly 2,000 same-sex marriages. Rejecting the idea that a wedding—and by implication, a marriage— should have one male and one female participant, the grooms and their grooms, the brides and their brides presented a striking picture.A wedding, a fairly conventional affair, became a site of radical protest. Layered in meaning, “The Wedding” celebrated the personal commitments of those being wed. At the same time, it was a direct political act that challenged the legal, religious, and social barriers against same-sex relationships.  Like couples before them, gay men and lesbians found they could use their weddings to make a statement about the world and the place of their relationship in it.

Designed to reflect an alternative approach to love and marriage, “The Wedding,” part of the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, rejected the narrow definition of marriage that limited the relationship to members of the opposite sex. “The Wedding” likewise rejected a narrow view of the standard wedding celebration. Dina Bachelor, metaphysical minister, hypnotherapist, and “Wedding” officiant, designed a new-age style ceremony. Bachelor recognized the uniqueness of the celebration and chose her words and actions carefully. Standing under a swaying arch of silver, white, and black balloons, Bachelor omitted any mention of the customary “honor and obey, till death do us part.” Including observers in the celebration, she asked witnesses to join hands and encircle the celebrants. For participants, “The Wedding” was not about fitting into a pre-arranged style. Instead, it was about expanding the celebration to include various approaches to marriage and family. Like alternative wedding celebrants of the 1960s and 1970s, same-sex partners recognized the flexibility of the wedding and used the celebration to express their views about life and love. Bachelor likewise noted the celebration’s significance and concluded the event by stating, “It matters not who we love, only that we love.”

Gay community leaders emphasized the political component of the celebration. Drawing on the activist view that the personal was political, the public pronouncement and celebration of a long-ridiculed personal lifestyle served as the ultimate political statement.Those present rejected the shame associated with their relationships and proved that many same-sex couples shared long-term, committed relationships. Courageously displaying their individual love and their membership in a community of likeminded gay men and lesbians, “Wedding” participants did not demand a social inclusion marked by assimilation or guarded emotions. Rather, they demanded full acceptance of their lifestyle and relationship choices. Reverend Troy Perry, a minister evicted from the Pentecostal Church of God for his own homosexuality and founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, spoke to this desire for openness and acceptance as he rallied his congregants with a shout of “Out of the closets and into the chapels!”

Hosting “The Wedding” in front of the Internal Revenue Service’s building was a symbolic choice meant to protest the tax office’s refusal to accept taxes jointly filed by same-sex couples. As activist Sue Hyde recalled, couples participated in “The Wedding” “both to protest discrimination against them and to celebrate their love and commitment to each other.” Challenging conventional views of family and marriage, groom and “Wedding” organizer Carey Junkin of Los Angeles echoed “The Wedding’s” official slogan when he said, “Love makes a family, nothing else.” Adding his own sentiment, he stated, “We won’t go back.” Marriages celebrated that day held no legal standing, but that did not diminish the emotional impact of the event. The community of couples who wed accomplished their political objective by making their private relationships part of the political discourse. The very public, very political event demanded recognition of the legitimacy of the relationship between two brides or two grooms.

As for “The Wedding” participants (composed of more male than female couples, suggesting an ongoing discomfort with weddings and marriage among politically active feminists), they expressed warm praise for the celebration, as well as a sense of anger that any members of the gay or lesbian community would criticize their decision to wed. Dressed in suits, tuxedos, and wedding gowns, albeit with little regard for normative notions of gender, the celebrants saw the day as an important turning point in their lives and relationships. Despite their unorthodox appearances, many participants noted that they would have been comfortable with an even more “traditional” ceremony. The only registered disappointment pertained to the desire that the ceremony might have been more explicit in regard to monogamy or couples’ exclusivity. The mass “Wedding” was not intended to replicate heterosexual marital relationships or wedding celebrations, but the importance given the celebration and the desire for expression of personal preference—be it for a more or even less traditional form than the ceremony before the IRS—hinted at possible similarities between same-sex weddings and their opposite-sex counterparts.

While “The Wedding” looked unlike the individual white weddings celebrated by heterosexual couples, the event incorporated familiar elements of the wedding ceremony. Most participants wore some sort of special dress; an authority figured presided over the celebration; and guests bore witness to the event. The relationships may have seemed atypical or strange in the eyes of the mainstream observer, but there could be no question as to what had transpired that October day. The familiarity of the wedding served as a valuable political tool even as it fulfilled the personal desires of same-sex couples who wished to share their lives together. For a population who had the option— admittedly the very unpleasant option—of invisibility, the choice to make public the intimacies of private life was a political statement in and of itself.

