October 22, 2010

Dispatch: a Civil Partnership Ceremony In London. ~ Eric Elkins

I had to carry my 10-year-old daughter on my back the quarter mile from the Angel tube station to Islington Town Hall because her dress shoes were cutting into her heels—and even my mother and sister didn’t have any band-aids in their capacious purses. By the time we arrived, sweaty and bedraggled, my daughter smoothing down her dress, most of the guests were already seated in the round courtroom at the top of the marble stairs.

We scanned the sea of male pattern baldness for empty seats (the current norm for the gay men of London is closely shaved heads plus beards), and were waved over to two pew-like chairs near the judge’s dais. An empty, dark-wood table stood at the foot of the dais, with two chairs tucked under it. Two tall, padded wooden chairs had been placed side-by-side, facing the table and the back of the room—reserved for the betrothed.

It was the first sunny day since we’d arrived in London, and the light coming through the large stained glass window illuminated the gorgeous cupola above us, giving everyone in the room a halo-like effect. Which was interesting, actually, because anything vaguely spiritual is a no-no during a civil partnership ceremony in the U.K.

In fact, when my ex-pat cousin Aaron and his English partner Will had asked me if I would honor their deceased fathers and grandparents at the ceremony, they requested that I provide a written speech that they could pass on to their registrar for approval before the big day. As my cousin wrote, “she just needs to check it out for any religious content, as the event is purely secular.”

According to the UK government’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau website, “Opposite-sex couples can opt for a religious or civil marriage ceremony as they choose, whereas formation of a civil partnership will be an exclusively civil procedure.” Dig a little deeper, and it says, “There is no requirement to have any form of ceremony as part of the registration procedure, although a couple are free to arrange this if they so wish. However, no religious service is allowed at the signing of the civil partnership document.” It’s up to the registrar to ensure that no religious content makes it into a civil partnership ceremony. As of late June of this year, Britain’s government is reviewing gay rights and may soon allow religious expression in civil partnership ceremonies.

Photos courtesy Javier Gonzalez.

So, after reading the first draft of my speech, Aaron and Will asked me to change the words, “Let us take a moment to remember…” to “We’d like to remember,” because they were concerned about the spiritual aspects of “taking a moment.”

Just as we’d settled into our seats, the jaunty song “Five Years’ Time,” by Noah and the Whale began to play over the room’s sound system. And then came Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” as the registrar, a small, 50ish woman with short red hair and glasses walked into the courtroom, along with her assistant. This thematic juxtaposition of relentlessly romantic crossed with high camp carried through the entire day’s (and night’s) festivities.

The registrar asked us to stand, my baby sister and a friend of my cousin began to sing a sexy and silly version of “Love Serenade” by the Waifs, and the happy couple walked into the room, each one flanked by his mother and best man. Aaron and Will were bedecked in blue short-sleeved shirts, vests with ties and…wait for it…cropped jeans shorts with suspenders hanging from their waistbands, and black Converse hightops.

Waves of emotion seemed to raise the temperature of the room as the couple kissed their mothers (and best men) and sat down before the registrar. Muffled sobs, men and women sniffling and wiping away tears—a palpable sense of love and joy surrounded the couple, and it didn’t matter that it was two men, rather than the traditional bride and groom. It was a wedding, pure and simple.

I stood and spoke a few words about the couple’s lost fathers and missed grandparents, and then the registrar took over. The ceremony itself was brief (services were stacked up all day on the half-hour, and we later watched as an Indian couple, surrounded by family and friends in traditional dress, made their way up the stairs to the courtroom we’d just vacated), and fairly typical of any wedding I’d attended—speechifying about the importance of partnership, asking those assembled to speak if they believed the two men should not make this commitment, and then the rings.

I was wondering which man would do the honors first, and so when the registrar said, “Traditionally,” and paused, I immediately thought (to my shame) that she would say something like, “the groom presents the bride with the ring.” But of course that’s not what she said. She spoke about the meaning of rings between couples, without a word about the difference between this civil partnership ceremony and a traditional wedding.

That single moment, and my own half-witted assumption, brought home the singular nature and importance of same-sex marriage, or civil partnership, or whatever you want to call it.

The respect and warmth, even the authority the registrar brought to the proceedings, made it clear that this moment was about the couple at the center of the room—two people who loved each other, and were prepared to make their commitment public and binding. It didn’t matter what gender they were. How they were dressed and what music they’d chosen were purely situational (I’m sure she’d seen the cheesiest of male-female attire decisions in her time). As a representative of the state, the registrar was there to ensure the couple understood the ramifications of their decision, and that everything was done in proper order. She would behave the same way, and say just about the same things, at the next five weddings that day.

