Excerpted from As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America by Karen M. Dunak.
On October 10, 1987, nearly 7,000 people witnessed a wedding on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Men and women cheered and threw rice and confetti as family, friends, and community members took part in the largest mass wedding in American history. After the celebrants exchanged rings and were pronounced newlywed, guests released hundreds of balloons into the air. Brides and grooms, dressed in formal wedding attire, cried and embraced after an “emotional and festive” ceremony. Like so many brides and grooms, participants identified the wedding day as one of the happiest, most meaningful days of their lives.
But this was no ordinary wedding. And these were not typical brides and grooms. This wedding held special significance for its participants. Beyond the “mass” nature of the celebration, something else was unique. The newlyweds that fall Saturday paired off as brides and brides, grooms and grooms. “The Wedding,” as it came to be known, marked the symbolic beginning of nearly 2,000 same-sex marriages. Rejecting the idea that a wedding—and by implication, a marriage—should have one male and one female participant, the grooms and their grooms, the brides and their brides presented a striking picture.A wedding, a fairly conventional affair, became a site of radical protest. Layered in meaning, “The Wedding” celebrated the personal commitments of those being wed. At the same time, it was a direct political act that challenged the legal, religious, and social barriers against same-sex relationships. Like couples before them, gay men and lesbians found they could use their weddings to make a statement about the world and the place of their relationship in it.
Designed to reflect an alternative approach to love and marriage, “The Wedding,” part of the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, rejected the narrow definition of marriage that limited the relationship to members of the opposite sex. “The Wedding” likewise rejected a narrow view of the standard wedding celebration. Dina Bachelor, metaphysical minister, hypnotherapist, and “Wedding” officiant, designed a new-age style ceremony. Bachelor recognized the uniqueness of the celebration and chose her words and actions carefully. Standing under a swaying arch of silver, white, and black balloons, Bachelor omitted any mention of the customary “honor and obey, till death do us part.” Including observers in the celebration, she asked witnesses to join hands and encircle the celebrants. For participants, “The Wedding” was not about fitting into a pre-arranged style. Instead, it was about expanding the celebration to include various approaches to marriage and family. Like alternative wedding celebrants of the 1960s and 1970s, same-sex partners recognized the flexibility of the wedding and used the celebration to express their views about life and love. Bachelor likewise noted the celebration’s significance and concluded the event by stating, “It matters not who we love, only that we love.”
Gay community leaders emphasized the political component of the celebration. Drawing on the activist view that the personal was political, the public pronouncement and celebration of a long-ridiculed personal lifestyle served as the ultimate political statement.Those present rejected the shame associated with their relationships and proved that many same-sex couples shared long-term, committed relationships. Courageously displaying their individual love and their membership in a community of likeminded gay men and lesbians, “Wedding” participants did not demand a social inclusion marked by assimilation or guarded emotions. Rather, they demanded full acceptance of their lifestyle and relationship choices. Reverend Troy Perry, a minister evicted from the Pentecostal Church of God for his own homosexuality and founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, spoke to this desire for openness and acceptance as he rallied his congregants with a shout of “Out of the closets and into the chapels!”
Hosting “The Wedding” in front of the Internal Revenue Service’s building was a symbolic choice meant to protest the tax office’s refusal to accept taxes jointly filed by same-sex couples. As activist Sue Hyde recalled, couples participated in “The Wedding” “both to protest discrimination against them and to celebrate their love and commitment to each other.” Challenging conventional views of family and marriage, groom and “Wedding” organizer Carey Junkin of Los Angeles echoed “The Wedding’s” official slogan when he said, “Love makes a family, nothing else.” Adding his own sentiment, he stated, “We won’t go back.” Marriages celebrated that day held no legal standing, but that did not diminish the emotional impact of the event. The community of couples who wed accomplished their political objective by making their private relationships part of the political discourse. The very public, very political event demanded recognition of the legitimacy of the relationship between two brides or two grooms.
As for “The Wedding” participants (composed of more male than female couples, suggesting an ongoing discomfort with weddings and marriage among politically active feminists), they expressed warm praise for the celebration, as well as a sense of anger that any members of the gay or lesbian community would criticize their decision to wed. Dressed in suits, tuxedos, and wedding gowns, albeit with little regard for normative notions of gender, the celebrants saw the day as an important turning point in their lives and relationships. Despite their unorthodox appearances, many participants noted that they would have been comfortable with an even more “traditional” ceremony. The only registered disappointment pertained to the desire that the ceremony might have been more explicit in regard to monogamy or couples’ exclusivity. The mass “Wedding” was not intended to replicate heterosexual marital relationships or wedding celebrations, but the importance given the celebration and the desire for expression of personal preference—be it for a more or even less traditional form than the ceremony before the IRS—hinted at possible similarities between same-sex weddings and their opposite-sex counterparts.
While “The Wedding” looked unlike the individual white weddings celebrated by heterosexual couples, the event incorporated familiar elements of the wedding ceremony. Most participants wore some sort of special dress; an authority figured presided over the celebration; and guests bore witness to the event. The relationships may have seemed atypical or strange in the eyes of the mainstream observer, but there could be no question as to what had transpired that October day. The familiarity of the wedding served as a valuable political tool even as it fulfilled the personal desires of same-sex couples who wished to share their lives together. For a population who had the option— admittedly the very unpleasant option—of invisibility, the choice to make public the intimacies of private life was a political statement in and of itself.
Same-sex weddings transcended the “difference vs. accommodation” debates often raised in subcultural groups and hotly contested within the queer community.8 In the years following the celebration of “The Wedding,” gay men and lesbians expressed a blend of intentions and motivations with their celebrations. The flexibility of the wedding, continually tested by the heterosexual marrying population in the decades since World War II, likewise served the personal as well as the political objectives of queer couples. Moving from the mass to the individual, weddings legitimated and celebrated relationships that had long been deemed wrong or strange and had thus been cloaked in secrecy. Such celebrations allowed men and women to celebrate their private lives in a public style and with the sanction of chosen and accepting family and community members. By publicly celebrating their relationships, queers challenged a political system that refused to recognize their right to wed.
Like the weddings of those before them, the white weddings hosted by same-sex couples in the 1990s and in the early years of the new century seemingly adhered to a standardized form of celebration. The similarity between opposite-sex and same-sex events, of course, was noticeable in the continued reliance on a wedding industry and adherence to wedding norms: formal dress, recitation of vows, and elaborate receptions. On the surface, this suggested a kind of queer accommodation to the standard form. Even though a gay couple might purchase a cake topper that featured two grooms, the couple still purchased a cake topper. The prerequisites of a wedding had tremendous staying power. But same-sex couples shaped their weddings in ways specific to their relationships and cultural identifications. Ceremonial alteration and amendment, whether slight or pronounced, reflected the beliefs and desires of same-sex couples.
Queer couples, like other brides and grooms, negotiated tensions created by family, cost, and the overall wedding planning procedure. Unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex brides and grooms challenged existing authority in the very act of celebrating a wedding. Couples celebrated the communities from which they came, to which they currently belonged, and those they created, if only for their weddings. They exerted individual authority over their ceremonies not only in their selection of music, dress, and wedding style, but also in their very direct rejection of a legal system that denied them access to the rights and privileges of marriage. They publicly celebrated relationships long denied public recognition. Weddings could be and could say whatever the celebrating couples wished. As various states began to recognize same-sex marriages, acceptance of same-sex unions extended even beyond the queer community. Weddings both affirmed the political victory achieved by those who had long advocated on behalf of equal rights and marked the triumph of personalization in American wedding culture.
Read the rest of this entry at Salon.com.