Same-sex weddings transcended the “difference vs. accommodation” debates often raised in subcultural groups and hotly contested within the queer community.8 In the years following the celebration of “The Wedding,” gay men and lesbians expressed a blend of intentions and motivations with their celebrations. The flexibility of the wedding, continually tested by the heterosexual marrying population in the decades since World War II, likewise served the personal as well as the political objectives of queer couples. Moving from the mass to the individual, weddings legitimated and celebrated relationships that had long been deemed wrong or strange and had thus been cloaked in secrecy. Such celebrations allowed men and women to celebrate their private lives in a public style and with the sanction of chosen and accepting family and community members. By publicly celebrating their relationships, queers challenged a political system that refused to recognize their right to wed.

Like the weddings of those before them, the white weddings hosted by same-sex couples in the 1990s and in the early years of the new century seemingly adhered to a standardized form of celebration. The similarity between opposite-sex and same-sex events, of course, was noticeable in the continued reliance on a wedding industry and adherence to wedding norms: formal dress, recitation of vows, and elaborate receptions. On the surface, this suggested a kind of queer accommodation to the standard form. Even though a gay couple might purchase a cake topper that featured two grooms, the couple still purchased a cake topper. The prerequisites of a wedding had tremendous staying power. But same-sex couples shaped their weddings in ways specific to their relationships and cultural identifications. Ceremonial alteration and amendment, whether slight or pronounced, reflected the beliefs and desires of same-sex couples.

Queer couples, like other brides and grooms, negotiated tensions created by family, cost, and the overall wedding planning procedure. Unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex brides and grooms challenged existing authority in the very act of celebrating a wedding. Couples celebrated the communities from which they came, to which they currently belonged, and those they created, if only for their weddings. They exerted individual authority over their ceremonies not only in their selection of music, dress, and wedding style, but also in their very direct rejection of a legal system that denied them access to the rights and privileges of marriage. They publicly celebrated relationships long denied public recognition. Weddings could be and could say whatever the celebrating couples wished. As various states began to recognize same-sex marriages, acceptance of same-sex unions extended even beyond the queer community. Weddings both affirmed the political victory achieved by those who had long advocated on behalf of equal rights and marked the triumph of personalization in American wedding culture.

* * *

Throughout American history, same-sex relationships often were shrouded in secrecy. Homosexuals created a subculture in which their desires and lifestyles were accepted, but mainstream American culture marked homosexuality as deviant. Like their straight counterparts, gay men and women moved beyond the confines of their small towns and local communities due to the mobilization required by World War II. The homosocial nature of military life and the concentration of military populations in coastal urban centers allowed for sexual experimentation among members of the same sex. Men and women embraced the freedom to pursue non-normative sexual desires. The years following the war, however, were marked by a commitment to the policing of the queer behavior identified during the war years and punished by the undesirable “blue discharge.” Cold War insecurities demanded strict adherence to normative gender roles. Those who rejected the ideal of the nuclear family and American way of life were circumspect. Beyond communists, McCarthy-era witch hunts identified homosexuals as security threats and systematically removed queers from their positions within government and the military.

Given the potential for arrest and public exposure, most gay men and lesbians kept their homosexuality a secret. But while police efforts quieted queer activism, the gay subculture was not silenced. The sizable homosexual population exposed by World War II–era mobilization and the confirmation of widespread homosexual experience among American men, reported by Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, proved the existence of a queer community. Gay men and women were not alone in their feelings of difference. And while communities could be entered only through knowledge of certain codes and behaviors, men and women found each other, despite the antagonism of law enforcement. Early efforts by organizations such as the Mattachine Society (founded in 1950) and the Daughters of Bilitis (founded in 1955) protested inequalities faced by gay men and lesbians as they aimed to present a “respectable” homosexual community to the American public, a community defined by more than sexual behavior.

Given the need for secrecy, sexual acts, especially between two men, could be fairly fleeting experiences. Cruising was a normal element of gay men’s lives. Those who viewed homosexuality as a sickness or perversion believed that homosexuals thrived on such promiscuity. But quick meetings and aversion to monogamy did not mark all queer relationships. ONE, the publication founded by members of the Mattachine Society, addressed the relationship between gay men and marriage as the 1950s came to a close. While an April 1959 article recognized the appeal of marriage’s “stability” and “the taking of vows which are to ensure that two persons will be loyal,” author Hermann Stoessel also pointed to the potential collapse of heterosexual marriage. By necessity, queers had had to create alternative relationships, and Stoessel believed this might serve the gay community well. The heterosexual seemed increasingly inclined to strive for elements found in the ideal gay life such as “freedom, variety and experience.”

