Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Check Your Marriage at the Border

Several years ago, after attending the wedding of a distant acquaintance and listening to the pastor's sermon about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, Sarah and I made a decision that we wouldn't attend any weddings unless 1) it was the wedding of a very close relative, or 2) it was the wedding of a couple who saw our marriage with the same seriousness and as having the same weight as any official heterosexual marriage. The second scenario involved a lot of imagining how certain people would behave if they attended a same-sex wedding ceremony. It's not as simple as it sounds to determine whether or not someone actually would view such a non-traditional wedding as legitimate.

Sure, we know a fair amount of individuals who claim they would take a same-sex wedding seriously, but most of these people, in their desperation to show just how okay they are with those types of events, end up making it clear that to them it's "cute" or some type of interesting curiosity. I believe a lot of people would like to attend a same-sex marriage ceremony just to say they did, just to prove to themselves, their gay acquaintances, and their straight friends how accepting and tolerant they are. In these situations, I knew the people (both gay and straight) who regarded same-sex ceremonies as cute and amusing were not taking the whole matter as seriously as they would the opposite-sex marriage. These same people would refer to opposite-sex ceremonies with solemn reverence rather than curious amusement.

(This belief that many who claim to view same and opposite-sex marriages as equivalents really don't is substantiated by the reaction I had from several "friends" and relatives when Sarah and I were forced to spend nine months apart while she had to return to England because she didn't have a US visa. The utter lack of sympathy from people I thought cared about us and even the admonishments I had for my sadness and self-pity was stunning. I know these same people would have been falling over themselves to support friends or relatives involuntarily separated from their opposite-sex spouses.)

But how can I blame people for not taking a same-sex marriage ceremony (in the US) as seriously as an opposite-sex marriage? One is a legal contract with legal significance, and the other is not. One has consequences if the contract is to be dissolved, and the other does not.. And, many look upon same-sex weddings with the same patronizing amusement one feels when watching six-year olds stage a pretend wedding--and why shouldn't they? A six-year old's play wedding has just as much significance and legal standing as a same-sex ceremony in most US states.

Of course, the many mass "weddings" staged at gay rights protests don't help anyone to take these commitments seriously, either. Sarah and I first "married" in 2000 at the Millennium March in Washington D.C. We consider that our actual marriage (even though we were later married in Windsor in 2006 for legal reasons), but hose types of mass ceremonies, with no legal significance, allow many couples to spontaneously make a public statement of commitment that they can break at any time. So many of the gay people we know have taken part in these mass ceremonies, but I don't know any who are still in the same relationship now. Perhaps we gay Americans need to start attaching the solemnity, gravity, and formality to all of our commitment ceremonies, legal or not, as is found in the majority of opposite-sex ceremonies.

Anyway, earlier this month, Sarah and I made a trip to northern Michigan to go to the wedding of a friend we knew through our volunteering at the humane society in Grand Rapids. Following our own rules about which weddings we will and won't attend, we know our friend Jen (and her fiancé Andrew) regard us in the same way they regard any other married couple. We left from Kitchener, Ontario and drove up around Lake Huron and down to Michigan through Sault Ste. Marie. We went through the border where the US border agent asked us lots of questions, including the always awkward "And how to you two know each other?" I've learned that the best answer is "We're married in Canada." This is a true statement, and it gets our point across. Simply stating "we're married" would only cause problems because at the location where we are asked the question, we're not married.

The border guard had seen our passports and knew I was a US citizen and Sarah a UK citizen, and responded to my statement that we are married with "Oh, so that must be why you live in Canada." I was quite shocked because this was the first time I had ever had a representative of the US government acknowledge our situation. Before I had time to recover from the shock of this long-sought-after acknowledgement, I was stunned by the irony of the next exchange. The border guard asked us where we were going in Michigan and why. I told him we were going to a wedding, and heard myself saying the words as if I was having an absurd dream.

I think the irony was lost on him, but perhaps not. At any rate, as we drove away, I began to think about how we were leaving our marriage at the border to go witness the legal marriage of another. I waited for the expected wave of anger. It didn't come. I realized with great sense of relief that since moving to a country where I do have equal rights in marriage, I can now go to a wedding (or wedding shower, or bachelorette party) without feeling jealousy or resentment. This is only one of the positive changes in my life since moving to Canada, but it's a very important one to me.

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