I was a freshman in college in 1981 when I told my parents that I am gay. My father, a Presbyterian minister, mourned the fact that I would never marry, would never have children, would never be happy.
Already I had lived lifetimes of shame and anguish as a youth aware of his unacceptable sexuality, attempting to conform, bargaining with God for conversion–to being heterosexual. Later, during my years in seminary studying to be a minister like my dad, I returned to my shame and anguish and began to bargain with God once again.
And then, earlier this year, my father married me to Nick, my partner of 11 years. As I write this, I am caring for our three-month-old adopted baby girl named Alice (for my mother).
Our wedding was like an exorcism. It cast out our shame and replaced it with the recognition that we are capable of loving, that we are loved by God and our community, and that our love is good and God-filled. We needed bells. We needed fanfare. We needed a cheering crowd. We needed a wedding. And that’s what God delivered.
It has not been easy to get to this point. When the world tells you from your first children’s book that men and women, not men and men, marry, have children and find happiness, you take the world at its word. Sometimes I wonder how the human heart–my human heart–has had the strength to counter a world of wisdom with its own. I met Nick two years out of seminary. We fell in love right away. The conversion God offered me through loving Nick was one from shame to acceptance, from misery to happiness–the happiness that God promised when society did not.
And the conversion was painful. Still is. For 11 years, Nick and I, knowing we wanted to be together forever, fought with each other and in our hearts about whether or not we should marry. Commitment was challenging enough, but on top of it, we dreaded the thought of going before our family and friends and professing the love that still in most parts of the world “dares not speak its name.”
We are two social guys. We couldn’t just elope. We couldn’t just invite a few close friends and family members. It’s just not who we are, nor what we understand the purpose of a wedding to be. Either we were going to do this before church folks, colleagues, family and friends, or we weren’t going to do it at all.
Given the pressure from straight society not to wed (not to mention the price tag the wedding was certain to carry), what made us do it?
Well, we wondered what it would have been like for us to attend a same-sex wedding when we were young. It thrilled us to think that the children of our family members and friends would have us, two men in love, forevermore as an example of what love looks like. And in our circle of gay and straight friends, there are a number of gay couples also standing at the brink of marriage, wondering whether or not to dive in. We figured someone had to go first, that it might as well be us, and maybe if we jumped in others might be inspired to do the same.
But, in fact, neither of these reasons was the thing that made us finally take the plunge.
It was instead the sense that the thing we feared most–going public with our love and requesting a blessing–was essential to the flourishing of our love.And so we began to plan. We knew we wanted to get married at our church. We knew it would be big. Nick loves country food and I grew up loving to square dance, so we decided we were going to create the sense of a small-town wedding in the big city. Nick’s family is Jewish, mine is Presbyterian and Nick and I attend an American Baptist/United Church of Christ church. Our liturgy borrowed from all of these religious traditions. We asked my father the Presbyterian, our American Baptist minister and Nick’s mother’s Reform Jewish cantor to officiate and we asked 30 or so of our loved ones to sing as a choir.
Though our ceremony was certainly eclectic and utterly unorthodox, it was full of tradition. Each ingredient reminded us of the weddings of our loved ones, our friends, our parents and grandparents. The prayers, the rings, the kiss, the cake, the rice – it was all there.
We were nervous about how it would all go over. Would people consider our ceremony a mockery of heterosexual tradition? Would they fidget and cringe? Could the love that sustained us stand the light of day and the scrutiny of our community?
Here’s what happened. Picture my gay wedding.
Picture our nieces–flower girls garlanded with hydrangea, beaming as they fling flower petals into the laps of our mentors and colleagues and parents’ college roommates–the nieces we feared our siblings would not let us near because we are gay.
Picture our cousins from rural Georgia in the second row, crying because they are happy for us, Uncle Charlie, the toughest fella in Georgia who can fix a broken truck blindfolded, head bowed in prayer, offering thanksgiving for our love–the very family we were convinced would disown us.
Picture my father, whom I’ve heard preach the word of God from the pulpit virtually every Sunday of my life, offer my love as God’s revelation–the very minister, the very father who told me that I would never be happy.
The wedding effected a conversion indeed–as much in my own heart as in others. And the conversion was not limited to the folks who attended the wedding.
Three weeks before we married, the New York Times decided to announce commitment ceremonies of same-sex couples on the wedding page. In the history of time, ours was only the third union celebrated in America’s premier daily newspaper. It was like a dream. We had all said, “Not in our lifetime.” Yet there we were.
Upon reading the article, our parents’ friends from all over the world, in most cases having never acknowledged that their friends had gay sons, joined in the conversion experience. They called to celebrate our happiness.
When society has denied you something, you have a rare opportunity to understand its purpose, and its value. A wedding is a ceremony in which a union is declared and blessed by God.
On a good day, Nick and I know that, even before our ceremony, our relationship was blessed by God and we were blessed by God through it. But our lives were also cursed with the shame of being regarded by society as anathema. The amount of work it takes to overcome this self-image is enormous. I believe this work is something only love can accomplish.
Some may bristle at my use of “wedding” and “marriage.” I can hear them say, “Call it a ‘holy union,’ a ‘commitment ceremony,’ call it whatever you want, but don’t think that what you did was get married.” And in one sense they are right. I am not legally married. What Canada has recently recognized, our basic human right to love and marry who we want, has yet to be declared in the States. But it has been declared in my heart.
Perhaps more than anyone, I believe in the power of marriage to convert gay people from self-loathing to wellness, to being able to live and love the way God intends us to.
But that’s not all.
Something happened that day at the altar. Nick and I are not the same. To put it into words is not possible. But take it from me: our love was blessed then and there by God in a new way. We were wed. Those whom God hath joined together let no one put asunder. This is my testimony.