My 7 Weeks in the Chapel of Love - Diary of a Queer Wedding Minister by Shams Diana Cohen
This spring has been an amazing time for gay and lesbian activists, couples and allies, with marriage equality rising and falling throughout various states like the tides. In Multnomah County, same-sex marriage licenses were issued from March 3rd through April 19th of this year. Couples who received those licenses are now legally married under Oregon law. What follows is a history, diary style, of my own activism around this issue, the stories of many couples who chose to get married, and the state of marriage equality in Oregon, with a special emphasis on why “civil unions” do not create equality. Separate but equal is never equal. Shams Cohen
October 13, 1987 In Washington DC, 600 people were arrested in an act of civil disobedience at the US Supreme Court to protest the Bowers v. Hardwick decision, a decision upholding the constitutionality of States’ rights to arrest people for how they make love as consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. It was the largest number to participate in an act of civil disobedience since the Vietnam War.
I didn’t think to NOT put my hands behind my back when the officer told me to, even though I was prepared to not walk when that command came. Now my hands are cuffed behind my back by a sharp plastic tie that cuts into my wrists, and my shoulder is being painfully wrenched as the police drag my civilly disobedient limp body, along with hundreds of others, into stuffy school busses that will eventually cart us all off to a large gym. Like many of the other women, I give the name “Emma Goldman,” and, after a day of solidarity, fear, tears, TV interviews, and song, I am eventually released.
March 2nd, 2004 Late Evening I hear from a message on a friend’s answering machine that Multnomah County is expected to follow in San Francisco’s footsteps and begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses the next day. I have never been more proud to be a Portlander.
March 3rd, 2004 I check with my ordaining institution to verify everything I need to know about how to perform legal weddings. I ask a few friends who have performed legal weddings all about how it’s done.
March 4th, 2004 I drive by the Multnomah County Building to take in history. The line of couples waiting to get marriage licenses is long, and rainbow flags are flying. I begin to let in what I am witnessing: the excitement, the freedom, the beauty of gay and lesbian couples coming out, publicly choosing each other, letting their love be witnessed, filmed, spoken, and celebrated—the incredible magnitude of what is changing in all of our lives.
County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey is quoted in The Oregonian: “I just want to say to gay people that you are beautiful and you belong here.” And Bonnie Tinker of Love Makes a Family has a great quote on the Oregonian editorial page: “It is intolerable to ask another generation to endure life as outcasts while those with privilege debate the right time for justice. The right time for justice is always now.” I have been swimming in this incredible energy and crying from the love all day.
March 5th, 2004 As an ordained Minister of The Rock Foundation, I stand as officiant before my first about-to-be-legally-married lesbian couple. They have been together for 10 years, and it turns out that we have a mutual friend. They have chosen me out of the 20 or more officiants at Keller Auditorium that day because I am a Sufi, because I refer to The Divine as “Beloved,” because they read Rumi and Hafiz, and want their love celebrated and confirmed in that atmosphere of reverent delight. I myself am stunned at the grace and humor of The Beloved’s plan, as I astonishingly hear myself speaking the words: “By the Power vested in me by the State of Oregon, the County of Multnomah, The Rock Foundation Ministry and The Love that unites us all, I hereby declare you legally spouses for life!!” I put my signature on their paperwork. I write my title: “Minister”. I am an agent of legalization! I marvel that this is a much more fun and comfortable way to affirm love than by being dragged off by the cops!
After 8 weddings at Keller, I am an old hand and completely hooked on the excitement and joy. The love is overflowing. Couples, some newly together, most already partnered for 10 years or more, come with parents and children, friends and family. I kneel between one couple and their officiant and hold up a cell phone so that “Mom” can listen in from afar while they speak their vows. After they are “pronounced,” one woman takes the phone and asks, “Mom, did you hear all that?” and we all hear Mom cheering “Yay, yay!!” from across the miles. Keller closes at 4pm, and I head over to the county building. I marry 4 more couples there...14 yrs together...18 yrs together... one man born in Thailand, one lesbian couple with two young boys who shoot us with water pistols. The atmosphere is celebrational, but also confrontational. There are some protesters, maybe 6 or so, after 5pm, and the allies are singing “Going to the Chapel” to drown out the protesters during the ceremonies. Some big-hearted young adults in classic Portland Bohemian garb—dreadlocks and baggy patch pants—show up with a beautiful, giant, heart-shaped pink-icing cake, and we all marry and eat cake outside the county building.
