It’s a beautiful spring day in Washington, D.C., around 5 p.m. I am arriving at the august Peterson Institute for International Economics. Today, however, the place is not a think tank but a chapel, and the important words to be uttered are not “trade-weighted exchange rates” but “I do.”
My old friend Joe Gagnon is getting married today to Paul Adamczak, his longtime partner. How I hate that word “partner”! As if Joe and Paul were members of the same law firm. Within the hour, I am pleased to realize, they will be partners no longer. Under District of Columbia law, they will be husbands.
Today’s ceremony is freighted with extra excitement. Only three days ago, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. The subject is much discussed here at the wedding. Of course, as an invitee mentions, Obama’s endorsement alters not a jot of law, not a tittle of policy. Yet a cultural barrier has been crossed, a taboo forever retired. The highest officer in the land and, by extension, his political party and half the country have embraced today’s ceremony as their own. We are a sideshow, an outlier, no longer.
The think tank’s auditorium is transformed by draperies, flowers, gentle lighting, rows of plush chairs. Lovely. It occurs to me, as I reflect on the week’s events, that only one decoration is missing. An American flag would be very much in order.
Chamber musicians play as I take a seat. A few rows ahead of me sits a restless boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old. My mind pitches back to an earlier time, more than four decades ago, and another boy, about the same age. He is sitting on the piano bench in his house in suburban Phoenix. I remember exactly the spot, exactly the moment, though I could not tell you the date exactly. Suddenly, out of the blue, the boy realizes that he will never be married. He does not know why marriage and family are out of his reach. He will in fact not understand why for almost 20 years, when he comes to understand he is homosexual. But children understand marriage long before they understand sex, and this boy knows, intuitively, that he is different in some way that rules out the kind of life that other people take for granted. He will always be an outsider to family life.
I look again at the boy in front of me and try to imagine what it is like to be him. He will never experience the desolate realization that I had long ago in Phoenix. He will never even be able to comprehend it. The wedding he now witnesses seems ordinary to him. For the whole span of his life, whether he is straight or gay, there will be a destination for his love within the folds of marriage. I find I envy him.
The grooms are walking down the aisle, Joe accompanied by his father, Paul by his mother. In front, two candles are lit for the parents who are not here. I wonder how Joe’s father feels, giving away his son to a man in a legally recognized ceremony. I think back on a conversation with my own father. This is in 1995, not so very long ago, but an eon as it seems today. He is urging me not to write about gay marriage, a subject I will soon take up for the Economist and the New Republic. He knows and accepts that I am gay; that is not the problem. It is my career he is worried about. The idea of a man marrying a man or a woman marrying a woman, he tells me, is such an outlandish idea that if I associate myself with it I will no longer be taken seriously as a writer. People will think I’m a nut. At the time, his prediction seemed plausible.
My gaze alights on one of the absent parents’ candles. My father lived to know and love Michael, who became like another son to him. He lived to see same-sex marriage legalized in Massachusetts and then in several other states. Alas, he died only a few months before Michael and I could legally marry in Washington, D.C. Had he been at our wedding, he would have blessed us, happy to see his prediction proved so blessedly wrong.
The officiant begins the ceremony and the grooms join hands. There are readings from Robert Frost and Plato’s Symposium. Later, Joe will admit to worrying that the readings might seem hackneyed. But the words have their intended effect as my eyes well up. They have an unintended effect, also, as I realize the improbability of what I am witnessing: a thoroughly conventional same-sex wedding.