Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Marriage gaiety

Got a curious e-mail from my colleague K yesterday, entitled "Very odd favor (8:30 on Wed. morning)?"

Warning: this is a totally strange request and feel free to blow it off.

A [her partner] and I need to get married ASAP - at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau. It has to do with the kids and enrolling them in school etc. 

The only time we have is early Wed. or Thurs. morning but we need a witness...since you have to be at work on Wed. morning too and because I thought you might find this to be an intriguing ethnographic experience, would you be willing? It opens at 8:30 and it should only take a hour (the actual ceremony is only 2 minutes but you have to account for other people rushing in before work to wed). 

I know...this is probably one of the odder emails you have ever received from a colleague – what can I say? 

I was surprised - K and I are not close, just collegial, and while I know her partner, we've never socialized together. But I was curious to see the Marriage Bureau... and marriage equality is, after all, one of the great realities of our age. (K and A are both women.) I have been far away whenever close friends of mine got married, but by a remarkable coincidence yesterday was the day some dear friends in a distant city had decided to add freshly available legal benefits to their relationship of decades. I wish I'd been able to be their witness!)

In K's case, the fact that we are not close was, I figured out, key. None of their friends was invited, not to mention A's children. As a work colleague I fit what they intended to be no more than a bureaucratic formality. If I wasn't free, they told me, they could easily pick someone off the street as witness, something apparently often done. But

I think this will appeal to your ethnographer side but it’s not at all religious – it’s really radical secularism at its best. Picture the DMV or social security office but with a dingy gift shop (nb, one can purchase bride, groom and witness trucker caps... just in case anyone is confused about their role)

I was a little bemused at how this was to be of strictly professional use to each of us, but of course I said yes. It was more than ethnographically interesting.

It was like the DMV, though the space is a bit grander, a long marbled hallway lined with clerks behind counters. I thought that the registration for transatlantic ocean liners must have been like this. People came in groups of three or more, some a little dressed up, most not. There were several other same-sex couples. There was no sense of excitement, on the part of clerks or anyone else, no giggles or whoops or tears. Instead, each group waited for its number to be called to one of the desks (ours was C357), where IDs were confirmed and forms signed. Then there was the 2-minute job, for which one had to wait again. It was in Station 5, a circular room with a curved green leather sofa, access to which was barred by a heavy-set man who looked like a bouncer with the improbable name Angel. Once or twice, applause had been heard from the round room.

From the round room, parties were eventually invited into one of two "chapels" - an interesting religious vestige, I thought. The one we were led into had purple walls, a somewhat gaudy abstract painting, a big display case of marriage registries nearly a century old, and a solid brass door. K was busy explaining how little all this meant to them, how opposed they had always been to the institution of marriage, that this was just a legal formality. How to get the state's recognition of their reunion without endorsing the state's right to do such recognizing? I echoed their ambivalences - beyond the care of children, what interest has the state in private relationships? They seemed relieved at the bureaucratic banality of it all.

But we had been moving from progressively more public to more private, and from colorlessly cold to warmer spaces. Outsiders petitioning at first we were now insiders entrusted with privileged access. The brass door opened and who should come in but Angel, now smiling. As he walked up to a little podium we realized he was the one who was going to marry them! Station 5, with its barrier, circular vestibule and two chapels, is a one-man show.

Angel told us it wouldn't take long, and it didn't, especially as K and A had dispensed with rings, etc. Still, the quite personal language of the vows - to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, until death do you part - came as a surprise, as did the official encouragement to seal the marriage with a kiss. A kiss! What interest has the state in such things? K and A seemed happier in a hug.

And that was that.

My religious studies colleague who designs liturgies for interfaith couples says that the sign of a successful service is if nobody asks "so, are they married?" This one was successful, maybe even a little beyond what little was expected. In one sense - and this must be true for many same-sex couples - the legal imprimatur adds nothing and may even seem to take away from a commitment and a shared life which have established themselves as real and true without official support, indeed, despite official rejection. But I sense that something more than a formality happened today, more than the conferral of precious legal benefits. Recognition was given to the public value of private commitment. Even unsought, some kind of permission was given for something to live itself out more boldly and gladly.

Giddier than they'd expected to be, K and A decided this all merited a celebratory cup of coffee and a pastry. The witness had a croissant.

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