Across the Aisle

Across the Aisle June 19, 2012

A chat between a couple of gay and straight married women.

So last week I was sitting in a church in Birmingham, Alabama with a new friend, Anna. Anna has just this year joined our church in Kirkwood, been baptized, secured a full ride to Candler School of Theology – and gotten married. We are so lucky and grateful to be sharing her journey and gifts for ministry. She has definitely brought a vibrant light to our community. As we were sitting in that Birmingham church, waiting for a denominational worship service to begin, she excitedly turned to our pastor and I and with a huge grin flashed us a picture on her phone. Her new husband had just sent a text with a picture of their wedding license which had arrived in the mail. It was official in a whole new way, the state had signed, sealed and delivered their own approval of the couple’s love and commitment to one another.

Instantly the wrong emotion sprang up inside of me like a fetid troll under a bridge waiting for a gleeful couple to come skipping across. I was angry, I was jealous, I was bitter. In a flash I felt all these rancid feelings, and then guilt. First the tackiness – “well good for you honey, half the people sitting in these pews around you are denied that little piece of paper. Nice of you to share.” Just flat ugliness on my part. The guilt of my misplaced anger gave way to my truth – of course I am happy for her, of course I celebrate her joy. I believe in marriage and that means I believe it in for everyone, everyone, everyone. Not only do I believe in it, I celebrate it for anyone who finds that love and makes a covenant with that person, before God and community, to live out all of life’s journeys together. As it turns out, Anna is a blogger too – so I asked her to lunch the other day – first to claim my own ugliness and acknowledge that I am in fact very happy for her rather than the cranky lesbian from whom she could feel waves of bitterness rise like so much heat off Peachtree St. in August. I have asked Anna to share in a conversation with me here to talk about this thing marriage.

Anna, I know you have thought carefully about what it means to celebrate your marriage in a community with gay and lesbian couples who are denied the same rights as you by the state. The woman who officiated your own nuptials, signed the licence and mailed it to the state can not in Georgia enter into the same state sanctioned contract.

We’re not asking for anything special, I am certainly not asking for any church that does not believe they should marry us to do so, I am asking for civil rights, legal recognition by the government that has seems to claim “liberty and justice for all.”

Would you share some of your thoughts about this?

Anna’s reply…

First off, Kimberly, you were by no means a fetid troll or cranky lesbian, although I do appreciate the graphic hyperbole! In truth, I felt an ugliness myself for not having thought more carefully about the feelings of those around me when I gleefully flashed that text photo of my wedding license. I didn’t think in that moment because up until then really, I hadn’t realized how weighty that marriage license would feel.

See I have always approached the covenant of marriage as primarily a spiritual matter, and because I’ve always been part of faith communities that uphold the spiritual unions of both gay and straight couples, I saw state marriage inequality as an outmoded relic of dying prejudices that would sooner or later catch up with God’s law of Love. Real weddings happen in church, or in community, when families open their hearts to one another and we make solemn promises about what we will do with the divine gift of love. I thought compared to my unforgettable wedding ceremony, the postal delivery of my state marriage license weeks later would have about as much emotional impact on me as my recent tax filings. I was wrong.

I think our pastor Susannah was trying to help me see this in one of our pre-marriage counseling sessions when she asked me how I thought my sister, who is gay and in a committed relationship, was taking my upcoming wedding. “I don’t think it’s a big deal really,” I said. “To be honest she has only expressed to me the stomach-drop feeling in regard to her being the older sister and me being the younger one, who’s taking this step before her. I mean, when she’s ready to get married we’ll all just fly back home to Massachusetts and have the big event there. It’s not even that much of an inconvenience because that’s where we’re from, where our home church is, where our parents live. She’ll get everything that I’ve gotten by virtue of our liberal heritage.” Ignorance is bliss, right?

I’m curious what you think, Kimberly: if your family, friends, church and home state all recognize and affirm your marriage – but the state of Georgia does not, how does that matter? I see now that it does, but I’m curious to see what you think the meaning and importance of state marriage is.

And my response...

Anna, I deeply appreciate your willingness to be in conversation with me and your graciousness with my flash of bitternes.

Since Georgia is my home-state I do not have the advantage of having my home base legally recognize my marriage.  And really, until it is legal everywhere then it is only barely legal.  If I go to another state to have my marriage validated by the government it serves no real purpose as a life-long resident of Georgia.  There are no legal protections afforded me by a piece of paper signed in another state.  We don’t need the paper to “feel” married but we do need it in order to be protected the same way you and your husband are.  Having a ceremony in another state where my larger community can not be present also undermines my understanding of the wedding ceremony as about more than the couple and truly about vows between the two and the larger family who promises to support them in their journey.

