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June 27, 2015

Some Personal Thoughts On Marriage

[Photo: Same sex wedding]

Yesterday, I posted this picture on Facebook, and promised that there was a blog-post coming associated to that photo.

[Photo: John officiating a same-sex marriage]

L-to-R: John, Carter, Fernando

Now over a decade old, I am extremely proud of that shot, as it symbolizes something I’ve felt strongly about for a very long time: That marriage isn’t about sex, or about pro-creation, but rather about commitment, ceremonies and rituals, and the strength of family and friends. Marriage is about love.

How I arrived at that photo is something of a long and personal story, and today I am going to share it with you.

The Beginning

In the spring of 2003 my marriage collapsed. The how’s and why’s of that fact are really not relevant here, but do have an impact in context. In those days, I was struggling to keep my second career afloat: back then “web accessibility specialists” weren’t in big demand, and that skill-set alone wasn’t paying the bills – oh sure, Derek Featherstone and I were doing fairly well as wats.ca, but he and I were both also doing other web-related work independently: we both had bills to pay.

[Photo: Rev. Dr. Casey McKibbon]

Rev. Dr. Casey McKibbon

One of my web-dev clients was the Rev. Dr. Casey McKibbon, the founder and chief executive of the All Seasons Church of Canada – a legally registered ‘church’, with “…its most visible manifestation  a Web site, complete with a listing of clergy willing to perform weddings in Ontario and Quebec.”  Yep, I built that website – in fact I built a number of sites for Casey, he was a good client.

All Seasons Weddings primary function was, as you can likely guess, to provide non-denominational officiants to perform weddings. Many of the clergy aligned with Casey were former United Church ministers, but not all of them. Casey also had a cadre of ‘lay’ wedding officiants.

One day, while in conversation with Casey, he turned to me and said, “You know, you should be an officiant too.”

“What?” I asked incredulously, “I’m not religious, and my marriage just broke up. You’re crazy.”

[Photo: JOhn perfroming a ceremony in a park]Casey looked at me and said, “You’ve worked on my websites, do you see any mention of Religion or God there?”

He had me, there wasn’t one single mention of either. Casey continued, “I’ve seen you, you’re a good talker, you’re not afraid to get in front of a crowd and speak, you’d be a natural.” He continued, “Besides, it’s a hundred bucks – cash – for every ceremony you do.”

Well… I thought about it for a day or two, and decided what the heck, why not? And so in the fall of 2003, I received my ‘credentials’, and became a legally registered wedding officiant (technically a “member of clergy”) and for the next 2 1/2 years I performed over 200 wedding ceremonies across Eastern Ontario on behalf of All Seasons Weddings. Along the way, I also learned some important lessons about love, marriage, and our societal look at both.

Lessons I Learned

While I was only licensed in Ontario, Canada, I learned, first-hand, the mechanics of “getting married” – what it takes, what is required, and the role of the officiant (whether a religious figure, or government employee) in the process. While the specific details and legal language will vary from province to province (in Canada), and state to state (in the US), the principle and process is essentially the same.

[Photo: John overseeing the wedding party signing the marriage license]

Signing the Marriage License

A legal document, your Marriage License, is issued by the state/province. Traditionally, you can get that document – essentially a legally binding contract – at the court-house, city-hall or similar civic building. In Ontario (and again, similarly in other jurisdictions), that document can be officiated by “a judge, justice of the peace, municipal clerk, or a member of clergy”. There is no requirement on where the signing of that document must take place, nor any prescribed “ceremony” – the two people getting married sign the document, it is witnessed by two others (traditionally the bridesmaid and best-man, but it doesn’t have to be), and finally it is ‘officiated’ by the licensed person, and the signed document is then forwarded to the government to be legally registered. That’s it. By completing those steps, you become “legally married” – and for many people, a quick trip to the court-house, a few signatures later, and they too are married.

I learned however, that the attendant ceremony, complete with flowing white dress, rented tuxedos, flowers, photographers, DJ’s, wedding venues/reception venues, guest-lists and all the other things that make up the estimated $80-million wedding industry fulfill a very important social and cultural role.

Weddings are celebrations!

The First Story

While all the memories of officiating weddings a decade+ ago are starting to fade, there are two stories in particular that I will carry with me forever, as they truly encapsulate the lessons I learned.

[Photo: country wedding]The first story is related to a wedding ceremony I officiated in Lanark County, a region of Ontario steeped in history. It’s beautiful country, it’s quite rural, and it is located about 90 minutes west of Ottawa, and 4 hours north-east of Toronto. A young couple, living in Toronto but with family ties to the region, elected to get married at the family farm in Lanark – a sprawling pretty Eastern Ontario farm and a perfect venue for a large family gathering.

With map in hand, I drove the back-roads of Lanark county, and found the family farmstead. I turned up the drive and parked my car with all the others. A member of the wedding party came running up to me and asked “Are you the minister?” (I wasn’t a “minister”, but close enough for conversation).

“Yes” I relied, “Why?”

“Come quickly,” they said, “It’s an emergency!”

I followed them along to the old farm-house, where I was ushered into the house and along to the bathroom. There, sprawled on the floor, heaving deep heavy sobs and tears, was the Bride.

“What’s going on?” I asked

“The License” she sobbed, “we left it in Toronto” (4 hours away)

“Oh”, I replied, “Well, that’s not so much of a problem. Here’s what we’re going to do. All Seasons has numerous officiants in the Toronto area, so getting your Licensed signed isn’t going to be a problem.”

