Thoughts on marriage equality…

Like so many of my friends, I greeted the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision as wonderful news (and a welcome counter to the VRA decision). But this celebration, I hope, won’t lead us to ignore how problematic it is that the United States extends so many rights and privileges of citizenship through the marital relationship and, as such, marks as secondary the other relationships people choose to cultivate through their lives – those they have with siblings, extended families, friends, and even former loves. Maybe, if I’m being idealistic, these considerations will be next. These are thoughts I’ve often wrestled with, long before the anticipated DOMA ruling. When I first embarked upon my efforts to write about same-sex weddings (the subject of my fifth chapter), I found it the most challenging topic I’d pursued to that point, largely because it was so complicated and so politically charged. Weighing both sides of an internal same-sex community debate, I appreciate radical queers’ insistence not only on other goals the gay community might embrace (healthcare, economic justice, etc.) but also pride in and celebration of queer difference. And then there is the very legitimate critique about the limitations of the marital relationship and the danger of sanctioning the state’s power to regulate personal, sexual relationships (those interested in reading about these critiques in more detail might look to any number of Michael Warner’s works – I recommend The Trouble with Normal). All of this gave me pause in my focus on queer marriage and same-sex weddings.

Nancy Cott, who’s done as much as any historian to reveal just how public and just how political our seemingly private lives are (see Public Vows), gave testimony as an expert witness in a 2010 effort to refute the claims of Proposition 8 supporters in California. As she debunked Prop 8 defendants’ ideas about the nature of marriage (its alleged focus on procreation, the alleged perils gay unions presented to child-rearing, etc.), she aimed to neutralize efforts to mark her as partisan activist: “I would call myself not an advocate, but someone who has come to a personal opinion as a result of my historical research and study of this matter of the history of marriage for quite a number of years now,” she said. I’ve likewise been influenced by my research and scholarship. The familiar language of marriage – and for my research particularly, the familiar performance of weddings – has done much to facilitate grassroots support of broader equality for same-sex couples. Many same-sex wedding celebrants have noted that those close to them, those who initially may have balked at the notion of queer lifestyles and unions, have been won over by displays of love, devotion, and commitment so central to wedding celebrations. And while Warner, with his dissatisfaction with the pursuit of “normalcy,” would likely prefer the undoing of marriage as institution, the reality is, in a nation where we must live and engage with sometimes stifling social conservatism, marriage isn’t going anywhere. But if we can extend the population to whom marriage rights extend, there is the potential for changing the institution (as many would argue feminists have done in their decision to engage with marriage rather than abandon it).

SCOTUS_DOMA

On this topic, I wear my politics and my profession proudly. Like Cott, history has led me to believe marriage equality is a must, particularly in a nation that has done and continues to do so much to convince its citizens (and the world) that it is a bastion of liberty, justice, and equality. And a place where the separation of church and state is real. To that point, Mike Huckabee’s lament that “Jesus wept” at the SCOTUS ruling and Michele Bachman’s claim that SCOTUS went against ideas created and defined by God are irrelevant (as Nancy Pelosi clearly believes). Their parishes or broader faiths can persist in bigotry and exclusivity and hateful notions of difference, but their nation must live up to its promises to eschew these sentiments. As a Catholic growing up in New Jersey, rather than learning particular Bible passages or specific scripture, I received a more general sense of what Jesus Christ was about. And the guy whose central tenets were “do unto others” and “judge lest not ye be judged” seems like he’d be okay with marriage equality. Although, from my perspective, JC, the anti-materialist “Prince of Peace,” would probably not love contemporary GOP policies on economy and war. But I’m no religious historian, so I’ll stop there.

Of plantations, mythic pasts, and wedding presents

In 2008, my grandfather asked that I meet him in Washington, DC for his WWII ship’s reunion. I did. The first day was scheduled group sight-seeing (imagine 28-year-old me and about a dozen octogenarians, driven via small bus from site to site). The next day was free. Individual parties could do what they wished. I proposed we (my grandfather and his bff’s Flo & Ralph) visit nearby Mount Vernon, home of George Washington. When I mentioned our plans, one of the other navy wives suggested the possibility of a similar trip to her husband. “Okay, but we’ve been there before,” he said. “Oh, yes,” she recalled. “We went there after our honeymoon. In 1954.” “Well,” I said, “I imagine it’s changed some since then.” Fingers crossed.

