Gay Rites: A Wedding in Denmark, a Ceremony in New York
June 25, 1994
Sometimes you stay around long enough to see things you missed. Whole decades come back, and this is actually the most orienting thing that can happen in New York, a city that’s so utterly about people and time and the prestige certain individuals continually resonate. Jill Johnston, 64, and Ingrid Nyeboe, 46, are beaming, walking up the stairs with a shower of confetti falling down on them. This is all taking place on one of several monitors in a large apartment in Soho one night last fall. For those new in town, Johnston is the author of the anarchic masterpiece of ’70s feminism, Lesbian Nation. She was also a legendary Voice columnist who made a career of being there and writing about it.
The event being communicated to us is their wedding, last June 27, in Odense, Denmark. Odense was the home of Hans Christian Andersen, author of The Emperor’s New Clothes, who was gay, I’ve been told. The tape plays on and we see a Flux procession — two blue men carrying flowers. One is Geoff Hendricks, with his pants falling down. There’s a batch of strangers in the ensuing crowd, a Great Dane, someone carrying a little red chair aloft, and soon we see the two women in white sitting down in front of some kind of civil servant. Jill says (I think) “I am” and nods. Ingrid says something in Danish. Later they’re in an art museum, and the happy couple sit in a blue Volkswagen that looks like it’s going nowhere. They do look happy sitting there, waving and waving,
What’s going on? The party called “Wedding Party” in Soho was, like I said, one of those nights you’re glad you stayed here for. People kept walking in, Beth the young video artist and Lauren her sculptor ex-lover (what are they doing together here?); there was Pauline Oliveros, Andrea Dworkin (omygod!), and numerous people from every walk (mostly art world) who qualified in some way as Fluxfriends or FOJs (Friends of Jill). An ex-lover of Ingrid’s spoke up too as the evening swept us along through recordings of bells from Riverside Church and poet-conceptual artist Alison Knowles did something with bread. Geoff Hendricks, Flux-meister (still blue), had a star shaved in the back of his head (“Stars for Jill and Ingrid”), and Jill got up and read a piece (“Deep Tapioca”) that reminded me of the public secrecy of her Voice columns but glimmered also with a confirmed poetry as solid as stone. Then all of us got up one by one and had a Polaroid taken of ourselves standing with a really silly knit hat on in front of a picture of a statue of Psyche. We handed over our wishes on pale green index cards that were then pinned over the classical image of love, and it was a confusing and sweet and inclusive-feeling night in New York.
The domestic partnership announcements had been beaming into my mailbox all fall — Laura and Elizabeth’s full-color snapshot, Cydney and Val’s black on-beige-card stock. Over at Carmelita Tropicana’s, I saw Peggy and Lisa’s stuck on the refrigerator. How do you feel about lesbian marriage? I asked her. She gave me a long rambling speech about “rights” and then interrupted herself. “Look, I’m trying to date, honey.” In general, “marriage” is not a lesbian thing. Of the 11 couples who got hitched on October 1, 1989, the day marriage (or partnership) was legalized for homosexuals in Denmark, all of the takers were men. Else Slange, head of Denmark’s gay organization, says she “has a personal ideological opposition” to marriage. And it’s not so much different here. The Mattachine Society had marriage on its agenda from the get-go; the Daughters of Bilitis were only just deciding to “come out” in the ’50s. You could say dykes are slow, but I think it’s more than that.
Today Tom Stoddard, lawyer and director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who spoke at Ingrid and Jill’s wedding party, is at the helm of pushing marriage to the front of a national gay agenda. But Paula Ettelbrick, policy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, expresses a fear that a progressive agenda would be lost if marriage became “the” gay issue and suggests that “those who are most acceptable to the mainstream because of race, gender, and economic status are the most likely to want the right to marry.”
Her language begins to make marriage kind of heinous, referring to it as an “impenetrable institution [that] gives those who marry an insider status of the most powerful kind” — which does ring true, not just in terms of my married friends’ heterosexuality, but how they get kind of close-mouthed about things after they tie the knot. One feels a little out forevermore, at least until they part ways. Despite our sordid reputation for moving in after the first date, lesbians are cultural loners, flinging ourselves into relationships because we know all too well how it feels to be the ”odd man out.” In general, lesbians often identify with (or are) economic outsiders, who would have little to gain from entering into this venerable institution, and many lesbians are simply suspicious of a society that protects couples.