Our blessed but not state-sanctioned marriage is real in every spiritual and practical way.  My marriage is recognized as such by me, my wife, our children, our church and our larger community.  Our marriage looks much like any other – “I love you”, “Stop putting your damn shoes there”, “Throw me a new roll of TP”, “Did anyone feed the dogs?”, “Who’s picking up the kids today?” ,“Why are we always running out the door last minute for church?”, “Holy crap, is it April 15th again???”, “I’m sorry that your day was so hard.” “Way to go on that 100 on your final!”, “Good night lovey, sweet dreams.”

Yes our marriage is real – 100% – well except for that whole legal thing and the fact that I could be denied visitation rights to her if she were shot in the line of duty, or we pay our taxes at a higher price than mixed gender couples, oh yeah, and insurance – don’t get me started on insurance. Without legal affirmation by the state our rights are extremely vulnerable to the whims and prejudices of individuals and organizations.

Update: Anna’s reply to my response…

Yes. I realize now that without a legal marriage to my husband, yes, I would feel less married.

But here’s the thing – it’s not just about the legal benefits that you mention, Kimberly. Of course equality begins with those fundamentals, but there is definitely something more to civil marriage than the protections and rights it affords. I truly feel now that the whole of marriage is far greater than the sum of its legal parts.

Here’s how I know: Andrew and I were actually domestic partners before we got married.

The Federal Reserve Bank (Andrew’s employer) has fantastic domestic partner benefits, which we soon found out were open to straight couples as well. So for the past three years (yes, we were living in sin) Andrew and I have gladly banked the savings of sharing a health and dental plan – and even made each other the beneficiaries of our life insurance policies. While I recognize that there is much more to other states’ domestic partner protections, for the most part, Andrew and I were already receiving many of the crucial day-to-day benefits that so many gay families struggle to provide for each other because employers and insurance companies are not required to be as fair and just as the Fed system is.

Why am I telling you this? It’s not to paint the picture of just how liberal and privileged my bubble is (although I have come to see its opacity more and more with each keystroke of this conversation), but it’s to say that the *movement for marriage equality is far greater than equal rights and protection under the law, it’s about covenant, it’s about spirituality, it’s about God. It’s the only place in our legal system that I know of where I cannot separate church from state.* Yes, I did just open that can of worms.

So many people are against gay marriage because of their religious convictions. And so many marriage equality activists have tried to fight this prejudice by pointing to the legal protections of marriage and shining a light on the injustice of denying them to gay couples, holding fast to the power of the separation of church and state.

But in my mind and in my heart, I can’t separate my legal marriage from my religious marriage – and neither can anyone else. In this one area of our society, ministers become judges and judges become ministers. My husband’s parents never had a church wedding, yet despite their very conservative Christian beliefs now – they consider their Justice of the Peace ceremony to have been just as spiritually valid as if they had been married by Billy Graham himself. The edges between church and state when it comes to marriage are more than bleeding – they are hemorrhaging.

So my response to this messy situation is this – in order to actually achieve marriage equality, I truly believe that the church will need to change. We’re slowly getting there but I think that we will not have reached authentic equality until houses of worship and our government join people together with the same synchronization and harmony that they do for straight couples today. That should be our goal.


What are y’all thinking out there?

The religious covenant and the legal standing are both very important to many.  I wonder – how many folk out there – gay or not gay – would or do feel less married without the state license?   What is more important, the religious ceremony or the state recognition?

Here’s a helpful resource from the HRC talking about the reason why legal marriage equality matters.



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156 responses to “Across the Aisle”

  1. Personally, I see marriage equality as a civil liberties issue, but I also see it as a religious freedom issue. If your denomination offers such marriages, why should the government not recognise them?


  2. Being a UCC minister in the State of New York, I have been very very busy during the last year following the passage of equal marriage legislation here. It has been particularly gratifying to see so many couples, some of whom have been together in committed relationships for 20 or 30 years, and many of whom long ago gave up caring about anyone’s approval, FINALLY have the same rights and privileges under the law as anyone else. My own partner and I are contemplating the same step one day, and are delighted that we have the opportunity to do so. To call it anything but “marriage” seeks to mollify a constituency that, no matter what the law says, still would view our commitments as inferior.

    Having said all that, as a minister ordained 29 years ago, I have never relished the idea of being an “arm of the state” when it comes to pronouncing people “legally married.” I am with those who would apply a church/state separation. Let the legal aspects be handled by the state in an EQUAL and ethical manner. Any church can then apply any blessing they choose. I hate it when legislators make religious arguments in their debates. They can vote their consciences based upon their own convictions, but leave the rest of us the heck out of it.

    • Well said David! Here’s a weird and uncomfortable fact about the marriage liscense in GA that I didn’t know until this post – the couple does not sign it, only the preacher signs it at the wedding and mails it in…

  3. I agree with Bob, et al. I am heterosexual and recently got married, and I wished very strongly that I could have gotten a civil union from the state instead of a marriage license. The state of Washington, where I live, should have nothing to do with giving me ‘permission’ to get married. Also, the weight of the discrimination that is still faced by so many who cannot get a marriage certificate from the state grieves me.

