Standing on Ceremony

A Rites Issue: Straight Couples Who Refuse to Marry Because Gays Can't

McCutchin wants to keep the pressure on the civil institution, but she says she might have a church wedding in Russia. Britta Reitan of Minnesota, whose younger brother Jacob is gay, might opt for a commitment ceremony akin to those that mark gay relationships. That option—to marry before God but not the state—was highlighted recently when, according to a minister active in the fight for gay marriage, two dozen clergy in Massachusetts and individual ones in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Georgia stated that they won't perform the legal aspects of weddings until legal marriage is open to gays.

"We continue to marry people, joyfully, in a religious ceremony, but heterosexual couples must have someone else sign the license," explains Reverend Fred Small of the First Church Unitarian in Littleton, Massachusetts.

Marriage has been back-burnered in civil rights struggles before. Miscegenation laws were overturned in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia in 1967, years after battles for other rights were won. "There are hierarchies of preference" in terms of what progressive actions will ignite conservative rage, says Michael J. Klarman, James Monroe Distinguished Professor of Law and professor of history at the University of Virginia. "People are much less committed to the idea that, for example, certain jobs should be off-limits than that marriage should be off-limits." A white woman married to a black man was seen as forever lost in bigoted communities. Perhaps a frightening aspect of gay marriage to its opponents is its very permanence and stability—that son married to another man isn't going through a phase. Marriage precludes the delusion that he's "recoverable" to a straight identity; he has committed himself to loving someone of the same sex, for life.

Blinded by the rite: getting married when your gay friends can’t
illustration by Marc Phares/Epic Studios
Blinded by the rite: getting married when your gay friends can’t

But another race parallel undermines the choice to refrain from marriage: Much like the white-skin privilege, the heterosexual-marriage privilege is extended even to those who object to it. Cohabiting straight couples are automatically recognized as married by "common law" in several states without signing a single dotted line, notes J. Smith, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign.

Sometimes it takes a more overt act—or a response to such an act—to wake people up. Back in March 2000, gay activist and author Eric Rofes blasted out a call for a marriage boycott and acts of civil disobedience when California's Proposition 22 against gay marriage was adopted. "Progressive heterosexual couples need to be organized by the queer community or by themselves," says Rofes, a professor of education at Humboldt State University, in Arcata, California.

But some leaders in the gay community and groups sympathetic to gays worry that such sacrifices will produce little payoff in terms of social change.

"Too often people on the left want what they call 'direct action' because it's more satisfying to them in some way," Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts tells the Voice. "It's well-intentioned but not helpful. When two very good heterosexual people refuse to get married, I don't see how that puts pressure on politicians. Refuse to vote for people who won't let us get married. That's the way you address this."

Klarman says, "It's a very indirect and inefficacious form of protest. Unless you're going to make it public, nobody knows why you've made that decision." Liberal whites and blacks, he notes, didn't protest miscegenation laws by refraining from within-race marriages in great numbers.

The choice between direct action and backing progressive politicians, however, is a false one—hetero holdouts say they will of course vote for candidates who support gay marriage. But they hope their stance in refusing to marry raises awareness at least among the large circles of their families and friends, if not for others.

"It's arch, and yet it does underscore that there remains this disparity that should force every American to consider what they value as just and fair," says David Tseng, executive director of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "I don't know if we would endorse or oppose a boycott, but we do think it's important that fair-minded Americans express publicly their sense of outrage about this inequity."

And contrary to Barney Frank's assertion that snubbing marriage would have no effect, Rofes points out that billions of dollars are spent on the wedding industry, not only in private expenses like receptions, honeymoons, and bridal gowns ("Just picture the burgeoning stockpile of Vera Wang dresses," Tseng quips) but also on government licenses. For those already married, he writes, "Imagine if heterosexual allies publicly burned their marriage certificates?"

Nevertheless, there are some gays in the progressive under-40 crowd who appreciate the sentiment but wouldn't even ask straight family members to boycott marriage.

Esera Tuaolo is a 6-foot-3, 300-pound Samoan-Hawaiian former NFL defensive tackle who played for the Packers and Vikings, and ultimately played in the Super Bowl for the Falcons. In his rookie season, this youngest of eight children of an impoverished family of banana-plantation workers took his newfound cash and bought his widowed mother something she'd never had: a wedding ring. And it was while singing at a wedding—in McDonald's—that he first saw Mitchell Wherley. Tuaolo didn't come out of the closet in a big way until after he retired from the NFL. But he now openly refers to Wherley as his husband, and the two are raising twins. "We'll have our own commitment ceremony when the kids are old enough to understand what it means and can really be part of it," he says.

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