While the presentation of Mount Vernon has, indeed, changed dramatically in the last fifty plus years, there’s evidence to suggest that other plantation sites have failed to keep up with anything resembling even remotely accurate representations of their past sins. And there’s a population happy to engage in the mythic pasts perpetuated and celebrated at these venues. A recent post from Facebook friend JE points to the intersection of southern hospitality, contemporary wedding culture, and total historical amnesia. A wedding promoted on the site OffbeatBride.com, “Nicole & Sean’s vintage-inspired, handmade, casual southern wedding,” speaks directly to this confluence of forces.

Nicole and Sean’s 2009 Charleston, South Carolina celebration took place at Magnolia Plantation. Their wedding is a perfect example of what I’d argue are some of the primary trends in contemporary wedding culture: focus on personalization, some measure of DIY, budget consciousness, and integration of community participation. And that’s great. You’ll find a live-and-let-live approach to weddings to be a primary theme in my posts and in my views of wedding culture more broadly. But for a couple claiming to have been so thoughtful in their celebration and preparation, Nicole and Sean’s seeming inability to historicize the location of their wedding – and recognize the problems that location presented to their desire to have lots of “fun” pictures – blows my mind. Their focus on Harry Potter wedding elements seemingly displaced any recognition of the horrific realities attached to the site on which they chose to wed. Facebook friend JE rightly noted the irony of the couples’ “working out” the problems they had with the idea of a wedding as a time when one is given away: “They [their parents] gave us their blessing, rather than passing us like property.” How nice to have that option.

magnoliaplantation

Magnolia Plantation, site of “Offbeat” wedding, http://offbeatbride.com/2010/10/south-carolina-vintage-wedding

Even as I can’t understand it entirely, I appreciate the challenge southerners face in claiming pride in their home, when, very clearly, it’s a region fraught with tension on any number of levels. As a New Jersey native, I often find myself in a position to defend my homeland (I will cut you, shit talkers [Sorry. Old habits.]). But, for southerners (and for all of us) there are ways of demonstrating sensitivity to the past without ignoring it entirely. And Offbeat Bride should be ashamed for their half-assed defense of plantation as venue when a commenter offered (to my mind) a very gentle critique. The administrator’s feedback: “Anita, you bring up a really interesting point. On Offbeat Bride we’ve featured several weddings in locations with potentially disturbing histories — castle dungeons, prisons, and cemeteries come to mind. This is in no way a defense or negation of the atrocity that is America’s legacy of slavery, or an attempt to divorce the history of a space from its current uses … but I wonder if for some people, shifting the way a space is used is potentially a form of reclamation. I’d definitely be interested in hearing more about this from brides who’ve chosen to have their weddings in venues like this. An alternate question: in places like Europe, is there any patch of land that HASN’T had an atrocity on it happen at some point during the last 2000 years?” Give me a break. I suppose Paula Deen’s appreciation for a restaurant whose wait staff was composed of entirely of middle-age black men, a restaurant, she said, that “represented a certain era in America,” aka the years surrounding the Civil War, can be seen as a reclamation of the past as well?

When Oak Bowery, a plantation venue in Alabama, suggests couples can “jump the broom” in a spot “where a cabin of the plantation stood,” there is no sense of “reclamation” of the past. A gimmicky idea that ignores entirely the history of jumping the broom – and eliminates any sense of what life was like for those who lived in that anonymous “cabin” – does nothing to rectify or even admit past wrongs. Again, live-and-let-live is my view of wedding culture. But when decisions are made – thoughtfully or not – celebrants should be prepared when wedding publics (especially those invited by the internet) offer their responses.

OakBowery_broomjump

Oak Bowery, suggested broom jumping site, http://oakboweryreserve.com/weddings.html

Sidenote: for those interested in the creation of a mythic southern past, I highly recommend Karen L. Cox’s Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011).

