The Queer Issue
When the news first broke, it was just another story, albeit a triumphant one: California's Republican-dominated supreme court had voted 4–3 to strike down the state ban on same-sex marriage, effectively legalizing gay marriage in the most populous state in the nation. But it got personal soon enough, via an instant message: "Wanna get married?"
Jake knew my answer; we'd hashed it out a year or so into our now-seven-year relationship: Yes. "I do." Having officially acknowledged our willingness to commit, for real and for life, we were loath to involve ourselves in any of the available close-but-no-cigar approximations. Registering as domestic partners seemed as romantic as a day at the DMV, while trekking to Massachusetts to get married seemed like traveling to Quebec to stay in an ice hotel—a quirky lark that's beautiful while it's happening but has little bearing on the rest of your life. Partaking in any of the inherently limited options felt like scrambling for a seat at the back of the bus. Our commitment was legitimate; we'd get married when the law acknowledged as much.
Why did the California decision seem "legitimate" in a way that Massachusetts's didn't? Part of it is proximity: California is big and close and home to friends we visit annually. But more important is the sense of the inevitability of full marriage equality the California decision heralds. This equality won't be easy or immediate—even the California triumph comes with the threat of impending invalidation, with voters given the opportunity this November to overturn the court's decision via ballot measure restricting legal marriage to heterosexual couples. However, as lawyer friends have told me, nothing in this proposed constitutional amendment invalidates same-sex marriages performed during this window of legality, opening the door for a deliciously sticky, decade-spanning legal battle I'd be proud to be part of and delighted to watch unfold over the rest of my natural life.
Getting married before California's November election wouldn't be a problem—we're required to visit Los Angeles between September 3 and October 19 for the pre-Broadway run of Dolly Parton's 9 to 5: The Musical (Jake loves Dolly like some love Jesus), and popping into a courthouse to tie the knot would be a delightful curtain raiser. The only obstacle to full speed ahead is our families, certain members of which would be crushed if denied involvement with our real-life, fully legal wedding. These certain members come from both our families—parents and aunts and siblings.
But mixed among the approving in Jake's family are those who are forbidden to approve, explicitly and eternally, on religious grounds. Specifically, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, under whose guidance both sides of Jake's family have conducted their earthly existences for generations. For those who don't know, Mormonism is essentially Christianity with an alternate ending: After Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection in the New Testament, Mormons believe He came back to earth, living for many years in the Americas while compiling a newer New Testament, revealed to LDS founder Joseph Smith. Distinguishing characteristics of what followers believe is the One True Faith: sunny dispositions, special prohibitions against misdemeanor intoxicants (caffeine, games of chance), and most importantly, a belief in a Mormon-only afterlife, where all earthly sacrifice is redeemed and families are literally together forever.
Unless a family member is gay. For Mormons, homosexuality is a choice incompatible with a righteous life, and for Jake's family, the idea of "choice" was solidified by the presence of at least two relatives known to have rejected homosexual temptation to remain true to their LDS beliefs. I've met one of these relatives; from his insistent eye contact and vigorous massaging of my shoulders, I believe he chooses not to be gay every minute of every day. Worse was the perceived precedent these relatives set for Jake, whose refusal to fight his sinful urges was seen by his family and their church as unforgivable.
Faced with the challenge of a gay son, Jake's family members did the best they could with the tools at their disposal. Unfortunately, all these tools were provided by the Mormon Church, and primarily entailed Jake's mandatory attendance at a church that insisted one of his deepest natural urges was pure evil. For their efforts, Jake's parents were rewarded with their son's failed suicide attempt followed by a decade of estrangement.
But everything would be different the second time around. Ten years after Jake sullied his family's pristine Mormonism, the family gained its second gay son when Jake's 17-year-old brother came out. Jake's dad had tortured himself over his failures as a father to his first gay son, and was determined to do better with his second. He also understood that this was an experience his church was insufficiently equipped to help him handle, and sought guidance from outside the church.
Thus commenced the Great Spiritual Journey of Jake's dad, a naturally inquisitive deep thinker who'd been accumulating doubts about the One True Faith ever since it drove one of his sons to believe he'd be better off dead. This doubt accumulation was hidden from the family's true believers—Jake's mom and three sisters—who responded to any challenge to their faith with inconsolable distress. The source of Jake's dad's doubts ranged from the superficial (why did he derive greater spiritual rewards from Aretha Franklin tapes than church choirs?) to the fundamental, including at least one instance where evidence of child sexual abuse within the church was met with orders to circle the wagons rather than call the cops.
But exerting greater influence than anything else were his gay sons, whose existence required him to make the hardest decision of his life: Did he want to be a good Mormon or a good father? Heroically, Jake's dad chose the latter, and set about strategizing how to best share this news with the people it would hurt the worst—his wife, who believed she and her husband's shared Mormon faith would literally unite them for eternity, and his daughters, who'd already made great sacrifices (early marriage, immediate children) for the faith their father indoctrinated them into.
Mormon life revolves around the Temple, the exclusive sacred space that's home to "secret ceremonies" and extravagantly appointed approximations of the afterlife. Mormons gain entry to the Temple through a "temple recommend," an annually updated document confirming the holder's good Mormon standing and successfully paid tithes. It was through his soon-to-be-expiring temple recommend that Jake's dad decided to apprise his wife and daughters about his fluctuating faith. In short, Jake's dad announced that when his current recommend expired, he would not apply for another—an attempt to present his plate-shifting change in faith as a benign clerical matter. The announcement was met with wracking sobs from his wife and daughters, the youngest of whom—18-year-old Marta—took her distress to a whole other level.
Over several days, Marta prayed to God for guidance. Eventually she got it, when God instructed Marta to get married in the Temple before the expiration of her father's temple recommend—three months away. Even Jake's mom and sisters tried to persuade Marta to not rush into anything, but God had spoken, and in the summer of 2007, mere weeks after Marta graduated from high school, we flew to Utah for her wedding to a 26-year-old returned missionary she'd known for a month or two (she was his family's babysitter). We weren't allowed at the actual ceremony of course—all us unrecommended heathens could only wait outside. (And if you think being invited to attend a Mormon wedding is weird, imagine being invited to stand around outside one.)
Still, God and Marta got their wish: During her Temple wedding, her father was by her side, not by virtue of his own belief, but an arbitrary expiration date. The whole thing was the biggest shared-delusion puppet show I've ever been required to take seriously, and a bracing lesson in reciprocal tolerance. The faithful Mormons in Jake's family had never treated me with anything less than love and respect—to my face, at least. (Their church tithes, meanwhile, continue to fund attacks on my basic rights—see the just-announced LDS quest to help overturn the California marriage decision.) Still, if they could grin and bear it when their family-damning son brought home his gay lover to meet the folks and sleep in the same bed, I could grin and bear it through a barely legal, beat-the-clock, sham-sacred wedding. Tolerance is a two-way street, and smiling politely at each other's insanity is a big part of what family's all about.
Sometimes I fantasize about retaliating against Marta and the Mormons with a shockingly gay wedding that would fuck with their minds precisely as Marta's fucked with mine. But "retaliation" isn't high among my reasons for wanting to get married, which are more prosaic: I want to be around this dude until we're both dead, and if one of us finds himself in mortal danger first, I want the other to be able to legally visit his hospital room. Our nuptials, when they happen, will be a private affair, conducted in a California courthouse with Jake and me and a few friends and the spirit of Dolly. Within a month or so, we'll have an official celebration, complete with forbidden intoxicants, and everyone will be invited inside.