The Freedom to Marry
September 9, 2007
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
Rev. Jane Page
Three weeks ago, Greg and I were married here in this church. Many of you were here and joined with us in that wonderful celebration of love. Now, some of you may say that the reason I’m giving a sermon on marriage equality today is to relieve my guilt for participating in an institution not available to all loving couples. And I might respond with some defense indicating my long term concern for this issue. The very first paper I wrote for seminary back in spring 2001 was entitled, “Same-Sex Unions: A Journey from our Early Christian Roots to Sarah’s and Suzie’s Wedding at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro.” But that long term concern probably adds to my need to alleviate some guilt. I had said I would never marry again. And Greg and I shared with some folks that we had 40 years of marriage between us already – and that was probably enough. Some of you may remember a sermon I did in this sanctuary in the fall of 2002 entitled, “Marry, Marry – Quite Contrary” upholding the freedom not to marry. But, this past Spring, after five years of non-marital bliss, we changed our minds. I don’t know that I can explain why very well – but we did. And we could. So, this summer we went down to the courthouse and filled out some fairly simple paperwork – and we were issued a license to marry. It’s a privilege that we, as a heterosexual couple (or some might say – mixed gender couple) had in Georgia. My friend Joan Kahn-Schneider – who was also one of the officiating ministers – had helped me rationalize this by saying that I had lots of privileges that other folks didn’t have that I took advantage of every day. I was not giving all of them up – and instead was using those privileges in ways that hopefully were helpful to others. So, with that nice rationalization and also the encouragement of my minister friend Nan White – who cannot marry her partner of 13 years but who also officiated at our wedding, we moved forward with our plans. And I’m glad we did. As our invitation stated, we had the desire to give our love its fullest expression – and for us, that was marriage. And now, as a married woman and a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am committed to continuing the work to make this privilege – this choice – one that all couples can make.
Now some may ask – Why would anyone want to get married in the first place?
What is marriage for? Well, although some on the conservative right would have us to believe that the institution has remained unchanged through the ages, it just isn’t so. The purpose of marriage and its structures have changed with changes in society.
Most ancient societies needed a secure environment for the perpetuation of the species and a system of rules to handle the granting of property rights. The institution of marriage handled both of these needs. But most would agree that ancient marriages were not for love. Historian John Boswell makes this interesting comparison of pre-modern Europe love and marriage with today’s culture.
In premodern Europe marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in the middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love. Few couples in fact married “for love,” but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life’s experiences. Nearly all surviving epitaphs to spouses evince profound affection. By contrast, in most of the modern West, marriage begins about love, in its middle is still mostly about raising children (if there are children), and ends – often – about property, by which point love is absent or a distant memory.
Now at the same time that all of these religious and civil marriage ceremonies were taking place, we also have evidence of services designed to unite same-sex couples.
These religious ceremonies, however, seemed to be more about love and commitment to a loyal companion in life rather than a legal framework for protection of property and marital rites. Here’s an example of a Sixth Century prayer for the union of two men translated by John Boswell and quoted in his book entitled, Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe.
O Lord our God, who made humankind in thine image and likeness and gave it power over all flesh everlasting, and who now hast approved thy saints and apostles Philip and Bartholomew becoming partners, not bound together by nature, but in the unity of holy spirit and in the mode of faith, thou who didst consider thy saints and martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united, bless thy servants, N. and N., joined not by nature, but to love each other and to remain unhated and without scandal all the days of their lives, with the help of the Holy Mother of God and ever virgin Mary. Because to thee belongs all glory, honor and worship.
I refer you to Boswell’s work or my 2001 paper for more information on these ceremonies.
Through the ages, there have been lots of different forms and varieties of marriages. There’s polygamy – also now known as “big love.” And there are two types of polygamy. There’s polygyny – one husband, several wives, and polyandry – one wife, several husbands. And of course, there’s monogamy – one husband, one wife. Then there are differing societal requirements like: endogamy – requirement to marry someone who belongs to his or her own group – alive and well in laws in our own country against inter-racial marriage surviving till 1967 in some states. That’s the year that the Supreme Court struck the ban down in Virginia. And though no longer enforceable, the ban on interracial marriage remained in the South Carolina constitution till 1998. And even exogamy – people have to marry someone from another area or group
Before reforms of the 19th and 20th century, marriage had also been understood legally and socially as a relationship of hierarchy or coverture – in which a wife’s legal identity was covered over by her husbands. Despite romantic concepts of equality in love, according to American Law historian Hendrik Hartzog, “everyone knew in 1820, in 1870, and still in 1950, that husband and wife meant a dyadic relationship between two unequally situated individuals.” (http://hnn.us/articles/4400.html)
Perhaps that is why many gay rights organizations shied away for many years from supporting marriage for the GLBT community. Marriage was seen as a heterosexual arrangement which institutionalized the dominance of one and/or the protection of the other party. And, why – anyway – would gay folks want something like marriage which seemed so – so – straight. But gradually through the years – the institution of marriage has changed. Some changes were made through courts and some through legislation and many through changes in society’s attitudes about women.
