This spring, impromptu wedding announcements began to appear in our e-mail in-box. Our San Francisco friends called with stories of delivering blankets and urns of coffee to hundreds of couples waiting in line outside city hall at two a.m. to become some of the first legally recognized same sex couples in the US. Even though Colleen and I had left the Bay Area last year, I was still hanging around on the gay parents list serv, reading the notices posted: “We’ll be at the Civic Center playground from noon until four, if you’re still in line, bring the kids by, we’ll watch them.”
At the same time, Colleen and I began to plan our summer trip to Massachusetts, where the state supreme court ordered that same sex marriages be recognized. I started thinking about a diet, wondering what to wear, but stopped short, thinking how to explain that mama and mommy are getting married — again.
Aside from the fabulous outfits, weddings are primarily about having your relationship acknowledged by the outside world. When Colleen and I had our first wedding in 1994, we had lived together for five years. We’d bought a refrigerator, gotten a joint checking account, cared for her ailing grandmother in our home. Months before the wedding, Colleen had also begun inseminating, trying to have our first child. Our commitment to each other had been made. At that point, there was no legal recognition for a marriage between two women, even domestic partner status was not yet recognized in San Francisco. Seeing little benefit, some of our friends questioned, “Why do it?” I had a hard time answering.
I remember sending out our first wedding invitations. My hand hovered over the mailbox, holding a stack of invitations addressed to family members my parents had asked me never to tell I was gay. I remember holding my breath and opening the slot, letting the letters drop, and closing the lid quickly before I could change my mind. My dad didn’t speak to me for a week. Then, suddenly, the calls came in, Uncle Ron and Aunt Audrey were flying out from Colorado to come to the wedding, my girlhood best friend would be my bridesmaid, her dad would graciously take care of printing napkins and party favors. The family embraced us. Even my grandmother, who had postulated for the last several years that I was not really gay but that Colleen was subjecting me to mind control, came around. After fretting about the inappropriateness of the wedding invitation during a long phone conversation with my cousin, she paused for many moments and then said, “Well, what do you suppose I should get for them — placemats?”
Weddings have the power of convention, institution. There were invitations, thank-you notes, napkins, and matchbooks all printed: Karen and Colleen, April 31st, 1994. Everything that might have seemed so conventional and even trite for a man and woman seemed subversive with our names on it. We had to send the champagne flutes back three times before they stopped etching “Colin” into the glass.
After our wedding ceremony in Golden Gate Park, while we were still shaking hands and receiving our congratulations, my father, who had mourned for years after I came out, opened his arms to Colleen, “Well,” he said, “I was never able to teach Karen the difference between a box end and an open end wrench. Now I can teach you.”
It was then that I realized the purpose of our wedding was less about what we meant to each other, and more what our relationship would now mean to our family and friends.
Now ten years later, our six-year-old daughter, Keegan, pores through our wedding album regularly, just as I did with my parents’ album as a kid. She likes the fancy dresses and the flowers. She asks about each of the guests. I’m glad for her that we had the wedding. She has these documents, the photos, the pressed napkin, even the matchbooks. Her parents are married, just like her friends’ parents. She has documentation of her family even before she came to be part of it.
I want to tell her what is happening now, the changes, the celebration, the President’s denouncements, our trip, without ever giving her the idea, “You know that wedding you saw, all the pictures? Well, that wasn’t real. Mommy and mama aren’t really married.”
I have hesitated as long as I can, and in the car on the way to Annapolis to protest a defense of marriage act proposal in the state of Maryland, I figure I’d better clue her in.
“You know,” I say, “how mommy and I got married.”
“Well, when we did, we weren’t able to get this one piece of paper.”
“Because, before, some people were old-fashioned and they only gave this paper to men and women getting married — they didn’t want to give that paper to women who married each other or men who married each other. And now people are saying that is not fair. That everyone should be treated the same and be able to get that paper when they get married. In San Francisco, they gave the paper to everyone for the first time, that’s why everyone was so excited. That’s what we want them to do here.”
She looks puzzled at this. “Why do you even want the paper? Why is it important?”
“Well, the paper gives you certain legal rights — uh, it makes sure that everyone gets treated the same by the law.”
She seems unimpressed, but the next day she’s pleased because her picture is in the paper. Several days later, Keegan is looking over the wedding album at the dining room table.
“You know,” I say, “Mommy and I are thinking about having another wedding this summer…”
She looks up, brows drawn together, and I hold my breath. Suddenly, her face clears.
“Oh, because Piper and I couldn’t be at the first one, and you think it would be nice if we could come to your wedding?”
“Yes, I do think that would be nice. Also, we could get that piece of paper.”
She nods slowly and looks down at the album again, studying her parents standing before their friends and family. Then she leans in, and looks up, holding my eyes for a moment.
“You know what I think, mama?”
“I think at the wedding, I would look really good with a poofy dress like this and little flowers in my hair.” And I smile, glad that she knows what weddings are all about.