A confession: I had never been to a gay wedding before my own.
Another: a gay wedding turns out to be pretty much the same as a straight one.
That realisation didn’t come as a total surprise, but it did come with another, one more visceral and unexpected. Namely, that the struggle for same-sex marriage isn’t just about the ever after. Inheritance rights, immigration rights, visitation rights — they are critical and concrete and affect people’s lives, often in their most vulnerable moments. But as important as rights are, the struggle for same-sex marriage is also about the moment. The symbol. The action. The speech. The ineffability of a wedding, however fleeting. Less tangible, perhaps, but not less real.
Amidst all the preparation for the event, my enthusiasm was dampened by logistics. But the morning of my wedding day, I awoke to sunshine and recognised that what would be would be. It wasn’t long before my cheeks hurt from grinning. My dad said he’d never seen me so happy, and whatever differences do exist between gay and straight weddings, I hope for the sake of the heterosexual majority that’s not one of them.
Today marks the first anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA represented a low point in law making and made trouble for every gay and lesbian American, not least me. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, explained exactly why DOMA was so terrible: ‘DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.
He was more focussed on due process, but ultimately, Kennedy saw the same thing my father did: the spontaneous joy of a wedding is not counterfeit. It is not something to defend against.
A few Christmases ago, my then-boyfriend’s mother introduced me to the world of family history research. Somewhat ironically, Jane’s family are a challenge to track down beyond a few generations. It’s good, then, that her interest in tracing the past extends beyond her relatives. At their request, and, I suspect, sometimes at her suggestion, she has happily researched family trees for both close friends and comparative strangers.
Holidays in the East Midlands are relaxed affairs, spent quietly doing jigsaw puzzles and crosswords, occasionally throwing new logs onto the fire. With that backdrop, we started talking about my mother’s kinfolk, about whom we know less than my father’s well-documented genealogy. Jane got the ball rolling, and soon enough, as if I were Jeremy Paxman or Lisa Kudrow in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, we were constructing improbable stories of my great-great-great-grandparents’ meeting while crossing the Atlantic.
Or, at least, I was.
Jane, with the benefit of experience and personal distance, was less susceptible to an American novice’s romance. Still, the facts about Fanny Hoadley and Samuel Price are these: she was English, travelling with her widowed father and sisters; he was Welsh, on his own but en route to reunion with a trailblazing brother. The two of them arrived in New York on the same boat (the same boat!) in May 1842 and married in Ohio a year and a half later. It’s like something out of a movie, really. How happy their ever after was, we can’t know. They stayed married until Samuel died 30 years later, but even I’m not romantic enough to draw conclusions from that.
If you’ve ever looked into your own family history, you understand the most meaningful parts of the story are usually the ones you cannot tell. You also know it is a scavenger hunt without an ending. The ‘tree’, such as it is, spirals out indefinitely, both across and back into the past. Ancestry.com, the largest commercial site for this type of research, offers two views of the history you construct of previously unknown relations: ‘family’, with its sprawling threads of siblings and spouses and cousins and so on, and ‘pedigree’, which focuses on direct lineage and allows you to concentrate on your personal propagation. Insertion of a Biblical ‘begat’ between the generations is optional.
To be clear, Ancestry isn’t the only game in town. Not by any means. There are a multitude of online resources, provided by governmental archives or educational institutions, by community heritage groups, even the Mormon Church, in the form of a friendly site called FamilySearch. And if want to leave home for research, good luck deciding where to go first. To do the job properly, you’ll spend the rest of your life in archives, and without the producers of a TV show to fly you there and brief the local researchers ahead of your arrival. In short, not only are the ancestors limitless, so are the potential sources of information about their respective lives.
But, you have to start somewhere. And after my introduction, I soon learned there is an abbreviation that pops up everywhere: BMD. Births, Marriages, Deaths. The human story in three letters. Censuses may reflect our physical location once a decade, but for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, the BMDs are the main events.
Of those, most of us only have control over the middle one, and even that’s a fairly modern invention. The degree of choice varies according to circumstance, but someone picks the date, the venue, the style, the content, the dress code, the partner. Fanny and Samuel chose Christmas Day, 1843. Tom and I chose 29 March 2014.
Up until that date, we didn’t have a choice, at least not locally. As if in a luckless game of metaphysical Monopoly (‘do not pass Go, do not collect a wedding band’), our lives might have gone from B to D without ever stopping at M. However, the UK Parliament passed legislation in mid-2013 opening marriage to all couples, regardless of composition. Mind you, unlike the impromptu scenes of glee witnessed after American courts strike down marriage bans, this was not an overnight change. Rather, the government and civil service took their time determining how to implement the law. It was six months before they even announced the date on which the weddings could start. But I guess good things are worth waiting for, because when the day came, it was good.
Besides its date and its celebrant, I don’t know anything about Fanny and Samuel’s wedding ceremony. Ours featured two poems: Robert Herrick’s ‘A Ring Presented to Julia‘ and Alice Oswald’s ‘Wedding‘. Herrick’s was published in 1648 and relies on the metaphor of the couple yoked together like livestock, but it depicts a companionate model that feels almost contemporary. Oswald, on the other hand, brings a traditional form, the Shakespearean sonnet, into the present by adopting slant rhyme and free association, riffing like a jazz performer on how love links itself to and manifests itself in all aspects of the lived experience. Her poem resolves in the final couplet:
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.
There are many critics of the Institution of Marriage, and just as many criticisms. I am sympathetic to some of them, and yet, Oswald’s description isn’t wrong. Getting married felt like luck beginning. Or continuing. Or perhaps just being validated. Did I need that validation? If I did, was that a political failing, or a psychological one? Maybe? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that it was a revelation to stand at the front of the room and kiss the man I love without the double consciousness so often attendant on public displays of gay affection. The venue, Hackney Town Hall, was celebrating the commencement of same-sex weddings as Equal Marriage Day. But to be honest, having been denied the chance so long, it felt more than just ‘equal’; it felt really special. The registrar’s blinked back tears while reading the script suggested it felt that way to others, too.
Of course, I would say that. Who doesn’t say the same about their own wedding? For the people involved, it’s meant to feel special. Like everything, even.
Our wedding might have been a notable first in one respect, but it made family history in the same way as each of the other couples who filed in and out of the Gold Suite that day. By Justice Kennedy’s logic, Tom’s and my marriage is no different than theirs or, indeed, Fanny and Samuel’s. And for Ancestry, well, it’s another branch in the tree; another M to be indexed.
M.L. Peck: A married man.