Why Weddings?

First published at 365gay.com on July 2, 2010

I’m at a wedding for a same-sex couple, in the chapel anteroom before the service, and the grooms are sweating profusely.

It’s not because they’re nervous. It’s because they’re wearing black wool tuxedos, it’s a humid 90-degree day, and like most old churches, this one isn’t air-conditioned.

Why would anyone schedule a large ceremony in a non-air-conditioned venue in late June? I’m not religious, but if I were, I’d either schedule my wedding in October or convert to a denomination with modern facilities.

This church was not the grooms’ first choice. Or their second or third, for that matter. But they wanted a traditional church wedding, and most local churches declined to do a same-sex ceremony.

The demurring pastors weren’t hostile (though my friends didn’t bother asking those from conservative denominations). Indeed, several were quite apologetic, explaining that they supported the idea but needed more time to acclimate their congregations. Perhaps they were just making excuses to cover their own discomfort, though they seemed sincere.

So this particular church gets points for courage and open-mindedness. Just not climate control.

The church is Presbyterian, and they’re calling this event a “holy union.” In the weeks preceding it, some friends have been calling it a “commitment ceremony.” But most of us keep calling it a wedding, because that’s what it feels like, and that’s what it is.

Indeed, it’s not just a wedding, it’s—by my lights—a big wedding, complete with rehearsal dinner, organ and violin music (the harpsichord couldn’t be tuned due to the heat) and a reception for 160 guests. The grooms registered at Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Macy’s; they sent out multi-part invitations with useless sheets of tissue paper inside.

“Why do you want such a huge production?” I asked them one day.

A few reasons, they told me. Partly it was because one groom’s siblings all had big weddings, and both grooms love big parties. But mainly it was a way for them to signal to family and friends, “This is real. We mean it. Take it seriously.”

Rarely in the marriage-equality debate, as we reflect on the question “Why marriage?” do we stop and ask the question “Why weddings?”

Weddings are, at one level, absurd affairs: the gaudy pageantry, the forced intimacy with distant relatives and acquaintances, the cheesy running commentary from the DJ. They’re expensive, sometimes outrageously so. One designer friend of mine has done a wedding with a $38,000 budget—for the flowers alone. (Not all the decorations, he assured me—just the flowers.)

We dress in clothes that we’d never wear otherwise (despite what they told you about the bridesmaid dress you just bought); we rent limousines and grand reception halls; we send out invitations requesting the “honour” of people’s presence and the “favour” of their reply, as if we’ve all suddenly become members of the British royal court. Why do we make such a fuss?

We do it because, like these grooms, we want to say “This is real. We mean it. Take it seriously.” Yes, we can do that with simple affairs, and we can certainly do it with American spelling. But fanfare has its uses. If friends and relatives are going to fly from all around the country and buy you expensive presents and sweat through a long service that’s all about you, you’d better be pretty damn sure about what you’re doing.

In that way, weddings are not just a way for the couple to tell the world “Take it seriously;” they’re also a way for us to tell them the same. They create a cooperative web of expectation and support. They’re a time-honored ritual for turning partners into spouses; a relationship into a marriage.

And that’s what we’re doing here today. Despite the fact there is no bride. Despite the fact that this relationship is not legally recognized. Despite the fact that the church has replaced all references to “marriage” in the traditional service with “holy union.”

It’s a wedding, and it’s a marriage, because the love is real, the commitment is real, the family support is real, the sweat and the tears (of joy) are real. They mean it, and we mean it.