Nineteenth century feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton had simply argued for women to consider opting out of marriage – acknowledging that marriage equality would not be possible in their lifetimes. And Stanton placed part of the blame on the shoulders of women who were unwilling to acknowledge change was possible. Here’s a quote from Stanton in 1894:
Women are too proud to admit that they want what they think they cannot get. They fear the ridicule of the men of their households, of the press, the disapproval of their clergymen who quote the Bible against larger liberties for their sex…. This one lesson of subjection and self sacrifice has been taught by creeds, codes, customs, and constitutions all through the centuries and no wonder that woman has learned it so well. The most powerful influence on the human mind is through religious emotions, and all the leading religions on the earth teach the subjection of one sex and the domination of the other, thus enfeebling the love of liberty on the one side and stimulating the love of tyranny on the other.
The women’s movement continued, though, to move….slowly it seemed….but move it did. And although Stanton did not live to see it, women did earn the right to vote and much more. Indeed, even without the passage of the equal rights amendment, the majority of Americans would not deny women equal rights with men and state by state – law by law – court case by court case, changes were made. And the institution of marriage itself changed. So much so, that it became acceptable to even feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who married in 2000, and to Jane Page too.
Now civil marriage is not viewed as a trap or cage – but rather as a safety net providing rights and protections for both parties. Is what Greg and I have obtained through this process just a piece of paper certifying our marriage. No, it is more than that. Ask any unmarried couple who has paid heaps of money to lawyers to write documents for just some of the same rights and protections.
I had said I would never marry for benefits – and I did not. But there are many benefits — some estimate as many as 1400 specific legal benefits that Greg and I now have access to that same sex couples do not. In addition, private employers and institutions often give other economic privileges and other benefits (special rates or memberships) only to married couples.
According to Evan Wolfson, author of Why Marriage Matters:
Exclusion from the freedom to marry unfairly punishes committed same-sex couples and their families by depriving them of critical assistance, security, and obligations in virtually every are of life, including, yes, even death and taxes…. (In the area of death): If a couple is not married and one partner dies, the other partner is not entitled to get bereavement leave from work, to file wrongful death claims, to draw the Social Security payments of the deceased partner, to automatically inherit a shared home, assets, or personal items in the absence of a will. (In the area of taxes): Unmarried couples cannot file joint tax returns and are excluded from tax benefits and claims specific to marriage. In addition , they are denied the right to transfer property to each other and pool the family’s resources without adverse tax consequences.
Wolfson provides a long summary of other benefits in his book – too long for this little homily. But I will share the broad categories he uses in addition to death and taxes. Others benefits are related to debts, divorce, family leave, health, housing, immigration, inheritance, insurance, parenting, portability (marriages are honored in all states – domestic partnerships are not), privilege (meaning legal privilege), property, and retirement. And though they can address some of these with legal documents; most of these critical, concrete legal incidents of marriage cannot be arranged by shelling out money for an attorney or writing up private agreements – even with lots of forethought.
Wolfson fully realizes that marriage should not be the only way. He states:
Of course, our country needs to find ways other than marriage to support and welcome all kids, all families, and all communities. Marriage is not, need not, and should not be the only means of protecting oneself and a loving partner or family. But like other Americans, same-sex couples need the responsibilities and support marriage offers legally and economically to families dealing with parenting, property, Social Security, finances, and the like, especially in times of crisis, health emergency, divorce, and death. And gay people, like all human beings, love and want to declare love, want inclusion in the community and the equal choices and possibilities that belong to us all as Americans.
Why is this such a difficult battle? Are people just that prejudiced? Well, we are products of our society and sometimes it’s hard to get over some of the things we were taught. Sadly, much of the negative teachings we’ve had came from religious teachings. The Bible has been used through the ages to deny people rights – and it continues to be used. I will not quote the two or three verses that you’ve heard so often. Instead, I’m going to quote another UU minister’s words on this topic. Rev. Don Southworth, minister of the Eno River UU Fellowship said:
When people bring the Bible into the debate about why homosexuality is a sin and marriage is only between a man and a woman, it is wise to ask what part of the Bible’s sexual mores they believe in. Do they take their teachings from the part in Leviticus that reads “A man who sleeps with another man is an abomination and should be executed.” Or do they take their teachings from the part in Leviticus that says if a bride is found not to be a virgin she should be executed on the spot, or a couple that has sexual intercourse during a women’s period should also be executed. Do they believe in polygamy, concubines, or forcing childless widows to have sex with their dead husband’s brothers in order to ensure the dead man has a male heir? People far better versed in Biblical scripture than I am can debate point by point stories and lessons from the Bible and how they are irrelevant to the same-gender marriage debate. Suffice to say that the Bible is confusing at best when it comes to translating how sexuality and marriage should be done today.