County staff report that they’ve issued a record number of marriage licenses for any 3-day period in history. A total of 1237 licenses have been issued since Wednesday, which far exceeds the number issued last month in San Francisco. Interestingly, this brings $75,000 in unexpected revenue to the county. I’ve married 12 couples, setting my first day’s longevity record at 18 years.
March 8th 2004 A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge refuses to temporarily halt the county’s issuing of same-sex marriage licenses, saying that opponents failed to show that there would be “irreparable harm” from allowing the weddings to continue.
October 10, 1987 As part of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the Reverend Troy Perry of MCC church, along with many others, organized a mass protest and celebration of gay relationships called simply, “The Wedding.” The organizers had spelled out some demands in the pre-march pamphlet: “that gay and lesbian domestic partners be entitled to the same rights and privileges as married heterosexual couples.” Reports estimate between 1000 and 4000 couples were ceremonially (but not legally) married that day.
I’m on the sidewalk in Washington DC, outside the IRS building. There are chalk hearts with arrows and names in rainbow colors drawn everywhere. There are silver balloons. The crowd is massive. The street is full of couples gazing nervously and lovingly into each other’s eyes. The sidewalks are packed at least 6 deep with witnesses. A woman on the stage is sharing the gut-wrenching story of her separation from her long-term partner and her attempt to get legal guardianship after that partner became disabled and was put into the “care” of homophobic parents who prevented the two from spending time together. My friend Kelly, caught up in the spontaneous excitement of the day, draws me toward the street and says, “Come on; let’s get married.” I’m flattered and delighted, but I gently say “no.” I take this seriously. My lover is back home in Portland. I honor this occasion of real long-term couples with deep commitments to one another getting to speak their vows into the open air and having them witnessed by thousands of loving supporters. It is enough for me, that day, to be a witness.
March 9th 2004 As A Basic Rights Oregon Volunteer, I have been marrying couples full time for three days now. I have a comfortable, warm and speedy routine of pre-marital questions: “How long have you been together? Have you had any previous commitment ceremonies? Do you have rings? Are you comfortable with these vows? Do you want to use spiritual language, and if so, what kind? Tell me about your family and your choice to legalize your commitment today. Do you have a camera, and do your witnesses know how to use it?” I meet Ann and Ann, from Eugene, my only couple so far with the same names. They have been together for 22 years. As we talk, it unfolds that their very first ceremony was in 1987. Yes...with the Rev. Troy Perry; yes...at the March on Washington. The first time they were married was not legal, in Washington DC, and I was there! 17 years later, I am able to marry them legally, right here in Oregon. I say a prayer of gratitude for changes I get to witness in my own lifetime, for having the opportunity to marry this particular couple who connect me so viscerally to my own history.
March 11th, 2004 Aimee and Loret drive down from Seattle with their 2 yr old daughter, Aislin. They’ve been together for 11-1/2 yrs. Another family is in the car with them: Angelo and Teresa, who’ve been together 6-1/2 yrs, and their 18 month old son Juliann. Aimee and Teresa are best friends. Angelo and Teresa become my first heterosexual couple! As Aimee wrote to me later: “One reason that Teresa and Angelo did not get married earlier was that they did not believe their relationship was any more loving, valuable, or real than ours, and so they thought it was extremely unfair for them to be able to marry while we could not. Well, you can see how fast they got married as soon as we could! Thank you so much for being a perfect part of our perfect day.”
News that SF has stopped issuing gay marriage licenses by California Supreme Court Order reaches Portland. Portland couples with licenses rush to Holocene to get married, fearing similar outcomes in Portland. I marry one lesbian couple, Laurie and Lana, who had wanted to wait for the Rabbi who performed their commitment ceremony 3 years ago, but now were afraid to wait. We say Jewish prayers as part of the service. I marry a gay male couple outside Holocene after the day has formally closed. They too are rushing, seeking full marriage equality after 8 years together, and are still in their work uniforms.