On the other hand, some queer couples embraced what they called the “homophile married life.” A December 1959 piece by Jim Egan asked the question, “Homosexual Marriage: Fact or Fancy?” Ultimately, he declared committed relationships—or marriages—fact. Egan and his partner of 11 years knew many committed couples who had been together “for from one to two to over forty years.” To his knowledge, nearly all the relationships were monogamous. Egan recognized the emotional as well as the financial benefits of these pairings: “All these relationships . . . bring love, companionship and meaning to the participants’ lives” while also serving as “stepping-stones to material benefits that would otherwise most likely never have been realized.” Like all marriages, the homosexual marriage required work to succeed. Love, trust, and respect created strong and lasting relationships, as did the need for self-acceptance, often challenging for homosexual couples given the negative public view of homosexuality.

A 1963 issue pressed the issue even further. Randy Lloyd published an article entitled “Let’s Push for Homophile Marriage.” Lloyd critiqued a March 1963 Harper’s article on “New York’s Middle-Class Homosexuals” for its failure to address the experience of married queers. In Lloyd’seyes, the homophile married life was “much more preferable, ethically superior, enjoyable, exciting, less-responsibility-ridden (contrary to a lot of propaganda from the single set), and just plain more fun.” In a style not unlike women’s magazines of the time, Lloyd provided a list of tried and true tips for those interested in a marital relationship: “How To Succeed in Getting Married By Trying.” Using advice taken from happily married friends, Lloyd directed readers to stay optimistic, remain physically fit, befriend members of the homophile married set, and preserve some sexual energy even while enjoying single life.

Lloyd suggested that readers should not allow expected family response to deter their quest for a happy marriage. “Don’t worry in advance what your heterosexual mother, father, sisters, brothers, or neighbors ‘will say’ about your homophile marriage. You’ll be surprised at how heterosexuals’ attitudes change to respect when faced with what they’ve been told is impossible from homosexuals—a show of guts. The chances are they will never ‘say’ anything.” Lloyd did not call for total openness or a demand for acceptance, but he promoted a relationship beyond the closet. Given the predominant views on homosexuality, it would be too much for families to discuss the existence of a homophile marriage or, even more outrageous, to celebrate the marriage. However, given the respectable—and brave—nature of the relationship, they should, Lloyd asserted, be willing to accept it.

Expecting that some queers would critique homosexual desire to marry, Lloyd rejected the notion that marriage was an institution only for heterosexuals. Instead, Lloyd viewed marriage as a relationship style open to anyone desirous of and willing to participate in it. He wrote, “Marriage is not more a strictly heterosexual social custom than are the social customs of birthday celebrations, funerals, house-warmings, or, for that matter, sleeping, eating, and the like. I participate in those, not because they are heterosexual or homosexual things, but because I am a human being.” Lloyd was one half of a marital pair not because he wished to replicate heterosexual life, but because he “discovered that it is by far the most enjoyable way of life for me.” He continued by writing, “And I think that’s also the reason heterosexual men and women marry, though some people twist things around to make it appear they are merely following convention.”

While it is impossible to know the actual number of committed gay and lesbian couples during the 1950s and 1960s, queer marriages existedin the immediate postwar decades and in the years before the official start to Gay Liberation. While “marriage” may have been announced upon cohabitation rather than celebration (although some sympathetic clergy would officiate over gay unions), the commitment to the relationship matched the commitment of heterosexual married couples. A primary difference was the need for discretion—or outright secrecy—in public and in dealings with family, neighbors, employers, and friends. Gay men and women might have had a community with whom they could be themselves and celebrate their relationships, but the public recognition and open communal celebration afforded a marriage between a man and a woman were absent.

Inspired by the movements of the 1960s, many young homosexual activists rejected the need for secrecy. They refused to believe society’s negative view of homosexuality, and they looked critically at what they interpreted as the self-censure and attempted mainstreaming of 1950s- era homophile organizations. Participating in protests inspired by the civil rights movement and Women’s Liberation, activists promoted equal treatment under law and advocated on behalf of a united gay rights movement. The transitional event was the June 27, 1969, confrontation between New York City police and the patrons at the Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Bar patrons refused arrest in a dramatic fashion, torching the bar and drawing a crowd of approximately 2,000 supporters. By July, men and women in New York created a Gay Liberation Front, advocating for gay rights in a style similar to the radical edge of other 1960s movements. Activists rejected assimilation and celebrated gay difference. Gay rights activism grew in strength, and gays and lesbians attained greater visibility.

By the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream periodicals such as Harper’s, Life, and the New York Times published stories on emerging gay ghettos and increasingly visible gay life. Even as marriage was not a particular goal of the GLF, gay couples made the news. In 1971, Look magazine chronicled the monogamous relationship of Mike McConnell and Jack Baker. McConnell, a librarian, and Baker, a law student at the University of Minnesota, believed their relationship mirrored romantic relationships enjoyed by their heterosexual friends. Having lived together since 1967, the two argued that their relationship was “just like being married.” Baker directly linked his responsibilities as a citizen with the rights and protections of citizenship: “If I’m going to pay taxes, I want the same benefits.” In 1970, the two attempted to register for a marriage license at City Hall but their request was rejected. When Baker challenged the rejection, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled, “In commonsense and in a constitutional sense, there is a clear distinction between a marital restriction based merely upon race and one based upon the fundamental difference in sex.” The state would not recognize their union.

