Should Gay Weddings Be Political?


Gay couple Neil Allard and Andrew Wale speak to the media after their wedding in one of the UK's first same-sex weddings .
Neil Allard and Andrew Wale after their wedding, one of the U.K.’s first same-sex weddings, on March 29, 2014 in Brighton, England.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

I recently attended a wedding in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that was much like any other. Friends and family gathered for an evening of celebration; guests teared up as the couple made promises and exchanged rings; friends offered gently embarrassing toasts as parents looked on in mock disapproval. But if you looked closely, there were signs that this wedding—one that happened to be between two men—was not merely a solemnizing of love. In an intimate space meant to cocoon the couple in a few hours of affection and support before they embarked on the rest of their lives, there were occasionally striking, even jarring, reminders of the world outside.

At the bar, there was a placard listing various beverage options. The custom cocktail of the evening had a name: the Margaret Marshall. This enticing mixture of ginger liqueur, Prosecco, club soda, and lemon was being served, we guests learned, on the 10th anniversary of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, Massachusetts’ landmark same-sex marriage decision, which was authored by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall. While guests drank up, the couple was outside taking photographs. The venue, it turned out, was near a county jail, and, as the newlyweds posed and kissed, a few inmates, watching from a kind of screened-in balcony, provided their own take on the ceremonial birdseed toss in the form of homophobic slurs. The couple, to their credit, ignored the jeers and went on beaming. But I couldn’t help but notice how, though very different in source and tone, both the cocktail and the commentary served as punctures, intrusions of context into a ceremony that is, ideally, meant to float somewhere apart from space and time. 

Well, if not from space and time, at least apart from politics. The headline for this essay is “should gay weddings be political?” but the more appropriate question—at least at this stage in history—might be, is it even possible for them not to be political? This is something I’ve thought about a lot, because my partner and I will, come August, have spent about a year getting married (our legal ceremony took place last year; a small family/friend celebration will take place in a few weeks). It’s fair to say that we both approached this process with some amount of anxiety about the meaning of wedding ceremonies—how conservative, despite your best efforts, they seem to become; how, though necessary for all kinds of legal reasons, taking part in one is unavoidably a betrayal of the original spirit of gay liberation. But advertising or even privately envisioning the wedding as a “political act” was never a concern—that’s just not our style.

And yet, when I look back on our hastily organized legal ceremony, one of my favorite parts was an explicit reference to politics that we did not ask for. Our officiant Charles, a dear friend who also happens to be a gay journalist and historian, could not help but see the event in the context of the previous decades of gay struggle, and he did not shy away from saying so:

And please remember, ALWAYS, how lucky you have already been … to have grown up in an age like this, instead of the deeply prejudiced world that existed just 30 years before you were born … For those us fortunate enough to live in New York City, and other, similar metropolises around the world, this is, without a doubt, the greatest time to be gay … Barely five weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court declared that your marriage is a valid one—as meaningful, as lawful, and as sacred as all the others. The Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws to all. This action by the court is the latest evidence of the truth of Martin Luther King’s great observation that the Arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice. You are entitled, as Justice Kennedy put it, to full federal recognition and protection of your marriage.

I hadn’t wanted a political statement at my wedding, but when Charles shared those words, I was struck, standing there holding my partner’s hands in mine, that what we were doing was political, whether we had intended it to be or not. It’s not that we were all of a sudden “activists” by getting a marriage certificate—anyone who thinks that suffers from a rather outsized opinion of herself. Rather, it’s as if our little ceremony were haunted, pleasantly, by politics—by the ghosts of all the queers and activists and judges and politicians of previous decades who, even if they wouldn’t have chosen marriage for themselves, would surely be pleased to see that their efforts and sacrifices on behalf of future strangers had made room in the world—and the law—for such a choice. Though we hadn’t invited these spirits, there presence was undeniable on that hillside in the Catskills, and I will be forever grateful that Charles had the good sense to welcome them.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that trying to excise politics from a gay wedding, to unburden it of the weight of history, is not only naive, but also bordering on disrespectful. Many of the old ritual aspects of weddings may have become largely meaningless, but gay weddings are one of those spaces in the world—like voting booths or wheelchair ramps—where it is indisputable that the political has made the personal possible. And this remains true regardless of whether the celebrants themselves played any active role in making it so.

Of course, political statements can take different forms. The Cambridge couple told me that they chose the Marshall cocktail name because they “wanted to have a discreet yet powerful acknowledgement of the Goodridge decision,” an event that had little meaning to them at the time, but that they now recognized as leading to the recent “sea change in policy” that had made their wedding possible. As a small way of paying respects, the cocktail gesture seemed perfect. Likewise, for my partner and me, Charles’ unapproved speech proved to be imminently appropriate. Until inequality based on sexual orientation is a relic of the far-past, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon each same-sex couple to find their own way to honor the role political work has played in making their love, in the words of Charles, “recognized and protected.” At a gay ceremony, politics is a member of the wedding party, with invite or without.