Denmark, according to Ingrid and Jill, protects every citizen.”I did it for the benefits,” laughed Jill, one Saturday when I visited the two. “I could go there and be a baby.” As a spouse of a Danish citizen, Johnston immediately qualified for a slew of benefits including a medical card, which in a socialist economy means a lot. The country longest occupied by Germany during World War II, Denmark managed to save 80 per cent of its Jewry. The famous gesture of the Danish king putting on a yellow star is part of the national psychology, I’m told. Though it had colonies into the 20th century, Denmark’s moment as a true empire was over by 800. Today it’s a Lutheran country with a long tradition of compassion and caretaking. “Standing out is not good,” says Ingrid, who came to New York at 21, on the heels of her gay brother, to study theater. ‘”If you do something great, you are congratulated but also reminded that you are still one of us.” Appreciation of this flip-flopped status resounds through Jill’s wedding poem: ‘The [Danish] queen must be a little like the Japanese emperor — a man with no family name and no passport who can’t vote or run for office. The people in these places have all the privileges.”
Ingrid’s brother died of AIDS in 1989. Then Jill urged her to go back to Denmark where she hadn’t been for 10 years, her parents having both died in 1976. AIDS is cited again and again as the contributing factor in gay marriage, both in relation to inheritance, visiting rights, and leases, as well as being part of a larger emotive move in the gay community toward forming more permanent relationships — getting familial. ”As soon as I got involved with Ingrid I became a better mother,” says Jill of the new friendship that’s developed with her now adult children from a marriage in the ’5os. And Ingrid had been married too, back in the ’60s.
I went to a dinner party last weekend with seven lesbians, our ages ranging from late twenties to mid sixties, and six out of the seven had been married. To help someone get a green card (maybe even making some money along the way), or for conventional reasons, whether seriously embarked upon or vaguely considered. Marriage, the institution, as it sits pretty in so many women’s pasts, is almost the polar opposite of coming out, which is still so much about pushing away from the walls of the, okay, I’ll say it, Patriarchy.
“Women in prison, that’s who like to get married,” says Carmelita. What do you mean? “Women marrying women. It’s very popular in jail.” For months I’ve been polling friends and acquaintances, dykes. What do you think of lesbian marriage? “It’s an oxymoron,” said Patty White. “Why can’t we just make our vows to the rocks and trees,” shrugged Nicole Eisenman, “why the State?” “So we can stop having sex, like them?” said Sarah Schulman. “Everyone knows that’s what happens to people who get married.” “Or live together,” I added. “Right, that’s why I never live with my girlfriends.” “You’d think they’d encourage us to get married just to stop us from having sex,” I suggested, and we both laughed and got off the phone.
Hawaii is not that different from Denmark. Now there’s a ludicrous statement. But let me keep going, okay? There are only minorities there (in Hawaii), no real majority, so their democratic tradition is structural. When Jerry Falwell came to town, they formed the Moral Majority of Hawaii with progressive goals and tried to sue him when he arrived for using their name. Sound familiar? It’s very much like putting on a star. In Hawaii the question is being framed in relation to gender rather than homosexuality — if a man can marry a woman, why can’t a woman? The state court will have to have a good answer for that.
According to Jill, the gates were wide open in the early ’70s and thousands of women were rushing through, coming out, and then they closed up by ’76 or so. I like her kind of history. The sweeping lives of individuals shine like symbols — “they appointed certain people,” she explains. Later, when I sat with her and Ingrid and watched their wedding on the monitor again, I suppose it was like sitting with any couple over their album. Then we’re looking at a map of Denmark, and it’s explained to me that Ingrid’s family drove five hours, from here to here — she points on these fish-shaped slices of land that mean “nation” — and I’m shocked, I suppose, that cultures are so different that one country in the world, and then one state, could open the gates to such a basic human privilege, the ceremony of belonging (or owning), whether we want it or not.
Meanwhile, at least one of the new domestic partnerships is making plans for a more formal ceremony. Cydney Wilkes (of Cydney and Val), a choreographer, wants to “score” her wedding, with lots of women kissing on cue and several other mass gestures, just across the river in Brooklyn, an event rivaling Ingrid and Jill’s Fluxus parade. And me — I’ve gone around since the end of last year asking every lesbian I know if she wants to get married and of course it’s been a confusing proposal.