As a member of a big family, I have been to a lot of weddings in my life, big and small, religious and civil, first-timers and remarriages, shotguns and virginal. But the two weddings I have attended most recently have been punctuated by something I have not encountered before: When the officiant of the ceremony utters the closing lines, "By the authority granted me by the state of California . . ." the wedding guests erupt in cheers. It is possibly a more powerful moment than the sealing kiss.
These two family weddings in the past month have been same-sex civil marriages, which became legal again in California when the Supreme Court struck down Proposition 8. The cheering indicates that these couples have waited a long time to be eligible by law to participate in the privilege, responsibility and right to marry.
My cousin and his spouse were legally wed on the 22nd anniversary of the beginning of their relationship. Back in 1991, they did not imagine that same-sex marriage would happen in their lifetimes. But as they have already spent more than two decades together in sickness and in health, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, they are old hands at the commitment part of being in love.
Now at long last, they've won the legal recognition of that commitment. This means practical things: One spouse will not be taxed for the cost of his partner's health coverage, just like my husband has never been taxed on my coverage. One spouse will be able to represent the other in a hospital situation and make pertinent medical decisions without a legal file full of notarized documents in hand, just like heterosexual spouses. And so on, through the thousand rights that civil marriage automatically bestows on spouses.
Just as important as the judicial details, however, is the emotional significance of their legally recognized union. They are married to each other in the eyes of a civilized society. They are a couple. They are now bound to each other in tangible ways.
The other wedding was between my daughter and the young woman I have long considered my daughter-in-law, even though their commitment ceremony three years ago was not legally valid in the state of Oregon, where it was performed. My daughter and daughter-in-law were married two weeks ago in a smaller, more casual, but hugely significant civil ceremony in Santa Cruz. My daughter-in-law is now as official as my son-in-law, who was married to another of my daughters last fall. At the time of their heterosexual union, I wrote that I had one daughter who was legally married, and one whose relationship could not be so designated under the law. Now, all the in-laws are legal. And equal. And so very welcome in our ever-expanding family.
I am convinced that the same-sex weddings in my family contribute exactly as much to the stability and good of society as do the opposite-sex weddings in my family. They are small, unpretentious weddings with large impact. One of my closest friends, the kindred spirit of my childhood, who was present for my daughter and daughter-in-law's commitment ceremony in Oregon, wrote to congratulate the happy couple, not only on their new-found legality, but on being "civil liberties groundbreakers." And while I didn't think of their marriage license in that bigger-picture way, I realize that my friend is right: My daughter and daughter-in-law's act of faith in each other and in the permanence of their commitment to each other does break ground for couples to come, as does the marriage of my cousin and his spouse. They are among the first Americans to claim their civil right to marry the person they love, and to pave a smoother road for future same-sex couples.
As these couples marry and pay taxes and plant gardens and adopt stray cats and go to work and cook dinner and travel and take in a movie and share a pot of coffee and pick up the dry cleaning and bring a plate of cookies to a new neighbor and sleep and love and grow old together, they normalize the exotic idea of a same-sex marriage. They are regular folks, who happen to be gay and happen to be married. They are our relatives, friends, co-workers and neighbors. They are unlikely pioneers of love. They are the lovely, radiant new faces of wedded bliss.