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Union, Yes!

How I learned to stop worrying and love my, um, wedding


Published July 30, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Look at the photograph. That's me and my partner of 11 years, getting our picture taken on the dock of the Burlington Boathouse, where, in less than a month, we will be celebrating our civil union. Don't we look happy? You'd never know that, in the hour before the photo was taken, we'd discovered our transportation to the ceremony was going to cost three times what we'd planned on; we'd missed an important phone meeting with our caterer; and I'd dropped the ring down the bathroom sink. Okay, not the ring. It was a birthday present I wasn't used to wearing yet, and I dropped it in a rush to get to our various pre-photo appointments. We retrieved it later.

But I know what you married folks are thinking. "Jitters, caterers, expenses -- ha! We went through all that crap. Now it's your turn."

The thing is, I'd always thought one of the benefits of being gay was that I wouldn't have to go through a wedding. Sure, the reason I was being denied the right to marry was ignorant prejudice disguised as moral objection, but I was always kind of relieved that it meant I would never have to worry about cakes, receptions, bridal registries or bridal jewelry, except in the peripheral role of guest.

Then Larry and I moved to Vermont, where anybody can get hitched. And where Larry is working for the man who signed the bill making that legal, former Gov. Howard Dean. What seemed an impossibility became an inevitability. If we could enter into a civil union, well, why shouldn't we?

Welcoming the event, however, has not made it any easier to plan. For instance, there's the problem of nomenclature. "Is it okay if I call it a wedding?" asked one of Larry's co-workers. "Well, sure -- call it what you want," Larry told him. Of course, it isn't a wedding. "See you at the C.U.!" says the perky language in our invitation. But I find myself referring to the event as a wedding, anyway, mostly because C.U. sounds like a corporate acronym, or a university.

Then there's the verb question. If we're not "getting married," what are we doing? According to the Vermont Secretary of State, the operative verb is "join" -- as in, "Larry and David will be joined in civil union." We prefer the snappier "We're getting unionized," striking a simultaneous blow for love and labor -- and giving a whole new meaning to the slogan "Union, Yes!"

As to what we call each other, the options are similarly limited. Like many gay and lesbian couples, we generally use the rather drab term "partners." Now that we're going to be a legal unit, should we adopt more official terminology? According to the state legislature, we're "parties to a civil union." Talk about unfestive. "Civil unionees?" Maybe, but that makes us sound like civil-service employees.

In any case, no such options are available at Pottery Barn. Their gift-registry system has not yet joined the 21st century, so one of us had to register as "Bride" and the other as "Groom." I've conveniently forgotten which was which.

The whole registry thing was one of many areas where we had to make up our own rules -- or at least make up our own minds, which is considerably more of a challenge for me than for Larry. Since this wasn't going to be a wedding exactly, and since we weren't exactly youngsters setting up a household, were we presumptuous to be registering for gifts at all?

And what about the location? We were thinking informal -- maybe a picnic in a park with a view of the lake -- but would that undermine the momentousness? And what about mosquitoes?

Most of our friends and family are computer-friendly, but is it proper to invite someone to a wedding via Evite. com? And then there's the ceremony. Do we ape heterosexual traditions -- processional, a big cake, toasts -- or subvert them? How do we make sure the most important things get said? And, since we both have a theatrical bent, we wondered how to make sure our guests got a few laughs.

These were among the many questions we encountered for which Miss Manners offered no help. Nor, for that matter, did the many gay-wedding Web sites, which all seemed to be more about marketing Vermont inns and tacky jewelry than offering real advice. Add the traditional wedding problem of the Amazing Expanding Guest List, and the typically Vermont problem of how to accommodate guests -- lots of guests -- from out of state, and our informal summer picnic rapidly faded into oblivion.

I'm happy to say our Big Day plans are all working out. The Boathouse, we're thinking, will give us the ideal combo of sunset and shelter. Our Evites have so far produced few unpleasant reactions, unless you count the site's addictive tendencies ("Has anyone else RSVP'd? Let's log on and check -- 100 times a day!") And we think we've achieved a nice balance between solemnity and silliness -- including that pricey mode of transport. Hint: It's nautical.

It's interesting, though, that when all is said and done, our celebration won't be that different from a "straight" wedding -- except for the absence of a religious component, which isn't a given in heterosexual couplings anymore, either.

Our justice of the peace will be Marc Awodey (yes, the Seven Days art critic), who's one of the more popular J.P.s in town for civil unions. Awodey estimates he's done 150 of them, four in one day being his record. He's presided over all kinds of ceremonies, from a lesbian pagan wedding to the union of two gay astrologers at 1:07 a.m. on the morning of the summer solstice in the woods of Grand Isle. He's seen couples in drag, witnesses in drag, siblings in drag.

But for the most part, Awodey says, civil unions are no more unusual in form or content than straight couples' wedding ceremonies. So even though we civil unionees have a rare opportunity to create whole new rituals, we more often make a different kind of breakthrough -- by appropriating traditions from which we had previously been barred.

Even the simplest of rites can be profoundly meaningful. This past Monday, I watched a male couple take their vows in City Hall Park with Awodey presiding. It couldn't have been more unassuming -- just two casually dressed men quietly making lifetime promises, then kissing and exchanging rings. And it couldn't have been more moving, particularly since the couple -- Steve Pline, 41, and Tony Paul, 25 -- had come all the way from Boise, Idaho, for the occasion.

Pline's family are Seventh Day Adventists and do not approve of the relationship; when he told his mother about the civil union, she replied, "That's not legal, is it?" The license he and Paul bring back to Idaho will serve as a reply.

Larry and I are lucky: We have a network of friends and family whose support for our relationship is a given. But even so, I know there will be something uniquely powerful about standing in front of all these people and saying "Yes." Yes not only to our love for each other, but to our right to love each other, and to have that love signed, sealed and delivered into the record books along with every other marriage in the state of Vermont.

Pline said that he and Paul will wear their wedding bands in the traditional fashion -- left hand, third finger -- "to make a statement" when they get back to Idaho. We'll be wearing ours that way, too. And this ring I won't drop down the sink.

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