March 12th, 2004 Oregon State attorney general Hardy Meyers releases his legal opinion on same-sex marriage in Multnomah County. He basically says that state statutes prohibit granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but that these statutes are most likely in violation of the State Constitution. County Chair Diane Linn suspends the issuance of ALL marriage licenses while she considers the county’s response to Meyer’s statement.
March 15th, 2004 After a half day of issuing no marriage licenses, Diane Linn announces that the county will continue issuing marriage licenses to all couples. Portland becomes the only major metropolitan area in the nation still performing same-sex marriage. Over 2000 weddings have been performed in the last two weeks. I’ve married 35 couples.
March 18th, 2004 Governor Kulongoski orders state agencies to treat same-sex marriages as invalid. This sets the stage for lawsuits to quickly reach the state supreme court, which all sides of the issue say they want.
March 19th, 2004 A new longevity record: 32 years! I am surprised to find out that this lesbian couple from a rural Oregon town is closeted in their community. They tell me “Everyone thinks we’re sisters. It’s easier that way.” I wonder what it’s been like for them to have chosen and to continue to choose that lifestyle, and to stand before us—Basic Rights staff, volunteers and clergy—on this day, openly declaring their love for one another, exchanging vows, and saying “With this ring, I thee wed.”
This Friday also starts what will become a trend. Friday is full of same-sex couples coming from all over the country and even Japan to get married.
March 21st, 2004 Portland Gay Mens’ Chorus and a host of other organizations sponsor a wedding recommitment ceremony at First Congregation UCC Church downtown. The chorus sings a great take-off of the Sound of Music song: “How do you thank a county like Multnomah?” I share the altar with a group of clergy saying blessings as hundreds of couples of all orientations, including County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey and her Husband, Dan, recommit to their relationships. Roey Thorpe from Basic Rights Oregon gives an incredibly moving speech, which is favorably reported in The Oregonian: “We must hold on to this feeling, this moment, this love. Everything we do must be about keeping alive the love and magic of the last few weeks. This is a movement afloat on a sea of love, its sails filled by the winds of justice.” Downstairs there are cakes from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), tiered layer cakes with chocolate covered strawberries and almonds on them, and cakes with the Chinese symbol for “double happiness.” County Commissioner Serena Cruz says, “This just feels so right,” as she ceremonially cuts the wedding cake. Servers move through the crowded, fruit-sculpture-bedecked room with trays of cake and beverages.
March 24th, 2004 A big press conference is scheduled for 1 pm. Ministers and volunteers start getting to know each other, doing crossword puzzles together, sharing resources and stories. ACLU and BRO announce their marriage equality lawsuit with nine couples as plaintiffs.
During the actual press conference, I am marrying Rosemary and Ellen, who have come up from Berkeley. They are 65 and 72, both doctors. Ellen is also a therapist and a poet. They recite Haiku to one another during the ceremony. They are so enamored of one another as they exchange their rings. Ellen keeps saying “I never thought this day would come.” I almost neglect to listen, I’ve heard this said so many times. But then Ellen reveals more of her story, why this is so amazing to her, and I’m glad that I slowed down long enough to hear. It turns out that Ellen was thrown out of medical school during the McCarthy Era for being a lesbian. She had to finish her medical studies in Europe before returning to The States. “I never thought this day would come,” she said again. And I tasted just the smallest nibble of what “this day” really means to her.
A film crew from Italian TV decides to hang around after the press conference. They end up filming a wedding that I perform for two young gay men who’ve been together for 6 years (ever since one of them was 18). We all joke that we will be stars on Italian TV!
March 26th, 2004 Mary and Liz come from Washington with a crowd. Together they have raised 5 adopted daughters, mostly from Russia, two of whom stand with them today. Their previous ceremony, near Vancouver Island, was attended by 3 bald eagles.
Jean and Sandra have been together for 6 years and say they are each other’s Karmic reward. Their wedding party fills the back room at Holocene with beautiful mandolin and vocals that draw folks from the rest of the building near.
