Weddings come in a lot of flavors. Many are planned, sometimes long before a potential mate is even in the picture. Some come about at the last minute. Some of the opposite sex variety come about because improper birth control was used and the couple “has to.”
Then there are some special ones that occur when marriage equality is finally attained: the weddings of people who have been married in their hearts for a very long time, but only now can be legally and socially recognized.
These kind of weddings will take place in New Jersey this week. Long term couples becoming legally, publicly married and acknowledged. It is about time.
On October 6th — in California, which also recently regained its marriage equality status — I was given the honor and responsibility to officiate at such a wedding. It was the marriage of my friends, Mike and Dan, a gay couple who had been together as partners for twenty seven years.
And as we were going through this amazing experience, across the country, N.J. Governor Chris Christie was trying his best to see that no such couples would experience something similar in his state.
Arnold Schwarzenegger of California also had stopped my friends from getting the legal rights they deserved for years. Our then governor seemed to evolve by the time the issue hit the popular vote in California as Proposition 8. He came out against the mean spirited proposition when it was on the ballot. When it passed and the question to its constitutional legitimacy moved to the courts, he refused to defend it.
What changed in Schwarzenegger’s position? Potentially several factors, but one that certainly must have had impact was that in the interim between his vetoes and Proposition 8 was the fact that he himself had officiated for two same-sex weddings of people who knew better than anyone what real marriage was about.
Christie needs to attend one of these unique weddings. If he was with me when I officiated a few weeks ago, I would have walked him on the grounds the day before the wedding.
It was an outdoor wedding and the grass was green, fresh and vibrant. The aisle lead to a small Greek style temple and the area was enclosed with tall vine cloaked walls. Before we were to rehearse, he could have stepped with me onto the temple steps. There, he could feel the magnitude of the officiating responsibility.
The next day, there would be a hundred people before us, the community of two families. It would not just be the two men who would be unified, but extended families who would mean a little more to each other than they had before.
Because of the unprecedented nature of their situation, I had met with the couple several times and made sure that it spoke to and for them. This was not about some generic marriage commitment, it was about them, their bond, their history, their importance to each other and their own great and unique love for one another.
The following day, I opened the ceremony with part of a poem by Robert Frost. I could see Mike’s eye twinkle with a profound joy with the statement, “Life is only life forevermore, together wing to wing and oar to oar.”
I would ask Mr. Christie to have watched the beaming faces of those present as I described the context of this wedding in the scope of Dan and Mike’s lives:
“This wedding started almost three decades ago when two soon to be lovers sat up all night talking and watching the moon slowly, lazily cross the sky into morning. It was something out of a movie, but only the beginning. Here we are. We are at the destination scene in that fantastic epic movie. Not the final scene, mind you—just one in the middle, of the great beautiful romance called Dan and Mike.”
I would have Mr. Christie think about the value of marriage along with the congregation as I read a quote from the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s landmark decision:
“Marriage is a vital social institution. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family…. Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution. The decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.” Mr. Christie would have witnessed two men who certainly had earned both cultural and legal recognition to call each other “husbands.”
He would have heard me say, “What Dan and Mike have shown us is that love is stronger than anything. It is stronger than a society that might have denied them this basic right. It is stronger than life’s curves that easily could have killed either one of these men, or at the very least, driven them apart. It is stronger than luck, it is stronger than dogma, it is stronger than life.”
Dan and Mike had been through some of the toughest hurdles that marriages are asked to endure. Dan had been felled at one point with severe and life threatening meningitis. Mike stood by faithfully as his partner battled through it.
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Later, only five years prior to their wedding, it was Mike’s turn. He stumbled on a tall cliff and fell a distance that should have killed him. His body was broken and for weeks it was uncertain that he would live.
Dan’s sister made reference to it in her toast at the reception, “Mike, I was there at the hospital for you, and I was scared. I was scared for you, yes, but I was more afraid for my brother who was completely uncertain how he could go on if he lost the one thing he cherished most, you, the love of his life.”
Mike alluded to this period as well in his self-written vow to Dan, “I know without you, I would not be here at all, Dan. You gave me the gift of life itself,” he said.
These are the types of things that the governor needs to observe and ponder in the New Jersey weddings this week: Couples conquering life together.
I would have him meet the families and friends who will be touched, nourished and enriched by these unions, these couples, these marriages. I would have him understand the difference between a hypothetical question asked of a million unaffected outsiders, and the deep impact felt by a now united family.
I would have him feel the community come together in declarations such as the one I made for Dan and Mike:
“Prior to your meeting, you each walked a separate path. Now you remind us that you are not now, and have not been for many years, separate lives. As you two combine into one light, so now are your friends and family joined, through you, into one, reminding us of how important your relationship has been to all of us. With it, you have anchored our community, given us secure harbor and taught us too, love and unity. And so, this day, they declare before all of us that they shall continue to not only live together in the marriage of their hearts but also in the legal marriage they deserve. Today their feelings are new. No longer unrecognized, partners and best friends, you have become husband and husband and can now seal the agreement with a kiss. Today, your kiss is a promise. You have expressed your love to one another through the commitment and vows you have just made. It is with these vows in mind, by the authority vested in me by the State of California, that I pronounce you husbands and partners for life.”
What Dan and Mike experienced that day was important. The public definition of them was appropriate, deserved and necessary. Like “love”, “honor” and “consecration”, the intangible value of “marriage” cannot be seen in physical terms but the impact of is real.
These long term couples, in California, New Jersey and everywhere where marriage has evolved, are nobody’s “political agenda”. They are not fodder to boost up someone’s need to pander to their base of supporters.
The “Dan and Mikes” in New Jersey now may have what their counterparts in California have just experienced.
The state of New Jersey is doing the just thing this week, not only to align itself with the right side of history, but because it is good, pure and core to American values.
The couples in New Jersey who have built and fought for their lives together represent the best that we have to offer. This will be their week. I can’t wait to celebrate with them in spirit from the heart. Their governor should as well.