Monday, May 12, 2014

More Oh Happy Day: In Which I Tell the Rest of the Marriage Story

Our happy day:

・When we get to the courthouse a bit past 7 A.M. this morning, we find a festive, circus-like atmosphere (a good phrase, to my mind: I love circuses): cars honking as people drive by waving and smiling, 100+ couples (we're told as the day goes on and people continue to arrive) from all over the state standing in line to marry as light rain mists down, important officials (including Chad Griffin of Human Rights Campaign) speaking from a stage near the courthouse door.

・Our friend Steve had been in touch with us by phone, and told us that when he and Allan arrived around 6:30, they were already the 26th couple in line.

・Two nice men who have driven from Hot Springs, about 60 miles, with their baby, standing in front of us in line. Behind us, two couples of women, one of which drove in from Beebe, about 40 miles, another of which came from Newport, some 90 miles. They left home before 4 this morning to reach Little Rock. We meet another very congenial couple who have driven from Texarkana, 145 miles.

・Doors open at 8. Around 9, we reach the desk to obtain a marriage license. We fill out the papers and receive a number: we're couple 53 in line to obtain a license and then, if we choose, to marry and have the marriage returned and recorded.

・As we wait for the license, we stand next to an elderly lady sitting in a chair. She tells us "her girls" will marry today, her daughter and daughter's partner, and she's ecstatic. Their son, who has just finished high school and is with his grandmother while she waits, is happy beyond belief. "When we get home, I'm going to make all of us a banana pudding cake to celebrate."

・And: "You know, I go to church with my girls and grandson, but we've found only one church that will accept us, and it's in Little Rock [these folks live in Hot Springs]. But no one can tell me I can't pray to God anytime and anywhere I want, can they?"

・And: "When I found out I had cancer, it had almost reached my brain stem. I lost sight in one eye and, well, you can see that they had to take this part of my face. And do you know which of my four children offered to take care of me? Not the three who are straight and married. No. It was the one that the churches won't accept, with her partner. They took me in and take care of me."

・Up comes our friend Wendell Griffen. I had hoped so much he'd be there today, but didn't email or call him to ask about that. Everything has happened as if in a blur, so quickly and with us out of town, that we simply stepped out in faith, as some folks say, and came down to the courthouse as early as we could this morning after we returned home yesterday evening, not knowing if the line would be so long we couldn't get documents, or if the state would issue a stay before we were able to marry.

・Wendell tells us he'll very gladly officiate at our wedding. He and his wife Patricia and the Baptist church he pastors had already told us some time ago that anytime we would want our union blessed, their church would be delighted to host the ceremony. As the church educated itself about becoming a nurturing community for those who are gay, it had invited us in 2011 to talk to it about the experience of living as a committed gay couple in Arkansas.

・Then a young couple arrive and ask Wendell to marry them. He does so, on the spot. They choose a religious ceremony. One of the two is so nervous that he can't remember the lines, and has to have them repeated. They're adorable young folks. A reporter comes up and films the ceremony, then asks them questions. He asks whether they expected to be able to marry this soon, and one of the two shoots back without hesitation, "Not in Arkansas!" We all laugh.

・Our friends Steve and Allan obtain their license and we go with them to find Wendell to perform the marriage ceremony. My Steve videotapes it. As couples (including Steve and Allan) are marrying in the rotunda of the courthouse, a pastor of some local church revolves around carrying signs proclaiming that he loves all of us, but hates our sin. He shouts to try to disrupt each wedding.

・This keeps a group of guardian angels busy, since, as he moves around in the circle of the rotunda trying to shout down all the other ministers marrying couples, the angels follow him and hold up rainbow flags to cover his signs and muffle his shouts. 

・After Steve and Allan marry, we return to the clerks'  area to wait for our number to be called for a license. My Steve says to me, "I'll bet the clerks are having more fun today than they ever have. This is pure theater and they have to be enjoying it."

・It's theater, indeed. As each couple returns its marriage and receives a marriage certificate, the couple comes walking through all the rest of us, who are standing in a long line on either side of a long hallway, and everyone cheers and claps. Steve videotapes one of these jubilation sessions.

・While we're waiting, two different newspapers ask to talk to Steve and me, to videotape us as we tell our story. We may stand out because, well, let's face it: we're old! 

・Our number is finally called. Our friend Wendell has sent word to us that he'll be in his chambers, and wants to do the marriage there.  Steve and Allan have kindly waited to witness our wedding as we did theirs, and they come with us to Wendell's chambers.

・We walk in. I'm struck immediately by several of the photos on the walls. One is a photo from the 1930s (or '40s or '50s or even '60s), showing three restrooms side by side. They're marked "Gentlemen," "Ladies," and "Colored." Underneath: "To know where you are going, you need to remember where you have come from."

・Wendell walks over to an étagère and picks up a small framed document. "This was my mother's poll tax certificate in 1963. I remember that we all picked cotton to earn the money to pay the tax, since she wasn't working at that time. I found it in her papers when she died and I had it framed."

・And: "Did you see the James Baldwin poster? You know he was gay." My brain is so fried at this point that I don't have the presence of mind to try to remember the quotation on this poster, and I'm happy when the photographer who is videotaping the ceremony (he seems to be someone connected to Steve and Allan, though this is not ever entirely clear to me) tells us he'll take a photo of it and send it to us — along with photographs and videos of the ceremony.

・"Short or long, civil or religious, rings or no rings?" Wendell asks. Steve chooses short, civil, and no rings, telling Wendell we'll take advantage of his church's offer to have a church wedding with his congregation and will exchange rings there.

・I exercise my spousal right to disagree (though it doesn't take a wedding ceremony to make me aware of that right and quick to employ it) and insist that I want a religious and not a civil wedding. (My mama raised me right, after all — as I know Steve's did, too.) Wendell then manages to sneak the rings into the ceremony, too.

・We exchange vows, a process made difficult for me because I'm sobbing and my words are choked. Hearing our friends sobbing in the background doesn't help me stifle my own tears. 

・And then it's all done and we obtain our signed, sealed marriage document, with the kind assistance of the clerks who are working in overdrive, and who are unfailingly kind, courteous, helpful. It's amazing to see Judge Piazza, who opened this floodgate of same-sex marriages, standing in the background and assisting, too. He personally helps deliver our paperwork to us.

・I also spot Tippi McCullough in the crowd helping people walk through all the steps in the long process. I've blogged about her story here (and here and here), about how a Catholic girls' school in Little Rock, Mount Saint Mary, called her on the morning she married her partner Barb Mariani in New Mexico to tell her she'd be fired if she went through with the marriage.

・I haven't met her before, so I go up and introduce myself. She, Steve, and I have a long talk about her story, ours, and the Catholic church. We tell her that we empathized deeply with her and immediately understood what she was going through when we read about her, since we have lived through a version of the very same story with Catholic institutions — and know many others who have had similar experiences.

・And then we head home to rescue three little dogs who are afraid of the rain. As we exit the hotel parking lot across the street from the courthouse in which we've parked, I listen to the two women staffing the exit booth, both African American. One says to the other, "The bible's about love, I always understood. Not hate. Not condemnation."

・They wish us a good day. We drive home. Flora, Valentine, and Crispen are waiting and very glad to see their two freshly-married daggies with a storm looming on the horizon. Chris licks my bare feet when I open the door (I threw my confining shoes off when we got home — we Arkansans are notorious for liking to walk around barefoot), and I'm very glad for the sweet greeting.

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