April 2nd, 2004 Michael and Chuck, in their early 60’s, are from Puyallup. They’ve been together for 34 years as of yesterday (April 1st)! We quip, “I guess it wasn’t a joke, after all!” Chuck speaks through a tracheotomy tube, which he presses with his hand to use. We plan together to shorten the vows to accommodate this ability. We decide that Michael will repeat all the vows after me, and then Chuck will gaze into Michael’s eyes while I recite the vows, nodding his affirmation, raising his hand to his throat and speaking if and when he feels so moved. The ceremony begins. Michael repeats all the vows. I begin reciting the first sentence of vows that Chuck will dedicate to Michael. Chuck raises his hand to his throat. He says, “I want to do it.” Chuck repeats the full set of vows to his beloved: “Before these witnesses, I vow to love and care for you, for as long as we both shall live. I take you, with your faults and strengths, as I offer myself to you with my faults and strengths. I promise to help you when you need help, and to turn to you when I need help. I choose you as the person with whom I will share my life.”
April 9th, 2004 I marry a beautiful male couple from Warm Springs. They are both nervously sweaty and sweetly emotional during the ceremony. They’ve been together 5 years. One of the grooms is a member of the Warms Springs Tribe. He says they wanted to get married on the reservation, but even though their families are supportive, they couldn’t find anyone out there to marry them. They become my 68th couple.
A gay male couple is in town from New York. Before all this legalized marriage, they had already planned to fly into Portland this week for the due date of their first-born child. Today was the original due date, but she was born 3 days ago. One of the men was in the delivery room, one stayed home with the surrogate mom’s 5 yr old daughter. They come to One with Heart today, on the original due date of their daughter’s birth, to legalize their commitment. Their beautiful 3-day old daughter is the center of attention for most of us, laying in her tiny basket, or being held so gently in her Daddys’ arms and nursing on a wee little bottle. As the ceremony comes to a close, the newlywed Jewish men embrace, lift up their feet in unison, and smash the glass. We all look on with tears in our eyes and cheer.
April 14th, 2004 I volunteer at the annual Basic Rights Oregon business lunch. Over 550 people are in attendance, including many prominent politicians, and 4 of the Multnomah County Commissioners. The commissioners all receive a standing ovation from the gathered business community, as does Roey Thorpe, Basic Rights Executive Director. Roey says this to the commissioners, and I feel it in my heart to be true: “We know that you have risked a lot and are now engaged in struggles for doing what you knew was right. I want you to look around and see the faces standing here, as these are the people who will stand by you as you move forward.”
April 17th, 2004 Laurel and Tracy and I have been planning their wedding for more than a month. They have been together for 30 years. Today is the day. They have gathered friends, family and loved ones at their beautiful home at the north end of Forest Park. A typical pre-wedding tragicomedy unfolds: the wedding and reception are planned for the outdoors, starting at 11:30. But at 9 it’s downpouring. A fire is kindled in the fireplace—but the flue is still closed and the house fills with smoke. Miraculously, as 11:30 approaches, the sky clears, the hummingbirds hover at the feeders, the friends and family come outside and we pray to the four directions to join and bless us, and hold off the rain. Humor and love abound. Vows are exchanged. I share with all gathered that Laurel and Tracy still feel as though they are engaging in an act of civil disobedience by getting married. It is obvious, though, from the crowd gathered—lifelong friends from as far back as 4th grade, and several generations of blood family—that Laurel and Tracy are getting married now because, after 30 years together, they finally can. One of the heterosexual cousins shares with me that she has been married for 23 years. She says, “Laurel and Tracy are the rock. They are the role models for my marriage.” As we gather to cut the cake and sign the legal paperwork, the sky has cleared. Everyone is blowing bubbles that surround us and climb past the hummingbirds up to the blue sky. None of us can quite believe the perfection of this moment, this day, this time in history.
April 20th, 2004 There are 3 emails in my Soul Emergence inbox. 2 from Basic Right Oregon, and one from Cathy and Judy. Cathy and Judy write “Hello, Our names are Cathy and Judy and we’ve been together now for nearly 9 years. We want to get married.” They want to fly in from out of state, get their license and get married, preferably all within 2 days. “No problem,” I think.
