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The Tin Anniversary – 2/9/2014

This year marks the tenth anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts. Ten years ago our state became the first state in the US where any two grown-ups who love each other can get married and have that marriage recognized and protected equally under the law. We got rid of the special preference for partnerships between one woman and one man: now any two people who are devoted to each other can come to the party.

When the court ruling that led to that change came down here in Massachusetts, I was living in California. I had just started school to be a minister, and this decision was big news for my classmates and I. Many of us felt uncomfortable with the role of ministers in signing wedding licenses, in a system that recognized certain couples but not others. Here was the prospect that the law might start to change across the country, and that we might feel less torn between the legal power permitted to ministers and the moral responsibility incumbent upon them. There was also, among the native Californians, a crumb of disappointment that anyone else – even Massachusetts – had beaten their own state to the punch.

Which might have been what led folks in San Francisco to jump the gun. Before the ruling here in Massachusetts went into effect in May of 2004, the mayor of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples, valid immediately. A rolling wedding party broke out at city hall. Several of my friends, who had been with their partners for decades – in one case longer than I had then been alive – rushed to make things official in the eyes of the law. But in less than a month, the state government ended the party. No more licenses for same sex couples would be issued, and the weddings that had already taken place were deemed illegal. For a short moment, equality was offered to folks so long denied it, and then it was snatched back out of their hands.

I thought about this recently when something similar happened in the state of Utah: for a brief period last month, the order of the courts required Utah to issue marriage licenses regardless of whether the people getting married were one woman and one man, two women, or two men. The weddings have now been halted as the state government challenges the ruling. In some ways, this is just as painful and disappointing, but the difference is that this time, the arrival of marriage equality even in the state of Utah looks like a matter of when, and not if. On Valentine’s Day 2004, no state in the country would issue a marriage license to a same sex couple, and only Massachusetts was about to start doing so later that year. Today there are 17 states where marriage is equal. The federal government has gone from actively blocking freedom and recognition to officially declaring that it will extend every possible right and privilege of marriage to same sex couples. The battle isn’t over yet, but the tide has turned.

It’s a fight that our religion has been deeply involved and invested in.  Grounded in a theology which holds love as the highest ideal and which calls for the marginalized to be protected from the powerful, we are barred from dressing up tired prejudices in the garments of holiness. So throughout this fight, through court cases and legislative battles and street protests, Unitarian Universalists have been among the religious voices – and in the earliest days, sometimes the only religious voice – for the freedom to marry. The successes we have helped to win have made real differences in the lives of real people – some of us here today – and contributed to a society which is more accepting of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people. Ten years after that work started to blossom, we need to ask ourselves: what’s next?

The struggle for the right to marry has been a struggle for equality of a particular sort: one specific opportunity and set of rights. It’s primary argument has been one of sameness – that whether you or I love someone who is the same gender as or a different gender from us, it is the same thing. It is the ‘same love,’ as the song on the radio says. Because our feelings and experiences and needs are basically the same, our rights ought to also be the same: they ought to be equal.

Several decades ago, the Universalist minister Kenneth Patton wrote, “Free people are not the equals of anyone; they are themselves, unique, self-sufficient, irreplaceable, ineffable…Equality only clears the ground so we can face our problems on a footing equal to others, and open us to a multitude of new problems we were sheltered from in our inequality. Equality is an equality of problems. Equality is not enough. What is enough is selfhood, which Epictetus, a slave, achieved equally with Marcus Aurelius, a Caesar. In the realm of selfhood there is no equality, only creaturehood, incomparable self-identity, where none are equal, because all are unique.”[i]

Whatever struggle we turn towards now, it should start from the understanding that our rights to be free, to love and to live, do not rely on our sameness. No one should have to be ‘normal’ to be respected. No one should have to be ‘proper’ to be valued. No one should have to be exactly like you, or me, or anyone else, or some unreal, unapproachable idea of what a person is supposed to be like, in order to be listened to, to have a say in the world around them, or to be loved. To use a phrase that one of my compatriots from seminary taught me, marriage equality is not the promised land. When the law respects all loving partnerships in all 50 states, that doesn’t mean the struggle is over. The struggle for the human rights of all people, whatever their sex, or their gender expression, whomever they love, or whomever they don’t love, but do think is pretty hot – that struggle continues. The world has gotten a little bit better in these last ten years – I truly believe that. But it won’t keep heading that way, if we pat ourselves on the back, when we ought to be rolling up our sleeves.

It was once the custom in ancient Rome to mark the 25th anniversary of a marriage with a wreath made out of silver, and the 50th with one made out of gold. Over the centuries, and with the relatively recent encouragement of the American National Retail Jeweler Association, there has come to be some special material, suitable for gifts, associated with every possible wedding anniversary. According to the list compiled by librarians at the Chicago Public Library, the appropriate gift material for the tenth anniversary is tin.[ii] Tin is a soft, cheap metal, and because this year also happens to be my 10th wedding anniversary with my partner Sara, I can say from having looked that there’s not a lot out there in terms of attractive gifts made out of tin. But probably the greatest factor in tin’s favor is that it does not rust easily; it endures. So in this year of the tin anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts, may the gift to our faith and to our congregation, be the endurance of tin. To stay in the fight, and to take it to new fronts, on behalf of the rights of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people, and of all people, however different, or however the same we might be.


[i] Kenneth Patton, A Religion of Realities.



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