Beyond their desire for equal civil rights, Baker and McConnell looked to the religious realm for sanction of their relationship. Baker, a lifelong Catholic, and McConnell, a Southern Baptist, regularly attended the University of Minnesota’s Newman Center Chapel. One Sunday, as the priest sermonized about the “openness of Christ in accepting people,” Baker pressed him to consider how homosexuals fit into this openness. Baker asked, “Do you feel that if two people give themselves in love to each other and want to grow together with mutual understanding, that Jesus would be open to such a union if the people were of the same sex?” The young priest, speaking on his own and without adherence to official doctrine, agreed that Jesus would bless such a relationship. Social and cultural acceptance of same-sex relationships seemed to be expanding.

Baker and McConnell were in the minority as they publicly pushed for the right to marry. Many homosexuals rejected marriage and monogamy. Some, having been one half of a heterosexual marriage, negatively associated the institution with their closeted lives. Marriage was not an initial goal of the gay rights movement, and many activists of the 1970s and early 1980s offered explicit critique of the institution or ignored the subject. Others seemed content to create their own versions of marriage, untouched by state sanction and unmarked by public recognition or celebration beyond their closest friends.

Mary Mendola, a writer “married” to another woman, conducted an investigation in the late 1970s to determine just how many same-sex couples existed. The resulting publication, The Mendola Report, while hardly scientific, proved that gay men and lesbians resided together as married couples throughout the United States. Using only an informal network of gay and lesbian contacts, Mendola found 1,500 potential couples to survey and received an astonishing 27 percent return on her distribution. Of her return sample, 67 percent of respondents described themselves as permanently committed or “married.”

Many couples interviewed by Mendola emphasized the similarity between homosexual and straight marriages. One interviewee commented, “I don’t think there’s that much difference between gay and straight marriages . . . Not only do the same type of problems come up, but the reasons for those problems are even the same. I don’t see any differences. Faith and hope and love and understanding are priorities in any relationship—gay or straight.” His partner emphasized one important distinction: “The big difference between gay and straight marriages is the legal aspect. Our home is in both our names, and, should one of us die, no will is going to guarantee that a family won’t create problems. . . . There is no getting around it: legal marriage protects you.” As Mendola wrote, “Lesbian and homosexual couples have no ‘legal step’ to legitimate, make public, or solidify their relationships. The step, it seems, is taken privately when two gay people make a commitment to each other.” For many, the private step was enough. Those who desired public or legal recognition were on their own, particularly since most national and local organizations devoted to gay rights saw marriage as a “hopeless cause” or had other goals.

In the years following The Mendola Report, the necessity of a legally recognized union became increasingly important to many queer couples. Marriage was a community goal that grew out of lived experience. The impact of the AIDS virus coupled with the experiences of child- rearing and parental rights brought on by the “lesbian baby boom” made many couples painfully aware of the limitations of their legally unrecognized partnerships. AIDS revealed the tenuous nature of rights and recognition won in the gay liberation struggle as partners and friends were denied access to their ailing loved ones. Couples whose relationships were acknowledged and accepted by their friends and communities faced public institutions such as hospitals and state agencies that refused to recognize their relationships. Mothers and fathers faced similar struggles as they battled with courts to attain legal guardianship for each parent in a same-sex relationship. No matter how accepted a gay or lesbian couple might be by their families or friends, legal inequality severely limited their rights. A relationship that included a commitment of “until death do us part” held a certain immediate appeal for many same-sex couples of the 1980s as the AIDS epidemic spread; by 1988, just seven years after initial diagnoses, 82,000 people had been diagnosed and 46,000 had died. To have full protection in their personal relationships, couples required political recognition. As men and women came to grips with the limitations of their partnerships, grassroots activists looked to marriage as a strategy for attaining equal rights.

Weddings became a political instrument in efforts to attain legally recognized same-sex marriage. The 1987 Wedding was the first but certainly not the last mass wedding used as a tool of protest. The symbolic power of “The Wedding” inspired mass weddings during the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation and the 2000 Millennium March on Washington. Troy Perry was present for both events. In 1993, he communicated the importance of the right to same-sex marriage as he proclaimed,

We stand before our nation and our friends because we wish to proclaim our right to love one another. . . . We stand here knowing of the lies and untruths that have been told about us by some in the larger community. But we stand here pure of heart and unafraid in proclaiming that our concern and care for one another is as rich as that in any culture or community.

Excerpted from “As Long as We Both Shall Love:The White Wedding in Postwar America” by Karen M. Dunak. Copyright 2013. NYU Press. All rights reserved.

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