And the argument that allowing gays to marry weakens marriage for others holds no weight. The same concerns elevated about gay marriage have been voiced about other changes in society including changing the divorce laws, allowing married women to own property, contraception, inter-racial marriage – all of these ideas have brought forth forecasts of domino effects including polygamy, bestiality, and incest. An LA Times editor provides a good rebuttal to the “same-gender marriages will ruin the institution of marriage” argument, an argument that is usually couched in religious terms. In response to the Episcopal church making Gene Robinson its first gay bishop, the editorialist stated:
The actions taken by the New Hampshire Episcopalians are an affront to Christians everywhere. I am just thankful that the church’s founder, Henry VIII, and his wife, Catherine of Aragon, his wife Anne Boleyn, his wife Jane Seymour, his wife Anne of Cleves, his wife Katherine Howard, and his wife Catherine Parr are no longer here to suffer through this assault on our traditional Christian marriage.
I am very proud of the stands that Unitarian Universalists have taken and that we have a long history of calling for the full inclusion of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender people in church and society. Thirty-seven years ago – in 1970 – our general assembly called for an end to discrimination against homosexual and bisexual people in the denomination and in society and three years later, our association established an Office of Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay concerns. In 1984, our General Assembly recognized and encouraged ministers to perform Same-Gender Services of Union – and most UUA ministers have conducted many of these ceremonies since then. But we knew that ceremonies were not enough. And eleven years ago – before court cases in Hawaii, Vermont, Massachusetts and now Iowacaptured the attention of the media – our General Assembly called for the UUA to support the legalization of “Same-Sex Marriage.” More recently, President Sinkford established a fund called the “Freedom to Marry” fund to provide grants to churches and others working for this change. And Unitarian Universalists were instrumental in the efforts made in many states to overturn and change laws. But we have much work to do.
Our efforts will not be successful overnight. But the expansion of civil rights to women and minorities in our society did not come overnight either. And just as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony did not live to see women vote; Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. did not live to see his dream come true; our goals may not be fully achieved in our lifetimes. But we will not turn back. Unitarian Universalists are Standing on the Side of Love. And we will not sit down.
So what can we do in 2007 in Statesboro, Georgia. Here are a few suggestions:
1st – until we achieve marriage for all loving couples, we can continue to encourage the extension of privileges to domestic partners. And we can share with one another, companies that we know are doing this – and do business with those companies.
2nd – we can be active in expressing our views via blogs, editorials, and in our day to day interactions.
3rd – if you are in a same-sex relationship, consider being more open about it and talking more freely about you and your partner with others. Hey, I know this is easy for me to stand up here and say since I don’t have to live with the rejection that might occur. But I also know that attitudes toward marriage equality have changed considerably in the past few years because folks now know people who are gay and families with gay parents, etc.
4th – work for and vote for candidates who are more progressive in their views toward gay marriage. Unfortunately, most of the candidates who stand a chance in the next presidential election haven’t felt that they could completely back Marriage for gay folks – using the term marriage. However, many have come out in support of civil unions and some of them are sharing that they are open to gay marriage.
5th – use your resources to help in this worthy cause. Give to UUA’s Freedom to Marry fund or Lambda Legal Defense Fund or one of many other possibilities for making a difference.
When I was a little girl of about 8 or 9 in the late 50’s, I used to have some unusual dreams. In one of my dreams, I saw people driving their house trailers instead of pulling them behind their cars. When I awoke, I thought, that’s really strange. But it’s not strange to me today. We see motor homes all the time now. I also had a dream that I went to someone’s home and lots of people were there. Perhaps it was a party. There were lots of grown-ups and children at this party. Some of the women had their husbands with them. But some of the women were married to other women. And some of the men were married to other men. When I awoke, I thought, that’s really strange. But it’s not strange to me today.
I have a vision. I envision a world where there will be no need for words like homophobia or even labels categorizing one’s sexual orientation. People will love who they love because they love them. And they’ll love each other for as long as they possibly can. And since my higher power is the Power of Love; for me – God is Love; God will look at that world and say,
“ It is good!”
This summer I’ve been in conversation with two women who have shared with me their desire to come to a church which welcomes them and their children as a family. And of course, we do. One of these women shared a dream with me. Mary* said, I have a dream that Vickie* and I can openly share our vows in a church – with a minister officiating — -and in my dream I walk down the aisle of that church just as proud as any bride would do on her wedding day.
Well, you know what – this is a church – I’m a minister – and that, my friends, is an aisle! It may take many years for my dream to come true, but Mary’s dream can come true today. So after the service today, while we are having our coffee break, we are going to transform our sanctuary to a chapel of love and we invite those of you who do not have other obligations to come back in for a very brief ceremony in which Vickie and Mary will share their Love. And then – after this brief ceremony – they will share a meal they’ve prepared for us. And when it comes to sharing love – and to sharing fried chicken, turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, and wedding cake – I think we can all say –