Standing on Ceremony


One couple met in a lower Manhattan lounge and another at a college campus in California. Others met through work, activist gatherings in Massachusetts, and even at a wedding performed at a McDonald’s in Minneapolis. An artist/webbie and a technology professional, a marketer and a student, a folk-singing peace activist and a professor, a sales executive and a corporate librarian, an NFL defensive tackle and a spa owner. These pairs fell in love, share homes, and plan to be together for life. But none of them are married couples, because U.S. law doesn’t allow gays to legally wed. Surprisingly, however, all but the NFL tackle and his partner are straight.

Meet the hetero holdouts, people who refuse to marry until the institution no longer excludes gays. Their stance foists a question on straight people of the marrying kind who like to think of themselves as progressives on gay rights: Can you really claim to support the rights of gays while you’re buying into the institution that most painfully marginalizes gay couples?

Recently married gay-icons Margaret Cho, Megan Mullally, and Madonna apparently see no hypocrisy in this. Celebrity heterosexual spokespeople for gay rights are happy to join gay marches but happier still to do the wedding march straight into government benefits and legitimization of their relationships. The sympathetic resistance of hetero holdouts makes a stronger statement.

“We have been cohabitants for 15 years and would get married if the government did not use the institution as a means to discriminate against gays and lesbians,” Mitch Kahle says of himself and his partner, Holly Huber, who met in Boston and moved to Hawaii together. “Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for the government to stop its immoral religious war against homosexuals.”

Reverend Andrea Ayvazian, dean of religious life at Mount Holyoke College, chose her side of that war back in 1985, when she began her relationship with her partner, Michael Klare, a professor and a writer for The Nation. “It’s important to step up. We don’t want to be part of an institution that’s actively discriminatory,” says the United Church of Christ minister, who’s also a folksinger. “It’s like the days before the Civil Rights movement. If you got on the bus, there were white people in the front and black people in the back. This is just as clear — heterosexuals get married and gays and lesbians don’t.”

These middle-class marital-rights activists are taking on weighty financial burdens, even if the social stigma of being unmarried is waning. Lambda Legal reports that at retirement typical gay couples can lose more than $10,000 a year in the Social Security benefits they’ve paid for because such benefits are calculated based on family units. Hetero holdouts who spurn such governmental favoritism and also are paying for separate health plans are paying a big price for their principles. Then there are the benefits that aren’t directly financial. Straight people can fall in love with a foreign citizen without fearing arbitrary separation at the border — a marriage license comes with immigration rights.

“This is not a cheap witness — it’s witnessing at a cost,” says Ayvazian. It also points out the perks that straight couples may not realize they get simply because they’re straight.

In the absence of a formal movement, these very personal acts of protest against what hetero holdouts see as a tremendous injustice have taken myriad forms. Some refrain entirely from marriage, while others permit themselves a commitment ceremony akin to those that are now part of gay culture. Others will marry in mainstream houses of worship but not sign civil papers. All, like their gay friends, dream of marrying without limitations and compromise.

Ayvazian, who has a 15-year-old son with Klare, says, “I want to have a real wedding, even if we’re 80. I’m holding out for that.”

They may have a long wait. Gays’ recent court victories have sparked a conservative backlash in legislatures, propelled by the Christian right, which declared a new “culture war.” Polls also indicate such a backlash, but younger respondents voice greater support for gay marriage, a sign that hetero holdouts may be on the right side of history.

“My grandmother thought racism was bad but never did anything about it,” says holdout Bruce Bradley, a marketer in Ventura County, California, whose partner, Lisa Nunez, is a student. “During the ’60s my parents never went out to protest, though they watched TV and thought it was bad when black people were hit with fire hoses or had dogs sicced on them. When I’m 70, I’ll be able to say I did something about discrimination.”

Mame McCutchin, a downtown Manhattan technology professional in a relationship with Russian artist/webbie Kyril Mossin, draws more contemporary parallels to arrive at the same conclusion. “I wouldn’t join a country club that excluded blacks or Jews,” she says. But where she saw injustice most glaringly was in the painful aftermath of the defining tragedy of this generation. “I guess what really opened my eyes was the World Trade Center attacks,” she says. “Lots of people who lost partners were left out to dry. They lost homes and were sometimes shunned by their loved ones’ families, and they had no legal recourse. It’s terrible for that to happen to somebody.”

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.

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.

But this man, for whom marriage is clearly a central part of love, is given pause by the idea of hetero holdouts.

“That is one of the sweetest sacrifices I’ve ever heard of, but to ask someone to do that for you is asking too much,” Tuaolo says. “I wouldn’t shun it away if someone came up to me and said that’s what they’re doing. It’s so honorable, what they’re doing, but that’s a huge commitment.” He concludes, “We have other ways to fight the fight and create a better world for us and everybody. I wouldn’t go and ask my niece not to get married because of this.”

The decision to become hetero holdouts can strain a relationship. A suspicious mate might see the open-ended postponement as a “get out of jail free” card with a noble gloss.

“We sat and talked about it,” Bruce Bradley says of the decision he made with Lisa Nunez. He then quickly concedes with a laugh, “I basically talked her into it.” Still, he says, “when my best friend got married, I actually performed the wedding. I didn’t try to talk him out of it or tell him he’s a bigot.”

Connie Ress, executive director of the New York City-based gay-marriage rights group Marriage Equality, says, “I think that sometimes it’s good for people to use a variety of strategies to get a point across. And this gets a point across to their personal circles. It’s a statement that could create a ripple effect.” But she adds, “I personally wouldn’t boycott a wedding, because marriage is important to me and I want to celebrate someone’s special day just as I would want them to celebrate my special day.”

Rofes, on the other hand, was hoping for some of the “ripple effect” for a hetero boycott from celebrities who’ve built much of their careers on gay dollars and on riffing themes of gay culture. Megan Mullally of the television show Will & Grace and comedian Margaret Cho married men without fanfare only months ago, and both declined to comment for this article.

“This is more political than the pieces that Megan normally participates in, so we’re going to pass,” explains Jennifer Hahn, an assistant to Mullally’s spokesperson. Cho’s manager says the performer was “not interested or available” for comment.

Some noncelebrities already have figured out a way to make gay marriage a cause célèbre. After mulling the idea of holding out, Canadian couple Tamara Kronis and Martin Traub-Werner went ahead and married. But they harnessed the power of that family event to advance human rights and helped draw attention to these issues in their nation just before Ontario legalized gay marriages.

At their wedding, they spoke of their conviction that allowing gay marriage was right and just. They also distributed 500 postcards to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien making that point, stamping the cards at their own expense. The normally private couple’s wedding — including their stance in favor of gay marriage — was profiled in the society pages of the National Post.

Kronis says the celebration shadowed by injustice reminded her of when she had her bat mitzvah while Jewish life was suppressed in the Soviet Union. At that time she wore a bracelet bearing the name of a girl in the USSR, symbolically sharing her passage with a co-religionist who didn’t enjoy that freedom. Gays are denied the right to marry in our own states. One can imagine straight couples exchanging vows before clerics and clerks alike while wearing bracelets engraved with the names of a gay couple who are unable to wed — say, a gay couple in the front row.

“We think straight people have to stand shoulder to shoulder with our gay friends,” says Kronis. “Everyone has to stand up and be counted. Otherwise, nothing is going to change.”

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