In a Heartbeat: The Legality of Marriage

When Marianne Norris was first coming out, she wanted someone to talk to. She was established in her career, she had grown children – and she didn’t know many gay women who shared that experience. A friend suggested she email Eileen Scallen, then a law professor in San Francisco, who had come out a year before. “Neither of us had any idea where it would go,” Norris recalls. “We weren’t thinking anything was being set up, or anything romantic.” When the two were finally able to meet, though, it became clear that there was something between them. “It was one of the best things that happened,” she tells me with quiet joy, as though it happened a week ago.

In fact, Norris and Scallen are coming up on fifteen years together. Scallen, who is originally from the Twin Cities, returned after being offered a position at William Mitchell College of Law. “She probably never thought she’d come back to Minnesota,” Norris says, laughing, “but I guess I got her to come back.”

Not long after, they had a very small commitment ceremony – just the two of them, their witness and their cat. They wanted to keep it small for a few reasons; first, Norris was still in the process of coming out, and, as she says, wasn’t quite comfortable yet with this new identity. What’s more, Scallen wasn’t sure how her family would respond. “They’re very wonderful, strong Catholics,” Norris explains, “and if we had some kind of a big celebration, how comfortable would they have been, and would they have come?”

Still, the ceremony was just what they wanted. “I sobbed through the whole thing,” Scallen tells me, “so in a sense I was glad there weren’t more people around, because I was a wreck.” It was the first time, she says, that she ever cried out of happiness. She occasionally goes back and reads the vows that they wrote for the occasion, and when she does, they always bring tears to her eyes.

How guests will respond to their commitment ceremony or wedding is something that many same-sex couples have to think about. Áine Humble, an Associate Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia, recently completed a study of 14 same-sex couples who have married since the 2005 passage of the Civil Marriage Act. In her conversations with these couples, she found that they approached their weddings with “a lot of intentionality and a lot of planning,” and thought through things in a way that heterosexual couples don’t have to. The process of inviting someone, for example, might also mean coming out to that person. It could mean being turned down, in the case of those who reach out to disapproving family members in the hopes that they will change their minds.

Humble also notes the added pressure that comes from hosting what may be the first gay wedding that guests have attended. “Some of them worried about, ‘Are we going to kiss in front of people? I’ve never kissed my partner in front of her daughter, or I’ve never kissed my partner in front of my parents,’” she explains. “All those little things that heterosexual couples take for granted, they had to think through.”

With this in mind, some couples decide to go entirely their own way, with a ceremony representative of who they are and what means the most to them.  “There was one lesbian couple that got married at I think something like 5 o’clock in the morning on the beach,” Humble recalls. “They timed their wedding vows so that they were saying them right as the sun was coming up.” However, for those who did choose something more traditional, they still found ways to make the wedding their own. One couple decided to wear rainbow stoles during the ceremony, and another gave corkscrews adorned with tiny rainbow flags as favors for their guests.

According to The Rev. Canon Timothy Hodapp, who performs ceremonies in the Episcopal Church for both gay and straight couples, choosing the traditional is, in a sense, choosing the familiar. “As a culture, that’s how we mark a married couple, through those liturgical, ritual actions,” he explains. “There’s something comforting about that. And it may also – although I’ve never heard this – reflect a real desire to say, ‘marriage is marriage, regardless.’”

Hodapp was a Catholic priest for twelve years before coming out. His husband of four years (and partner of thirteen), Gerard Sullivan, was also raised in the Church. For them, incorporating their faith into a ceremony was vital. “It was important for us to stand up in front of our family and friends and profess what we were living,” Hodapp explains, “because we felt as sacramentally married before God as any straight couple.” In 2004, a Roman Catholic priest, along with 250 of their family and friends, heard their vows in a ceremony at a Unitarian church in Minneapolis. “It all felt really good and kind-of – it also felt a little maverick,” Hodapp recalls, grinning. “Because we had this priest there hearing us, receiving our vows.” Afterward, there was a huge party for their friends and family. They served ribs, they danced – as Hodapp says, “it was just a hoot.”

Following the ceremony, though, it became important to find a place where they could marry legally. In October of 2008, they traveled to California with two of their closest friends, just before the vote that would ban same-sex marriage across the state. They were married in the rotunda at the City Hall in San Francisco, where Milk was filmed. “We were in a line of probably 50 couples,” Hodapp recalls. “It was a real rush…to get it in before Prop 8 hit the bill. So there were a lot of people there, but it wasn’t a cattle call. It was absolutely lovely.”

Now, though, with Minnesota’s own vote looming on the horizon, Hodapp and Sullivan are starting to think a lot about their future. Though they want to stay here, it may not be an option should the Amendment pass. More than anything, they want to live in a place that will be safe. When I asked Hodapp what he means by ‘safe,’ he says, “for us, safety is all about what’s legally assured us as well as what’s culturally assured us. So we’d want to live in a place that provided both.” For example, the ability, which many people take for granted, “to hold hands or give each other a peck as you run up and say hello at the end of the day.”

The possibility of the Amendment is also influencing how Norris and Scallen think about marriage. “I would feel pretty hopeless if it passed,” Norris says. “I’m sixty-eight years old…and it would take so long to undo that, that I doubt we would ever be able to get married in Minnesota.” At this point, however, they’ve decided not to get married until it’s legal here. Though they’ve discussed the possibility of marrying elsewhere for many years, in the end, this is their home. “I’m a Minnesotan,” Scallen says. “I was born here…and I shouldn’t have to leave the state to have the same rights as my brothers and sisters.”

At the same time, though, Scallen says she would think seriously about whether or not they could leave Minnesota if the Amendment does pass. “It would be a direct slap in our faces,” she says. “There is no question, this is not just about marriage. This is about our relationships. It is about our sexual orientation. And it is saying we are not as good as opposite-sex couples who can get married.”

As Hodapp says, “Culture is a long time in changing…I mean, shoot, when I was a kid, you were afraid to even admit that you were gay. And it’s a different world now. It’ll be a different world in twenty years. I’m hoping…I think Minnesota will change.”

The way things are now, Scallen thinks it is unlikely that marriage will be legalized in Minnesota anytime soon. Still, when I ask Norris what they would do if marriage were someday legalized in Minnesota, if they would get married, without a moment’s hesitation she responds, “Absolutely. In a heartbeat.”

As for the wedding, both women imagine something not unlike Hodapp and Sullivan’s commitment ceremony – one that is, above all, a celebration.

“I would see it as a real ceremony and a real party,” Norris says. “A really good time for everybody.”

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