And for the rest of us, we were in that courtroom (guests hailing from a half-dozen countries or so) because we loved Aaron and Will, and wanted to support their decision. Aside from the preponderance of bald men, the ceremony would have been indistinguishable from just about any other wedding. The men’s vows were their own, and unique to their personalities, but the tropes were what you’d expect from just about any modern wedding between two mature adults who’d been together a long time. If anything, the sense of commitment that the guests that day felt to support the couple was stronger than what one might experience at a traditional wedding—love, yes; but also a fierce sense of joy and pride in these two exceptional men, who’d made such an impact on their community. The civil partnership is a relatively new right, and the crowd in the room was conscious of the fact that we bore witness to something transformative.

In the UK, the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 proffered rights to same-sex couples that are parallel to those given in civil marriages (that is, marriages performed without a religious official), including next-of-kin rights in hospitals, exemptions on inheritance taxes, property rights, and pension benefits. The couple proposing a civil partnership gives notice to its local registry office, and then the office puts the notice on public display for 15 days. If no objection to the union arises, the couple signs a civil partnership schedule, and then is subject to the same rules as a state-certified marriage, e.g. a civil partnership can only be ended by death, divorce (called dissolution), or annulment.

According the the UK’s Office for National Statistics, some 18,000 civil partnerships were created in the boom year of 2006, though numbers have decreased steadily since then.

With the latest developments around California’s Proposition 8, I can’t help juxtaposing the vitriol here in the US with the acceptance, even embrace, of civil unions in the UK, where same-sex couples have been integrated into the fabric of daily existence. It’s no longer an exotic, untested concept; it’s quotidian and demystified and made practical—the dispensation of pensions, the rights of next of kin; the clarification of property ownership.

The registrar brought Aaron and Will to the large table, where they took turns signing the official paperwork while my sister and her singing partner sang “America,” by Simon and Garfunkel (“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.”)

Photos courtesy Javier Gonzalez

And then it was time for the kiss. As a straight man, I’m not into seeing guys kiss. It’s not that I’m weirded out; it just isn’t appealing. But I have to say there was something truly magical and heartwarming in Aaron and Will’s embrace. As I wiped at my eyes, my little girl looked up at me and said, “Are you okay, Daddy?”

Photos courtesy Javier Gonzalez.

It’s interesting that my daughter hasn’t asked any questions about the nature of her two Uncles’ relationship. She took to them immediately, and didn’t seem to think that it was at all strange for two men to get married. I kept waiting for queries that never came. But, to her, marriage is about two people who love each other. It’s a simple and elegant way of looking at the institution.

After the ceremony, everyone filed onto chartered buses to an American-style bowling alley that Aaron and Will had rented out for the afternoon, where we celebrated the more “family-friendly” of the two celebrations they hosted.

That reception was raucous and silly, but it was the massive party at a bar they’d rented for the evening that really went off the rails. The couple had purchased an array of wigs, funny hats, and stage makeup, and all were welcome to camp it up as they saw fit. DJ-spun tunes were punctuated by a diversity of performances on a small temporary stage—poetry recited, little dance numbers, male and female strippers (my daughter had left the party with her grandmother before the truly “grown-up” elements of the party took shape). The party lasted until the wee hours of the morning, and I paid for it as my daughter and I made our way to catch the 8:30 Eurostar to Paris for a couple of days.

During his toast earlier in the day, my cousin Aaron had explained that he’d never wanted to get married:

First of all, I didn’t believe that it was right for a person to make a promise, to death do us part, to another individual. This is a promise that you make not only for yourself, but for another too. A promise that both would adhere to for many unpredictable years, when both individuals would have become different people due to their life experiences. Why would I make a promise that I wasn’t sure I could keep?

The second reason I didn’t want to get married is more theoretical. I developed a sense of disdain for marriage as heteronormative and patriarchal, an expression of capitalism’s most insidious invasion into family life. I asked, why should a gay civil partnership ape such nonsense? To remain unmarried has been a public statement of independence from social expectation, from economic discipline, and from yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah etc. etc.

My disposition against marriage and civil partnership was a steely determination.

So when Will asked me to marry him, of course I immediately said ‘yes.’”

My mother told me she couldn’t understand how someone could begrudge two people such happiness. She thought that anyone who experienced such an achingly touching ceremony wouldn’t be able to deny the idea that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

I’ve always supported the idea of gay marriage, in principle—if two people in love feel compelled to make their commitment public and binding, then they should be allowed to do so. And the “sanctity of marriage” objection seems so specious to me; I mean, if a man and woman who’ve just met can tie the knot at a drive-through chapel in Vegas, then “sanctity” is in the hearts of the couple, not something that should be doled out by the state.

But actually attending a wedding between two gay men—standing up with them, being part of a warm, loving circle of family and friends, all teary-eyed and sniffly—made things so much more concrete for me.

The principle of the thing—equal rights and family benefits, and all the rest—becomes irrelevant when you’re caught up in the the joy and sacred sense of devotion between two people who pledge their hearts and lives to each other.

Eric Elkins blogs about being a single father at DatingDad.com. His company, WideFoc.us, uses social media and ePR strategies to develop constellations of brand experiences. His young adult novel is Ray, reflected and you can find his e-book, The Best of the Dating Dad, on Amazon and Borders.

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