But the email from Basic Rights has good news and bad news. The first round of the ACLU lawsuit has been decided. The marriage statutes are ruled to be in violation of the Oregon State Constitution. The over 3000 same-sex couples already married must be legally recognized by the state! Oregon has become the first state in the nation to confer marriage rights to gays and lesbians! There is a victory party scheduled for this evening.
But my heart is heavy with the down side. No new same-sex marriage licenses will be issued until 90 days after the next Oregon legislative session convenes. The legislature is charged with bringing the marriage laws and the State Constitution into alignment. Who knows what they will come up with. “Civil unions” are in, a form of union which is not capable of granting the over 1500 state and federal rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples when they marry.
My heart breaks as I email Cathy and Judy: “I am feeling sad tonight for couples like you who are ready and now have to wait…”
I begin to feel into the fact that heterosexual couples may ask me to marry them. I already have a mixed-gender marriage scheduled in August. How do I feel about this? So far, I have only legally married heterosexual couples (3 so far) during this short period that it has been legal also for lesbians and gays. I used to not even GO to straight weddings, due to my sense of unfairness about the privileges. What changed my mind about that in the past was that I am a big believer in community, in Unity, and in Love. I realized I was separating myself from community and from the celebration of love by choosing not to attend the heterosexual weddings of my friends, loved ones, and colleagues. I want to show up for more love in the world.
Epilogue When I marry people, it is as a minister of The Rock Foundation, a liberal interfaith collection of spiritual folks based in the Portland Metro area. Within my primary spiritual community, a branch of the Sufi community, I am not authorized to officiate any marriages, and same-sex marriages are not performed at all. So I am one of the community members, by virtue of the simple daily details of my life, whose presence brings the issue of same-sex relationships, love, and marriage into visibility and contemplation. I no longer think of it as activism, but simply being who I am.
I spoke recently with one of my spiritual mentors about my heavy heart, now that same-sex marriage licenses are not being granted. I said that I’m not sure how I feel about officiating heterosexual weddings during this time of limbo. She asked, “As some kind of protest?”
Protest feels like the wrong word; rather the image that comes to me is this scenario: What if, by law, black people still had to sit at the back of the bus . . . and you are white. The bus pulls up, and you step on. And you look at all the faces and feel into all the hearts of the people sitting there. Where would you choose to sit, and why?
To my mind, it is not a protest so much as a matter of letting what you know is right in your heart triumph over the flawed laws of man.
So why do gays and lesbians even want to get entangled with those laws? I say for justice and equality. For those 1500 rights and privileges solidifying couples and their commitment as they move through the world each day. We want to raise our children as acknowledged families with full legal rights. We want to visit our partners in the hospital without a hassle. We want to share with each other the benefits we earn at work and by paying into systems like social security. In times of loss and hardship, we want any struggle to come from within the inherent spiritual challenges of life’s transitions, NOT from hospitals, police, insurance companies, or family of origin members with more legal rights than we have, who resist recognizing the primacy of our unions. Like all married couples, we don’t want to deal with any authority other than the ultimate authority of The Divine.
The authority of the Divine manifests through the circumstances of our lives. In the absence of a theocracy and in the presence of the separation of church and state, it is not our government’s place to interpret or legislate what God wants for any two people. Civil rights must be conferred equally.
As a minister, I want the right to legally marry any couple who is ready to make a commitment to one another. I want any discernment and choice about who I marry, personally or professionally, to come from the guidance in my own heart, and not from the laws of man.
I pray that this can manifest by continuing to stand at the altar in celebration of love.
Shams Cohen is a graduate Practitioner of Conscious Healing, an ordained Minister of The Rock Foundation, and an appointed Sufi teacher in the Shadhuliyya way. She is an active and loving single Portlander ready to meet her beloved (welcoming sincere inquiries from any gender), and she runs two businesses through which she’d be happy to serve you: Soul Emergence: Healing, Counseling, Mediation and Ministry: Unsticking Obstacles, Supporting Transitions and Celebrating Rites of Passage AND Mighty Kindness Contracting: Home Remodeling and Repair: Caring for Your Heart While I Care for Your Home.
Please visit www.basicrights.org for ongoing updates and ways that you can help support marriage equality for all Oregonians.