Before the chance to get married, gay couples collected a range of anniversaries: the first meeting, the first date, the first bonding, moving in together. James and I clocked our first wedding on February 13th 1997. We lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The morning paper announced a mass wedding of lesbian and gay couples on the steps of the Capitol building. The State Senate was voting in a law that blocked New Mexico honouring any same sex marriage law in other States. Our mass wedding was to be in protest.
I had been shrill against the idea of our marrying. It was a heterosexual institution we had no need to ape. Mine was also an adolescent response. ‘You say I can’t do it? Well I don’t want to anyway!’ The newspaper article flipped my mind around – never accuse me of constancy! This was marriage with no formal recognition as an act of rebellion. Bring it on!
The service was multi-denominational – Jewish, Native American and Christian. The Evangelical Anglican Church came good for the Christians, while some shy Catholic priests smiled support from the back of the crowd. Star of the show was a lesbian Navajo medicine woman. The moment she held high her arms and called in the power of the eagles, snow started to fall. When she pulled her arms down, it stopped. Santa Fe is like that.
I’m shy of showing affection in public. Our first kiss, a modest peck, was the headline item on NBC news that night. We moved back from the cameras to receive the full Anglican wedding ceremony from Rev. Rusty Smith. That afternoon we bolstered the occasion and wheeled a caravan through snow to a piece of land. We now owned our first shared home.
Roll forward a decade or so, and we have moved to the UK. I’m British, James is an American with dual Irish citizenship. US laws made it hard to stay together and the UK was more liberal.
‘Oooh, that’s a very popular date,’ Plymouth Registry office said of 08.08.2008, when we booked our civil partnership ceremony. The 08 run was particularly popular with the Chinese. We handed in our choice of music for walking down the aisle – Kurtag’s transcription of Bach’s Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit as a piano duet played by Mr & Mrs Kurtag. The Plymouth Registrar took the CD away to do some research. She came back with regrets. ‘Gott’ translated as God. She had to ban our music. Any display of religion was not allowed in civil ceremonies.
We came down the aisle to a little lilt from Boccherini. I had invited two family members to be witnesses but they said they were too busy to come. That confirmed a preference for keeping the event quiet. Who could give clear witness to the love we had for each other? Which guests would feel discomfort, and which might turn out for the gay novelty factor? A lifetime of loving in the face of disapproval leaves you vulnerable. The ceremony became a private celebration, with two friends from Plymouth standing in as witnesses.
A ferry ran from Plymouth Hoe to Devonport, from where Charles Darwin had set sail on The Beagle two hundred years before. James was giving his life to saving the planet for Darwin’s species, and so it felt fitting when I booked us a table in a restaurant overlooking the Bay. As the ferry’s only passengers we stood in the prow and surged off through sunshine. Full-sailed yachts from an regatta caught the light as they wove around us. Our day became a joyful pageant.
And now we are allowed to get married. A chief benefit is that our partnership will be recognized outside the UK. We wondered about having a full wedding. The other weekend my niece got married, linking her Christian heritage with her husband’s Moslem one, and the fusion of lives and families was a big and truly happy occasion.
We don’t need another anniversary though. We have the religious ceremony under our belts, and our civil partnership was perfect in its way. A simple process in a registry office now lets you convert the civil partnership licence into a marriage licence. We are booked in at Hackney Registry Office on April 18th. The marriage licence is then backdated to the earlier one. Ours will declare us married on 08.08.08.
So how do we celebrate? As a lawyer, James is cheered by the legal nature of the whole affair. The licence renders full equality in the eyes of the law, and you hardly ever get to backdate a contract. A colleague in his environmental law group ClientEarth has offered to buy a cake. So we might head back, pop a bottle or two, and dare to celebrate in public. And I’ll carry the CD of Mr & Mrs Kurtag in my pocket, just in case there’s the chance to play it loud and proud.