As the debate over gay marriage rages, Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor David Jefferson on how he’s come to treasure his wedding less as a victory for equal rights and more as a human rite of passage.
I once thought only celebrities like Liz Taylor and Natalie Wood married the same man twice. But I’ve got them beat. By my count, I’ve been married to the same man four times now. And if the fight over same-sex marriage makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, my marriages could outpace Henry VIII’s.
By marriages, I don’t mean weddings. I’ve had only one wedding, in October 2008. My spouse, Jeff Bechtloff, and I were wed during that brief window of hopefulness when same-sex marriage was legal in California. That was before the voters of my home state decided in a spasm of fear and misinformation to outlaw gay marriage with Proposition 8, which rewrote the constitution so that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” As you’ll recall, Nov. 4, 2008, was the day Barack Obama was swept into office with the promise of “change.” But for me and so many other gays and lesbians, that election day was just another ugly example of the same-old same-old.
In the three years since our wedding, Jeff and I have kept a wary eye on the court challenges to Prop 8. Today’s ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals elicited cheers from us, but we’ve learned the hard way not to get too excited about these incremental legal wins. Watching the fight over gay marriage has been a lot like seeing Charlie Brown try to kick the football: every time he thinks he’ll finally make that field goal, the conniving Lucy snatches it away. It’s a funny gag in a cartoon—but not so amusing in real life, when your most personal and meaningful relationship hangs in the balance.
Indeed, the validity of my marriage has been kicked around like a football. In the months after Prop 8 passed, we and the 18,000 other same-sex couples who’d wed in California waited to see whether the courts would allow our unions to stand. A ruling several months later affirmed that our marriages were indeed legal, and Jeff and I toasted the event with a bottle of champagne and a slice of frozen cake left over from our wedding ceremony. We consider that day our “second marriage.”
Our “third marriage” occurred last summer, when New York legalized same-sex marriage. We’d moved to New York a year earlier, and although the state had previously said it would honor same-sex marriages performed in other states, we’d always wondered whether our shotgun California wedding would really pass legal muster in the Big Apple. Now that doubt was gone. But the New York victory was bittersweet. As native Angelenos, Jeff and I couldn’t help but shake our heads at the irony: we could legally marry almost anywhere in the Northeast—but on the “liberal” Left Coast we were like outlaws.
Thanks to today’s court ruling, we’re legal again, and celebrating marriage No. 4. Of course, from a strict legal standpoint, Jeff and I have been married all along, since no court has yet struck down the 18,000 marriages performed in 2008. We also have the marriage certificate to prove it—and we are asked to do so often when doing things most straight couples take for granted, like buying insurance, refinancing a mortgage, paying state taxes, or visiting a hospital. I’m not sure how many couples have their marriage certificates framed and hanging in their bedroom, but Jeff and I do. We even had our wedding rings engraved with the date of our marriage and the words “making history.”
But our wedding was about much, much more than a certificate and a platinum band. It was about two people and two families coming together to celebrate as one. For most of my life as a gay man, I thought I would never have the opportunity to get married, and so I wrote the whole wedding thing off as some silly ritual. Yet given the window of opportunity in 2008 to say "I do," I did—with the enthusiasm of the fiercest Bridezilla. In less than three weeks, Jeff and I pulled together a wedding for 100 of our friends and family. Aside from the Frank Sinatra music we played instead of “Here Comes the Bride” as our parents marched us down the aisle, and the fact that there were two grooms at the altar, it was pretty much like any other wedding. We exchanged rings, we kissed, our friends and family applauded, we ate cake. And then we danced to “YMCA”—just like straight people do at their weddings.
As the debate over gay marriage has raged in the years since, I’ve come to treasure my wedding less as a political act and victory for equal rights—although it most certainly was that. Rather, my wedding was an important rite of passage, one that all human beings should have the freedom to experience.
I was reminded of that fact last month when I went through another rite of passage: the funeral of my 96-year-old mother. I came back to California in November when she fell and broke her hip, and as fate would have it, she wound up at a nursing-rehab facility located right across the street from where Jeff and I were wed. On the evening before my mother died, my father and I wheeled her outside to watch one of those gorgeous California sunsets that happen only in the winter when the air is crisp and clear and you feel as if you can see all the way into the future. Mom was barely coherent, but my father and I did our best to reminisce about the happier times we’d shared as a family. We reminded Mom how she had danced the night away across the street on my wedding night, doing a little jitterbug to the great amusement of my friends. I lied and told her she would be dancing the jitterbug with me again soon.
It’s been 30 days since my mother’s funeral, and in the Jewish religion that calls for a trip to the cemetery; it sits on a hill overlooking the L.A. Equestrian Center and banquet halls, where Jeff and I were married. And so I’ll be visiting my mom this afternoon to pay my respects and tell her that I’m taking good care of my dad, with whom she shared 51 years of marriage, and to tell her the news about today’s gay-marriage victory. Somewhere in that expanse of California sky, I know Edith Jefferson will be doing the jitterbug.