“But today, today we have to put on a show for your family and friends, who have all gathered here to wish you both good luck.”

“So today, you are going to be walked down the aisle by your father, to your waiting husband-to-be. I will perform the ceremony we planned, you will say your vows to him, and him to you. You’ll exchange your rings, you’ll kiss, the audience will applaud and be happy for you, and then you will have a wonderful reception here at this beautiful farm.”

“Next week, when you get back to Toronto, you’ll call our office and arrange to meet with an officiant in Toronto. Bring your husband, and your maid-of-honor and his best-man, and you can meet at a coffee shop and get the paperwork signed. We’ll take care of all of that.”

“Really?” she asked. “You can do that?”

“Of course,” I replied. “It will all be legal and official, the only difference will be the actual date on the document that you sign. But for now, let’s get you up, go dry your tears, fix your make-up, and let’s have a wedding”

And so we did, and they had a wonderful day.

Lesson: do not confuse the ceremony with being legally married.

The second story… the more powerful story.

One day, Casey calls me up and says, “You speak French, right?”

“Sorta” I said, hesitantly, “Why?”

“Well”, he says, “I’ve got two gals coming in from Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec. They want to get married in Hawkesbury. On Tuesday.” (Yes, Casey spoke like that.)

[Screen Capture: Google maps showing the sitance between the two locations]

To put this in perspective Rivière-du-Loup is located about 5+ hours east of the Quebec/Ontario border. Hawkesbury is about 45 minutes east of Ottawa, and literally minutes from the Quebec/Ontario border. In those days however, same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Quebec, but it was in Ontario. The plan then was for these two women to drive to Ontario to get married, and I was being asked to officiate.

Now, my French is far from perfect; in fact, it’s pretty bad, but not horrid. Provided with a script (the ceremony), I figured I could struggle through it without too much effort, and Casey was kind of stuck – finding officiants on a weekday was harder. While it was also going to be my first same-sex ceremony, I none-the-less agreed. To be honest, I was more worried about doing the ceremony “en Francais” than anything else – I had never done that before either.

[Photo: Best Western motel, Hawkesbury, Ontario]And so, on that Tuesday I drove to the Best Western motel in Hawkesbury; your basic travelers motel on the side of the highway – nothing fancy, nothing special. I went to the indicted room, knocked on the door, and was greeted by a group of five people: four women and a man. Three of the women were (apparently) chain-smoking, and the tension in the room was so thick, you could cut it with a knife. None of the people in that room really spoke any English, and all of a sudden my French language skills started to tank – I was nervous too!

The two Queen beds had been moved to the side, creating a larger space between the two beds, and once I arrived, we set upon the task at hand. I struggled through that ceremony, tripping and bumbling along, trying my best to keep my nerves in check. Finally, I finished the ceremony, and one-by-one the two women signed their names, then the witnesses, and finally I signed the document and added my registration number. It was done.

I turned to the two women, and in my best fractured French I congratulated them, and told them they were legally married.

[Photo: parting clouds]

There is an almost hackneyed metaphor of when the clouds part, and the sun comes shining down… it’s been used and abused in film and photos for, well almost forever. And yet… that day… when I told those two women that they were Legally Married? Ya, it felt like that. The tension in the room evaporated, almost instantly, replaced with relief, excitement, and joy. The two women thanked me (they both hugged me), the lone male sheepishly handed me an envelope (the payment), and I gathered up my stuff in short order, wished them good luck, and made my way out the door.

Almost a decade later, I can still remember how *I* felt as I left that motel. The rush of emotions and relief that swept over that room were palpable, and had a profound impact on me – I too felt like I was walking two feet off the ground. Selfishly (I realize) that ceremony empowered me as well – by virtue of the fact that I could sign-off on an Ontario Marriage License, I had given those two women something that I suspect they thought they would never have. I very quickly realized that I had legitimized their love for each other, and I was awestruck by the power of that. In that moment, it wasn’t about what they do privately, how they share their love and intimacy. It was about their love for each other, their desire to make a formal and long-term commitment to each other, and to have that commitment legally recognized.

Still today, when I recount that story, the hairs on my arm tingle – that one moment in a nondescript travelers motel affected me to my core. There was no formal religion involved, but it was a spiritual journey with a profound impact on me, and one I was privileged to take.

I ultimately had the privileged to officiate 3 other same-sex marriages, including that of Carter and Fernando, the two men in my initial photo. Like virtually every other wedding ceremony I performed over those 2.5 years, it was one of love, happiness, and commitment, with friends and family in attendance.

Epilogue

[Photo: Rainbow Flag]Yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in all fifty states.

It was a good ruling, the right and just ruling, and it ends (I hope) decades of oppression against Gays and Lesbians here in the United States who have sought out the legal right to have their commitment legitimized. I am not a member of the LGBT community, but I am a friend, because, you see, I got it – first hand that day in Hawkesbury, Ontario. I understand what is being sought.

And I am thankful to whatever God *you* dear reader ascribe to, for being allowed to experience the power of love like that first hand, and to learn the lesson in such a powerful way. I was very lucky indeed.

 

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Posted by John

I am a 16 year veteran of Web Accessibility, living and working in Austin, Texas. Currently Principal Accessibility Strategist at Deque Systems Inc., I have previously held accessibility related positions at JPMorgan Chase and Stanford University. I am also actively involved with the W3C - the international internet standards body - where I attempt to stir the pot, fight hard for accessibility on the web, and am currently co-chairing a subcommittee on the accessibility of media elements in HTML5.

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