Wedding Bells Ring for D.C. Lesbian Brides

Marriage equality is now in the nation's capitol
Angelisa Young (left) and Sinjoyla Townsend (right), the first couple to receive a marriage license on March 2, 2010, when the DC Superior Court began issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Photo by Michael Starghill, ©2010 Michael Starghill/Photoshelter

Marriage equality has come to our nation’s capitol. Starting today, lesbian and gay couples who have obtained marriage licenses will be eligible to walk down the aisle, stand before a justice, or create a ceremony of their choosing to celebrate their legal union.

As someone who has been a happily married lesbian wife since 2008 (together since 1996), I know that there’s more to a same-sex wedding than floral arrangements and cake. Whether we want to or not, we carry along with us, metaphorically speaking, a bridal standard: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Let me run down the list so you can see what I mean.

Something Old

The institution of marriage itself is ancient, and many of the old traditions associated with it linger. For instance, while the forms marriage has taken throughout history and the world have varied, women’s place within marriage has typically been subordinate. Conservatives would like to see women kept in that lesser place. So, as same-sex couples gain the right to marry, we must wrestle with the legacy of this institution, as do progressive heterosexuals. We should enter matrimony because of its rights and protections but reject the patriarchal trappings.

Something New

By virtue of our departure from the gender binary–male and female categories in polarized opposition, with women most often getting shortchanged–same-sex couples can help transform the institution of marriage in positive ways. I have written about how lesbian brides help redefine the word wife. By separating the word from its position as the lesser half of a man/woman pairing, lesbian marriages change the way we think about wives in general. Even though I avoid gender-specific language in most areas of my life, when it comes to my marriage I find it politically valuable to say wife–often, and with pride. When I say wife instead of partner, spouse, or significant other, I not only avoid confusion but stand up for my relationship and its legitimacy.

Something Borrowed

The rituals of weddings–announcements, rehearsal dinners, vows, bouquet-throwing–have belonged to heterosexual couples. Until same-sex marriages become legal throughout the country, we are likely to feel that we’re borrowing from these rituals, always with an awareness that marriage itself might be denied us again or deemed invalid. So we’re still in the process of discovering what same-sex marriages can look like, and finding our own traditions to pass along.

Something Blue

Our joyful wedding days take place against a backdrop of harsh and sometimes violent opposition. When the D.C. couples stood in line last week to get their marriage licenses, they had to face down protesters bearing hostile signs and wearing angry looks. Some D.C. residents went to the Supreme Court to try to prevent the issuing of these licenses and the Catholic Church took a strong stand against marriage equality.  When my wife and I got married, Proposition 8 was making its way to the ballot box, where it would eliminate the rights of future gay and lesbian couples to marry.

But let’s remember that brides were supposed to carry their old-new-borrowed-blue combo to ward off trouble and bring luck to their marriages. In the spirit of that hopeful tradition, let’s raise a glass to an even stronger wish–marriage equality for all.

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Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.