“Speak now or forever hold your peace.” Reflections on Marriage Equality.

“Marriage equality is happening because ordinary people, open to being changed, were able to accept the invitation. When the minister says, “Speak now or forever hold our peace,” we’re at peace with the love before us. We all created this. Together. You created this, with your open minds and your own lives and the choices you have made.  This is about all of us, about our common desire to be loved, accepted, and affirmed.”

This sermon was delivered by me to the good people at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday, October 5, 2014 in Chesterfield Missouri.

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The first wedding I remember attending was a family wedding, and my grandmothers told me that someday I was going to have my own, so pay attention! I took it to heart. By the age of 8 I had picked out my wedding dress, my shoes, my hairstyle, my veil, where the reception would be, and who I would invite. I didn’t even consider who my husband might be! I figured that would take care of itself!

For this little girl a wedding seemed about all those details. Details that so many of you worked out for your weddings. Will you hold the wedding on a mountain top or in your backyard? Will you have a professional photographer or give Uncle Art a camera? Will you have a seven course catered meal or order in fried chicken? Will you order expensive flowers or raid the garden? Will you have a wedding party? Will they all wear the same color or is it open season? Will you order a limo, a horse and carriage, or just wash the car really well?

Whether you have a $50 000 wedding in wine country or a BBQ in the backyard, all the decisions you make are about creating an experience that deep down you hope will change your life and those who attend. One of the questions I ask the couples I marry is, “What do you want your guests to remember about your wedding?”

Their answers tell me about their values, how they understand their commitment, and the quality of their relationships with others. The question also helps them to start talking about the more difficult aspects of the wedding. Who’s not coming. Estranged relatives who will be in the same room for the first time in years.   Choices that aren’t being well received by the family. What I say to them is that weddings are never just about the couple, even for those who run off and elope. Weddings are about who is there supporting us, or at least trying to, even if they’re making a terrible mess of things.

That’s why weddings are so spiritual and so political. Think about it. What is the most memorable line of the traditional wedding ceremony that has been used in movie after movie? “Should anyone here present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.” And everyone holds their breath and waits, either because they know the wedding is a terrible idea and someone needs to stop it, or because the wedding is perfect and no one should dare stand in the way. Many ceremonies don’t use this line anymore because it seems so outdated, but we all know it. We know it because a wedding is about more than the two people making the promise.   It is about the family, the friends, the children, the community, the church, and ultimately, the state.

This is why marriage has been such a big deal for sexual minorities. A wedding is an affirmation of who you are by those who matter the most. For better or worse, in this couple-centric society, our partners influence how we are seen and identified. Just ask anyone who is single how often they are judged or seen as less than because there isn’t someone there next to them. We make assumptions about people and their worth by who they partner with, for better or worse.

For sexual minorities, weddings have often been extremely painful experiences because we would look at this community affirmation of love and think to ourselves, “That will never be for me. I will never receive that affirmation.” When the minister says, “Speak now or forever hold your peace,” we’re pretty sure that if we were standing up there, someone would say no, either those who refused to come or the state which refused to recognize it. Many of us have stayed in the closet for years because coming out meant losing the support of our families, our communities, our churches, our children. It meant losing the wedding and everything it means.

Until now. In the last decade everything has changed. Something that was considered a pipe dream 15 years ago is happening. It wasn’t easy. Those fighting for traditional marriage fought a good fight and it looked for a while like they were winning. By 2006, 31 states had a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Same sex marriage was used for years as a wedge issue to motivate conservative voters. And it worked. But more quickly than anyone ever thought possible, the dominoes have started to fall. It is very possible that by June 2015 marriage equality will be law.

What I want to talk about today is why. How is it that the dominoes are finally falling, and faster than anyone ever thought possible, even to the point that Missouri is now on the train? What I want to tell you today is that this is no accident. The energy that is making this happen started years ago, and we are all part of it. I want to share with you four things, four big moments that have impacted all of us, brought us to today. They aren’t the only four moments, because if I talked about everything that got us to today we would be here all day. The four moments that we’ll focus on today, each of them has a sociological, personal, and spiritual aspect to them.

The first is birth control, the ability of women and men to prevent pregnancy. Humans have always practiced birth control, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became more acceptable and virtually fool proof because of the Pill. Birth control became morally acceptable and legal. If you practice safe sex properly every time, the chance of getting pregnant is less than 1%. That changed everything because for the first time in history, heterosexual intimacy could be almost 100% about pleasure, rather than creating a new life. It has changed what sexual intimacy means in our bodies and in our minds and in our spirits. We have a freedom that no other era of humans has ever experienced. This wasn’t just a medical revolution, it was a spiritual and a social revolution that changed our hearts and changed our relationships. It also changed how we experience straight marriage. It made it bigger than having a family.

