By Deirdre Good and Julian Sheffield
We got married last week.
We got married in Connecticut where the first same-sex marriage license was issued on Nov. 12th, 2008, following a court decision summarized by Richard Just in The New Republic (including a link to the original 85-page decision). We were going to get married in Massachusetts, where the constitutional prohibition against marriages of non-residents was overturned last summer, but Connecticut was so much closer to home, and frankly, that decision was so brilliant we felt drawn to Connecticut.
Two aspects of the decision stand out for us. First, the decision set the “same-sex marriage devalues heterosexual marriage” objection on its head. On the contrary, the decision argued, saying that a civil union is equivalent to a marriage and therefore non-discriminatory is what downgrades marriage. “Civil union” simply does not carry the weight of social benefits and responsibilities that have accrued to marriage over the centuries, and therefore civil union cannot be equivalent to marriage.
Second, the decision addressed the issue of whether such a ruling should be made by the courts or by the legislature by determining the status of homosexuals as a “quasi-suspect” class requiring legal intervention to achieve parity because judicial processes were unlikely to provide equal rights.
So, we’ve been living as a monogamous couple for 16.5 years now, rather like the landless working poor of past centuries who didn’t have the means or necessity to ratify their status in a church (hence the recognition of common law marriage for property rights). And many people who congratulate us go on immediately to ask, “But doesn’t this just feel like a formality?”
To which we say, No. Emphatically. True, our union was blessed in a church 16 years ago, but this is different. This is an act of public witness, an exercise of public accountability, a participation in a universally recognized and honored status that confers legal, social, and emotional benefits and responsibilities. Granted, there are legal entities that do not yet recognize our right to be married, that narrowly define marriage in terms of exclusion, but that’s their problem. We are married nonetheless. And because we are deeply optimistic, we hope we will always live somewhere that honors the fact of our marriage. Ironically, we are a bit schizoid at present, living in New York (which does honor our marriage) and Maine (which has both a domestic partnership law and a defense of marriage act) – but this too will pass. With each legally (and sacramentally, if possible) ratified marriage of a same-sex couple, this division comes closer to passing away.
But here’s the rub. The state (at least the State of Connecticut, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the State of California sometimes, Canada, the UK, and a number of other countries) has recognized, recorded and ratified our union in marriage – but our church, the entity which should be showing us the way forward in lives of commitment and integrity and accountability and hospitality and generosity and self-giving and unconditional love, still wavers on the borders of commitment to us. We can find pockets where bishops and priests claim their right to ratify our marriages as agents of the state and bless them as priests of the church, but we still feel constrained to protect witnesses who may be called to function in the church in other locales.
Our marriage is a commitment to be accountable to all those persons who have participated in and supported marriage – whoever they are, whether or not they are willing to support our marriage. They’ve got our commitment and our participation, those who value it and those who would reject it.
We both have this old fashioned ideal of the church as parochial in the original sense of the word, the place where we are, not the place we go to hear the sermons we prefer to hear. But for some of us, our church has not yet decided to be where we are. The consequence of this is that we can only celebrate fully, joyously, sacramentally, with a disparate group of sympathetic people who cannot be rooted just in the place where they live. So far.
Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at General Theological Seminary and Julian Sheffield is a freelance QuickBooks consultant.