    Why do we let the state decide who can get married, if the union is before God? If we’re going to be consistent with our sacraments, we should have state licensure for baptisms too, and legal registers of church members filed with the state auditor, and our priests and pastors should have to pass a state test in order to be ministers… it’s ridiculous! Sacraments are the domain of the church; civil rights are the domain of government. THOSE DOMAINS DO NOT MIX!!!

    Civil unions for all is my vote. The government should stay the f*ck out of my marriage.

  4. Either it has to be state-sanctioned “marriage” for all or it has to be “civil unions” to provide legal status for all. The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education nullifies any attempt at a “separate but equal” split here. As an ordained clergy member of the United Church of Christ serving a state that has not yet (but only by the skin of its teeth) constitutionally defined marriage as between one man and one woman, I am praying fervently that the Defense of Marriage Act gets struck down by the Supreme Court soon, followed closely thereon by a landmark ruling similar to Loving v. Virginia that overturns the bans on same-gender marriage around the country. I would love to be able to preside at same-gender ceremonies and sign a license in the same way that I sign licenses for heterosexual couples. Unless, of course, we ever figure out how to adopt the European system and take the church out of the legal recognition business entirely, in which case the only documents I’ll ever need to sign are certificates from the church!

  5. I just wanted to say that I agree with Bob, all marriages should be civil marriages, which gives all couples the same legal rights and opportunities. Then if the couple want a religious service, they can arrange that with their church. I know that last sentence is fraught with problems in many denominations. Only with the Unitarians and United Church of Christ is that possible, although I understand some Presbyterian churches now recognize and offer same sex marriage. And I am one of those “older” people (I’m 82) who agrees that we must change the state first

  6. In the end, this all only confirms my personal opposition to state sanctioned same-sex marriage, which goes along with my personal opposition to state sanctioned opposite-sex marriage. My opposition to all state sanctioned marriage arises out of the fact that most people are like Anna, they can’t separate the state-sanctioned marriage from the religious marriage.

    I want separation of church and state. Get rid of state-sanctioned marriage, and from the legal perspective, have civil unions for all, regardless of the gender of the parties wishing to have that union. The legal burdens and benefits will go to those in civil unions. The “marriage” tag will belong to all those who wish to use it. In my dream world, the state only recognizes civil unions, it is up to you and your beliefs to determine whether that civil union should be called a “marriage.”

    Historically, there is some support for Anna’s inability to separate the legal and the religious aspects of marriage, but that historical support really derives from times when there was no separation of church and state.

    OK, my dream won’t happen. I know. So I’ll disagree with Anna that the solution is that the church needs to change. Perhaps “the church” does need to change, but to get marriage equality in this country, the laws of the land need to change. Even if Anna’s sister can go home to her church in Massachusetts and get married, she won’t get equal treatment under the law from the federal government. For the laws to change, the hearts and minds of the people need to change, and it is happening. Even if in part it is happening because older people are dying off and new people are becoming voters, and a greater percentage of older people oppose same-sex marriage and a lesser percentage of younger people oppose it, it is happening. It isn’t happening fast enough, after all, justice delayed is justice denied, but it is happening.

    As you both recognized, there are churches now that sanction same-sex marriage. If the laws change even without a change in “the church,” there will be marriage equality, at least outside of those churches that will continue to oppose it, and the number of those churches will, over the decades, decline.

    So long as we can’t separate church and state in this situation, the first solution has to be to change the state.

  7. No, I’m afraid I have to disagree with Erin.
    Marriage can be broadened to include gay partners within existing legal and social values. We don’t have to go down the “flood gates” of re-definition path. Let’s simply accept that two people can love each other in a committed way that is healthy, life-affirming and beneficial to society at large. We don’t need to “re-define” marriage other than expand the gender parameters. It’s not about lust, exploitation, sanctioning dangerous , risky relationships. There is clearly a strong benefit to society when people make lasting commitments to each other. Children, old people, society at large all benefit when people say, “I love you, I will be there for you, even when you screw up.” This issue is moving more quickly towards resolution faster than any issue I have witnessed in the last 60 years I have been alive. Hooray!

  8. My first reponse is – good for you, Kimberly, owning up to harsh words. There is too little of that in the world today.

    Second, yes, marriage equality is important because the legal rights and responsibilities that come with marriage are very difficult and expensive to enforce independent of government backing. That said, I think a better approach than demanding redefinition of the term”marriage” would be to come up with a different name for a same sex relationship with all the same rights and responsibilities as a legally recognized marriage. For example, we could use the term “garriage”. That way, the folks who oppose redefinition would be appeased, and the folks who simply want legal recognition could get what they want a different way. It would also cut off the inane arguments about whether “marriage” might someday be redefined to include polygamy or bestiality or whatever. Each such iteration would have to win popular support among the electorate to be recognized, and I am doubtful there would ever be any groundswell of support for anything other than two person same-sex relationships being sanctioned.

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