What does this have to do with gay marriage? Gay sexual intimacy has always been about pleasure. It can’t be about procreation. That has been one of the moral charges against it. But as more heterosexual people were able to have sexual intimacy separated from procreation, and see that as moral, it made room to understand gay sexual intimacy as moral too. So if you use birth control, take a moment to reflect on that, and see that your own personal decision has opened a path for equal marriage.

Second, is the women’s movement.   One of the goals of the women’s movement was to take down the traditional understanding of what it meant to be a woman, which was to be a wife and a mother. Every step that women took to expand the options for women changed marriage itself, because the definition of marriage included a traditional definition of womanhood. If you change what it means to be a woman, you change marriage.  No longer are women only in one role, and men only in one role. Feminism expanded what is seen as natural and normal for all the genders.   When that changed, it created room for non-traditional relationships for straight people and queer people. It made the marriage umbrella bigger.

The third thing was AIDS. In the 1980s, when AIDS hit the gay community, it became really clear how vulnerable gay people were. You could be in a committed partnership, and your partner could get HIV, and his family could swoop in and take control. You could be denied hospital access, any say in medical care, and no say about the funeral and burial. If he owned the home you lived in, too bad for you. If he had pension or retirement savings, too bad for you. You had nothing.

The fourth was the lesbian baby boom. In the 1990s, more and more lesbian couples started raising families. They were adopting kids, having their own kids, and bringing kids from a previous marriage. Because their relationships had no legal standing, the courts could take the kids away if a mother was deemed unfit for motherhood because of her sexual orientation. With adoption or artificial insemination, only one person could be the legal parent. If the child was sick, the non-legal parent had no say at the hospital. If the couple separated, the non-legal parent had no right to see the kids. If the legal parent died, the non-legal parent could lose the kids to the in-laws. It was terrible.

AIDS and the lesbian baby boom led many queer people to the conclusion that they had to get legal protection for their relationships, and that’s why they landed on marriage equality as the issue that would get them that protection. What was on their side was a whole generation of heterosexual people whose understanding of love and marriage had started to shift because of feminism and birth control. Their own changing experience of marriage made it possible for them to open their minds and to offer greater acceptance and understanding. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened and is happening.

Alright. That’s the history lesson! That’s what got us to today.

Two of my brothers were married before I came out to my family. And although I was so very very happy for them, I also felt so sad at each one.  Sad and jealous.  I wanted what they had, and didn’t think it would ever be for me.  I was sure I’d lost the wedding I had dreamed of as a little girl.

15 years later, it was finally my turn. It wasn’t legal here yet, but it was in my home country. And I remember the absolute glee of working on all the details. I was almost 40, and my wedding was nothing like that 8 year old had imagined. I e-mailed most of my invitations. My brothers set up the tent that my uncle lent us from the farm implement dealership he worked for. Another uncle lent tables and chairs. My mother baked cakes. My cousins brought the salads. We washed the cars and ordered the chicken. Our reception happened in the backyard rather than in a hall. Before the ceremony we slipped off the rings we had already given each other in private years ago and exchanged them publicly, before our guests, the guests who mattered so much, whose witness meant everything. Family members and friends snapped photos that we remembered to take half way through the afternoon. My parents’ friends directed traffic and washed the dishes. It took a community, and we were in heaven. It was so precious. There was so much love. So much love.

I remember thinking that something really has changed when a straight friend of mine posted on facebook that she felt her heterosexual marriage was stronger because of equal marriage. She had attended a same sex wedding and the pure joy of the two women she witnessed made her treasure what she had even more and to recognize how precious it was.

This hasn’t just happened because gay people are great organizers, which they are, by the way. This happened because ordinary people, open to being changed, were able to accept the invitation.  When the minister says, “Speak now or forever hold our peace,” we’re at peace with the love before us. We all created this. Together.

So as the legal victories roll out, and I’m pretty they will, remember, you created this. With your open minds and your own lives and the choices you have made. We made this happen together. This is about all of us, about our common desire to be loved, accepted, and affirmed.   Amen and blessed be.

copyright Rev. Krista Taves 2014.  This sermon may be shared provided full credit is given to the author.

Much of the historical information in this sermon appears in George Chauncey’s book, “Why Marriage:  This History Shaping Today’s Debate over Marriage Equality.”

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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