On Equal Rites

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Christianity & Crisis 49.8 (May 22, 1989): 161-163.
© 1989 by Christianity & Crisis; © 2004 by Louie Crew


"I wish more of my friends could see you two. Most gays I know are terribly promiscuous. People need to realize that some gays do live as faithful couples."
Gay couples hear this so often that some of us are tempted to accompany the litany with an imaginary fiddle between thumb and index finger, the way as children in the 1930s and 40s we mocked shlock, "the world's saddest song on the world's smallest fiddle."

How should fidelity parade?

One of my friends, now in the 27th year of his gay relationship, jests that he may desert his male spouse to join the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (an order of gay male nuns) as Sister Monogamy.

Perhaps straights see few lesbian and gay male couples as couples because many of us understand the only dynamics by which our relationships can survive: Love vaunts not itself, does not behave unseemly, seeks no mirror image.

Dearly Beloved.... [R.S.V.P]

Society often peeks at lesbian and gay couples as if we're freaks at a circus. "Which one of you is the man, which the woman?" many ask us. Am I being the man when I take out the garbage, the woman when I sew? I should have thought it obvious that both of us are men, that we do not we mimic heterosexual unions.

When roughly every second hetero marriage ends in divorce, when many of those which stay intact sustain great inequity for one of the partners, usually the wife, few heterosexuals are wise to seek a "normal" marriage either.

Some gay couples yield, occasionally with painful consequences. In the mid 1970s, one couple I knew persuaded their parish to do a full- scale wedding. When the bishop tried to halt the ceremonies, the press gave thema page spread--"better," they reasoned, "than sticking our wedding pictures just back in the society section."

They invested much energy publicly asserting their equal rites. They even persuaded the telephone company to print their hyphenated name, which required an extra line of text to fit. Unfortunately, they allowed their public image to consume them. They let it tell them who to be, and neglected to communicate clearly who they were. They sacrificed marriage for Marriage. When their icon crumbled, few people remained to help them sweep away the rubbish and begin to recover their own worth as talented, hurting human beings. They had cultivated an audience, not friends.

I do not oppose public rites. Like Jesus, I'll spike the punch at anyone's wedding. We human beings need all the help we can get when private selfishness begins to interfere with our unnatural, sacred commitment to respect someone else as an equal. But we need to understand marriage with more depth than we can get in soap operas and brides' magazines.

Gathered Here Today to Witness

In the old marriage ceremony, still used by many Justices of the Peace and by many protestant ministers, the officiant says only "I now pronounce you man and wife." The couple say each to the other, "I you wed" even as they said "yes" earlier to the question, "Will you marry me?"

They marry themselves! The officiant certifies their act, but does not effect it. Both civil and canon law recognize this distinction: the couple's private behavior, or lack of it, may serve as grounds of annulment--grounds for saying that marriage never existed.

Speak Now of Forever Hold Your Peace

When the Episcopal Church met for General Convention in Detroit, in July 1988, several dozen lesbians and gay men told our stories. Since the Church has hinted that it might someday affirm, if not marry or bless, lesbians and gay males if we live in "committed, loving, stable" relationships, many witnesses reported how long they had coupled, what committees they had served on at the parish, diocesan, and national levels....... Accept us, they seemed to say, because we're good enough, or at least as good as you.

What a frightening spectacle! What an unhealthy space for any fragile, nurturing human relationship to occupy. A strait friend on the Commission which had promoted the session told me over lunch the next day, "I realize how unfairly we ask you people to speak publicly about matters private and personal."

The Church does not say to heterosexuals, "We will accept you if you will prove your worth." Christ did not say, "Come unto me all who are good enough."

Besides, gay males and lesbians sin in our relationships. Not one of us deserves to be called an "ideal couple." We sin not when a woman loves a woman or a man loves a man, but when we do not love the other enough, namely, as much as we love ourselves. There is no health in us, only in the Christ, our Redeemer. Have heterosexuals struck a different bargain?

For Richer or Poorer

Heterosexual marriage often secures a male's position in the community and sometimes even in the professions. For example, many Episcopal parishes, scornful of their catholic heritage, will not hire an unmarried priest. Fewer Episcopal dioceses choose an unmarried bishop.

By contrast, unions jeopardize gays, more than merely being gay could ever do. When the single doctor and the single lawyer share an apartment, few think anything of it, but when the two name themselves to friends and neighbors as a lesbian couple....  Parishioners titter only mildly when the domestic worker reports that an occasional hitchhiker stayed overnight with Father Don, but when Captain William moves into the rectory as Father Don's spouse.....

Till Death Do Us Part

My own relationship, a mere fifteen years old, could not survive the stress of public spectacles had we not long ago reserved both stretches of privacy and enough public air in which to breathe. As a black and white couple living first in rural Georgia, then in rural Wisconsin, then in Hong Kong,... we could not have hidden even had we tired, and why should we want to?

We have endured occasional death threats, steady calumny, frequent underemployment and occasional unemployment.... No price seems too much to pay for our union, but we're not masochists. We don't court hostility.

The first time he saw the staff at the grocery store rush to the butcher's two-way mirror, my lover muttered, "You may gloat, honey, but we're the stars!" But we soon decided to leave the stardom behind most of the time, especially when we step across our own threshold. Even in public, we usually shop separately now and in dozens of other ways we accommodate the oppressor, not because the oppressor is right, but because we need peace and quiet. On most days Rosa Parks herself moved to the back of the bus. It beez that way sometimes.

We require the privacy of home to work at justice, which we value far more than eros, as the touchstone of our relationship. How can we fully nurture each person's talents? How can we spend our money and our time equitably? Sometimes our commitment to justice with each other has forced us to live as many as twelve time zones apart for months at a time. Sometimes, the same commitment has led one of us to give up a good job so that we could be together in the same town.

Answer, "I Do"

Many gays and straits do not want marriage, certainly not the hard work and wise husbandry that it entails for us. And some of us who do want the husbandry, do not care much either way about the rites.

Some who think they want marriage, mistake it for giddy romance and public celebration.

Others prefer to entertain occasional overnight angels.

Cannot we affirm the dignity of all people? Must we require people to couple alike?

Who among us easily understands others' private relationships, even those nearest? Viewed from outside, all intercourse looks like rutting. Who can fathom the holy mysteries by which human beings in all times and all places sometimes lovingly integrate spirit with flesh? Thank Goddess.

Put Asunder

One bishop, deeply moved by some of the lesbian and gay stories at General Convention, called in the Warden at his cathedral when he returned home.

"I'm embarrassed to report to you and your lover," the bishop told his warden, "that we did not pass any resolutions affirming gay marriage rites."

The warden said, "Bishop, that's kind of you to say so, but you must understand that while we know others for whom that would mean alot, rites are not a high priority for the two of us."

"But now the church speaks of `living in sin,'" the bishop said, pained.

"Ah, yes, Bishop, we agree. But--and forgive me for saying so--the two of us don't think it is we who have been `living in sin' the twenty-five years we've been committed to each other."


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