Roughly twelve years ago, on a pristine Summer day that reinforces the reputation of British Columbia being one of the prettiest places on Earth, my partner and I stood in front of 100 friends and family and got married.
When we set a date for our event a year beforehand, same-sex marriage was not yet legal in BC or anywhere else in Canada. Still, we wanted to have a “commitment ceremony” to mark our fifth year together and wanted our friends and family to be there to celebrate this milestone with us. Despite our event being a ceremony in name only, we still went through the typical wedding planning motions: hiring a caterer, printing invitations, and because we didn’t need an “official official” officiating our ceremony, asking my sister-in-law to do the honours.
Then, three months before our big day, the Supreme Court of British Columbia followed the precedent set earlier by Ontario and ordered the province to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. I was in Toronto on business at the time, and my partner Brent phoned me to give me the news. After a couple of seconds of stunned silence, he voiced what we were both feeling. “It kind of makes it all just a bit more real, doesn’t it?” (Gulp) Indeed it did.
Our wedding day was an invigorating, sometimes overwhelming flurry of emotion and activity. For many people, Brent and I included, this was our first gay wedding. I think a lot of our guests showed up expecting something radically different, only to be pleasantly surprised by how “normal” it all was…with the possible exception of the synchronized swimmers performing in the pool during the cocktail hour…you know, to give the event a little flair (Liza Minnelli was unavailable).
I can’t count the number of times people came up to me after our wedding ceremony and asked, “So, does it feel different?” “You know what,” I would reply, “It does.” Though we had lived together for over five years, something shifted for us that day we got married. It’s like all the good stuff about our relationship was suddenly amplified and affirmed. And while the whole experience would’ve still been wonderful without the marriage license, that little piece of paper made it that much more profound, because in addition to our friends and our families there to support us, we also had our community, our society and our government.
More than anything, it was incredibly meaningful to be able to belong to a cherished institution that, growing up, I had always thought would be unattainable. There was a larger story being created consistently around me that I thought I would never be a part of. And while gay and lesbian rights had progressed leaps and bounds during my adult years, this one brass ring was still out of reach. As it remained so, I would defensively cast dispersion on it, scoffing “Who needs it, as long as we have ‘domestic partnership’ rights.” But I did need it, which only became clearer to me when I finally had it, and my life changed forever.
As social, interconnected human beings, I believe we all like to feel like we belong to something that is bigger than ourselves. We yearn to be a part of a larger story that transcends our own and, more specifically, to be able to connect (marry, if you will) our own personal story to it. Last week, when the Supreme Court of the United States made same-sex marriage legal across all 50 states, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited this desire to be part of a larger story in the closing paragraph of his majority opinion:
“No union is more profound than marriage…In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to finds its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
When otherwise disenfranchised groups of people are enabled to be part of a larger story, it enriches and strengthens that story, not diminishes it. This is certainly true for companies looking to cultivate and nurture stronger organizational cultures, and it is true for society as well. And I think the majority of people recognize this, as evidenced by the rapid and profound shift in American public opinion on same-sex marriage as more and more states legalized it: a shift that took place a decade earlier here in Canada.
My wedding was honestly the happiest day of my life. The only thing that would have made it better was if my dad had been there to officiate. My father was an Episcopal (Anglican) minister who, in the years before his death, had pushed hard on the church to allow the blessing of same-sex unions. He wanted so much to be able to play the same official role for me that he had played for my three siblings at their weddings. And I know that, were he alive, he would’ve been up there with us, blessing our union whether his church officially agreed with it or not.
I know that all our guests were deeply moved by our ceremony. I think for them, it really didn’t matter that there were two men up there saying their vows instead of a man and a woman. For they saw what we felt: two people very much in love, dedicated to each other, and committed to this larger civil institution and this larger story to which they now belonged.
It was a great day, even without my father there. Still, I felt his presence, in the soft breeze through the trees, the warm sun on our faces and the quiet smile in the eyes of my new spouse for life.