To “Send” or to Stamp?

Last week Slate produced a “Wedding Issue” (http://www.slate.com/topics/w/weddings.html).  A number of articles considered “traditional” or typical wedding practices and then reconsidered them as they applied to contemporary circumstances and relationships. One article suggested the practice of gift-giving to be a relic of the past, better suited for an era when brides and grooms actually began cohabitation following the wedding rather than well before. Another article (a reprint from several months ago) advocated on behalf of elopement as a way of guaranteeing the wedding focused on the bride and the groom rather than the many possible incidentals that tend to take attention away from the union being celebrated.

I love this stuff. Clearly. I wrote a book about it. But seriously, people taking stock of what is expected of them and then giving thought to what actually might work best for their real lives is something I’ve identified in wedding practices of the past seventy-plus years. It’s precisely why I find weddings to be both relevant and fascinating cultural indicators.

“Click here to RSVP” (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/weddings/2013/06/online_wedding_invitations_why_you_should_use_digital_invites_like_paperless.html) weighs the pros and cons of digital invitations. I think this article is great for its sense of balance, and its ultimate conclusion that when it’s your wedding, it’s YOUR WEDDING. Do whatever you want. If the bride and groom have different views, take a look at the guest list, decide who is best suited for a print invite and who will feel fine receiving one via email, and go from there. The world of weddings is basically never all or nothing any more. If you’re worried about being “inelegant,” realize that the consumer marketplace – especially that associated with weddings – is likely to have something somewhere that will be exactly what you want. And if exactly what you want doesn’t yet exist, someone will create it for you. Side note: my two cents, if you have someone on your guests list under age 70 who’s going to judge you for sending them an email invitation, maybe reconsider your guest list.

This article spoke directly to a conversation I recently had regarding wedding invitations. Forewarning: I realize I’m entering into the danger zone of anecdotal evidence. So be it. I’m also about to reveal personal feelings about spending choices associated with a wedding. FYI. Within the last month, I’ve seen a wedding invitation that cost upwards of $2.00+ to mail. TO MAIL (it looked a little bit like the wedding shower invitation from Bridesmaids, out of which A BUTTERFLY emerged). I’ve been told about wedding invitations that cost $5.00 to address (note to self: get into the calligraphy biz ASAP). Again, $5.00. TO ADDRESS. If we’re talking about two or three hundred invitations being sent, we’re already talking about thousands of dollars. And these costs don’t include the cost of the invitations themselves, which can get very pricey. It’s budget allocation I can’t understand. When I receive a wedding invitation, I fill out the RSVP card, make note of the date and time of the wedding, and then throw away the envelope and invitation. I know I’m not alone. But what else am I to do with this precious cargo?

calligraphy

I suppose I can appreciate “stationary nerds” ala the “RSVP” author’s wife and their desire to have beautiful invitations. From my perspective, however, if you love stationary or cardstock so much, you should invest in stationary or cardstock FOR YOU. But then I wonder: is the invitation FOR the person being wed as much as it is for the guests? If a couple loves the look of an invitation so much, is this an example of the couple fulfilling a personal desire (or in the case of “RSVP,” making the kind of compromise that speaks to the nature of their relationship)? For some couples, is the invitation essential to communicating something about themselves that they’d like to share with those they care about? If we take weddings and their celebrants seriously, do we need to take equally seriously each element of the decision-making process and each decision made? Even when they are unimportant to us?

On Dogs as a “Thing”

A recent post from Jezebel calls attention to a newly identified wedding trend (http://jezebel.com/dogs-at-weddings-possibly-eliminate-need-for-annoying-h-511067799): dogs at weddings. Beyond dogs just attending weddings, however, they’re playing central roles in the ceremonies, the receptions, and the documentation of the celebration. As I’ve studied weddings and seen fashions fade in and out, I think I’ve become somewhat desensitized to the evolution of trends and interpretations of traditions. Generally speaking, I’ve adopted a live & let live view. It’s your wedding. You love your dog. Go for it. But the comments to the Jezebel post – wow. The post’s only been up a few hours, and people have *views*.

 

dogringbearer