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The Very Public Act of Marrying

by EdwardIngebretsen

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“Please have a seat, we will get you before the judge when we can.” The polite but efficient woman at the Probate Court in Barnstable, Mass. Collected our forms.

She glanced furtively at Tim’s hand, clamped tight in mine. Catching me looking, she smiled and returned to her task. Neatly tapping the papers on the counter, she clipped the fee “($65) to the “Petition for Waiver” and walked off through an adjacent door.

Tim and I then sat down at the scratched and wobbly table in the center of the room. I asked myself, why am I here, in a courtroom, waiting to see a judge?

Is marriage so important that the judiciary must rule on the simple matter of waiving the waiting period, just to receive a marriage application? Do straight couples experience these fears? These anxieties – almost instinct by now – that surround practically any venture in public as a gay man slam me like the heat.

I glance at the staff behind the counter. What happens if the clerk, seeing us arm in arm, decides it is time for lunch? Worse, what should we say to the judge? What should we say if we have to explain why we want, so earnestly, to get married, when the majority of straight marriages fail?

I formulate stories, explanations, justifications: why the two of us – D.C. residents, college professors, gay men, potential spouses, if that is the right word – are here, legal suppliants, on a Friday morning, and why I keep looking at the clock. We have only the afternoon in which to do all of this and cars break down and offices close up. Sorry for being so apocalyptic.

We need to be out of this crowded Probate Court and into the car for the drive to Provincetown. There we must find more offices, meet more judges, officials, sign more documents, stand before witnesses, make more decisions.

The first comes quickly: Do we change our names? What do we say to each other? What do we call each other? I look at Tim and he looks at me. There are no words for the place where we are; no wonder people resort to clichés.

Straight friends, when they hear we got married, register delight, of course, but also they admonish us: You should have waited, planned ahead, invited us and we could have thrown you a big party.

I look at the clock again. Tim and I are not straight people. We do not have the freedom to move in public, a species protected by law. Even if we were the law is not perfect form straights, either.

As gay persons our lives have been, by necessity, furtive, quick, like the clerk’s glance. Our actions in public, always under scrutiny, are always provisional, and our ceremonies even less secure. Time is clicking.

Already, fewer than 21 days since May 17 [2004], and the legal space for gay marriage in Massachusetts has already dwindled. The February marriages in San Francisco have been placed in legal limbo by the state.

We tell our friends, we did think about waiting, but then decided we couldn’t. The law might be further restricted, either in Massachusetts or here. As the Blade has reported, in DC the law – presently silent about gay marriage – might, by August, foreclose it.

Time is clicking. Silence has its consequences. So does waiting for the right moment. Tim and I stand on the beach, where the separatist Puritan brethren first landed in pursuit of their own versions of strict freedom.

We can’t go an further east, either in Provincetown or in the USA. Alone on the beach, save for the minister, we make public promises to the waves, the birds, the sea, to each other: Let me be hour freedom, let me be your home. I promise to love and honor you. Where you go, I will go.

George W. Bush is right, of course. Such affections ought to be the groundrock of any humane society. Let’s push the point a bit. Such promises, made in public, ought to be within the legal reach of all persons old enough to know what they mean. Our society depends upon such moral moments.

As an ordained minister, I usually occupy the other space in this public ceremony, giving social witness to lives offered as gifts, so humbly.

Each time I tell the couple, private love has public consequences. We get married never just for ourselves. People around us, near or far, depend – literally hang on – our every word.

Fumbling for Tim’s ring, I find myself thinking about the wedding I had conducted the previous week. In the cold rain of a June Day. Where you make the promises, or whom you invite, isn’t so important. That you make the promises, is.

That is why Tim Doud and I fidgeted in Barnstable Court on June 11. Maybe straight people have the same anxieties, and so maybe gay marriage is about teaching the law how to be civil, and available to all. No one should be held hostage by her or his affections.

And this I know. Actions have consequences. Even if Congress passes a law banning gay marriage in D.C., the law does not work in retrospect.

In DC the law permitting same-sex marriages is fifteen months old. I work with many couples, and, surprisingly, not the ones one sees in glossy media photos. My couples are, mostly women, financially challenged, often not-white. Traditionally groups who have never had guaranteed access to law.

Now, when I conduct their marriage ceremonies, I end this way: “The inscription across the Supreme Court reads, ‘equal justice under law.’ Welcome to equality of law, its rights, its duties, and its occasional comforts.” Happy Anniversary, Tim; happy anniversaries, soon, New Yorkers.


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