The Little Gay Engine That Could

As a genderqueer woman who has stood on the sidelines of many straight and queer weddings—sometimes with pom-poms, sometimes not—I will admit I opened Here Come the Brides!: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage, an anthology edited by Audrey Bilger and Michele Kort, with a bit of trepidation. In my efforts as a queer cultural worker and as the recent head of an LGBTQ center at Columbia College Chicago, the gay marriage issue has felt like a distraction and detour, but equally a riveting new front for change. Marriage in the 21st century is already a complicated affair for straight folks in America; add in the queers and the can of worms glows with new twists and turns. With wit, candor and incision, Here Come the Brides—an anthology of essays, poems, cartoons, plays and stories—cracks open that can, giving us a look-see at the legal, economic, political, cultural and intimate reverberations of marriage at the frontlines of the LGBTQ equal rights movement. Along with their authors, editors Bilger and Kort deftly, boldly lift the lid on questions and contentions both large and small, public and private, that have been rattling around in queer communities and feminist consciousness over the last decade. The anthology rides a careful line—by turns polemical, artful, and conversational—and key issues unfold in our readerly lap as story, a deeply human one, with cracks and fault lines and an outcome we get increasingly wrapped up in.

Regardless of your stake in or stance on the marriage issue or the “gay” issue, the momentum of this historic movement—one that is equally personal and national, one that touches on both heartstrings and political nerves—is gripping. I have, with two long-term partnerships with women under my belt, so far not taken the nuptial plunge. My current partner and I have felt the traction that many of the authors in Here Come the Brides describe—a deepening resistance to and simultaneous rousing pull toward getting hitched, both feelings being right in the bleed of personal/political. As the valves toward the legalization of gay marriage have opened and closed and opened again, it has felt like our queer community has been inside of an engine that is lurching forward, stalling out, then reigniting. This book speaks eloquently to the starts and stops of the gay marriage movement. Repeatedly the pistons have gotten bogged down by the weight of the larger legal and political machine. However, at pivotal moments when fuel, air and spark suddenly synched up in California, Massachusetts, New York, etc., a feeling of possibility swept our queer nation. In those moments, as with many of the authors in Here Come the Brides, the idea that my partner and I could take a public, ceremonious leap in our relationship as part of a larger shift in collective consciousness and in state/federal laws, felt suddenly like a game-changing ride we could get behind. As this timely anthology shows us, the little engine of gay marriage, with its sputtering in fits and starts and the larger steam it has built, has undeniably propelled the field of queer rights forward.

Part memoir, part cultural critique, and part lezbo wedding field guide, Here Come the Brides offers up a range of stories, views, and social thought on queer marriage, notably the privileges, passions and pitfalls of the institution as it applies to women. What’s more, the deftly crafted arc of the anthology takes us on a ride that mirrors the charged national movement where the battles over marriage have reignited the field of equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Like the best of anthologies, Here Come the Brides locates us inside of a layered, complex prism all angling in on an issue from different vantage points and genres; the feelings, histories, and politics assembled are vast and often conflicting, and because of this, we get the real scoop on what’s at stake when it comes to lesbians deciding to get hitched. Indeed, feminist thought drives this book—here the lesbians and gender-bending dykes tell the herstory; however, the wider context of LGBTQ rights is a consistent thread, and the critical thinking about marriage serves the larger human story. Rather than caving to a moralistic for or against gay marriage, the anthology goes wide, inviting us into the shades of grey where a more complex story resides.

The writing itself runs the gamut—some of the pieces are looser and read almost as oral histories; many offer razor sharp, visionary critique; and a handful are artfully crafted literary pieces. A few of the pieces dip a bit mind-numbingly into the minutiae of wedding details, which in itself is a compelling phenomenon; the courtroom and equal rights are suddenly on the playing field with wedding planners and here the feeling of historic change gets wobbly. The book’s structure is savvy, though—sections such as “I Do’s and I Don’ts,” “Wedding Belles,” and “The Best Laid Plans” invite the plurality of experience and politic to coexist and give the reader room to consider the intricacies and textures of the contested, heated field of lesbian marriage. The book swoons in the romance of weddings and notions of “forever,” calls out the market-driven wedding industrial complex, maps out a plethora of how-tos and alternative choices for queer wedding planning, redflags the patriarchal history of marriage as outdated and Victorian, slices open the domesticating and assimilationist forces of marriage, and celebrates our queer/freak/outsider status as something both antithetical to marriage and deserving of and ripe for the very public spectacle itself. Bilger and Kort, and their authors, do not let us forget that there are profound inter/national and political contexts embedded within some of our most deeply private, intimate choices.

What this anthology makes clear: the forces of history change us. In 2004, when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom made the decision to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, not only did marriage as an institution shudder and shift on its foundation, so did the national movement for LGBTQ rights. From that point on, despite the backsteps and roadblocks of DOMA, Prop 8, and other right-wing reactions, a set of forces was in motion. Now, is marriage the most vital equal rights issue on the queer agenda? For most of us, no—immigration, healthcare, racism, suicide, trans rights, and youth advocacy are more urgent. But is it a matter of civil and human rights? Yes, of course, and in the end, more than the yearning for recognition or equality, more than the yearning for weddings or marriage itself, what the voices in this book rally around like a riotous ceremony in print, is the desire for choice. Whether queer people wanted to get married or not, the fact that marriage was suddenly stirring on the national table in the ’00s changed our orbit as a people. In my work with the queer community at Columbia College at the time of Prop 8’s passing, I watched that orbit shift as students, staff and faculty unexpectedly rallied around queer marriage as a pivotal point of public action. Across the country, people not generally pulled toward activism suddenly clamored into the streets to protest Prop 8’s hate. Hatred toward acts of love is something that can get a wide spectrum of people out of their living rooms, out from behind their desks. What is most vital I believe is not that marriage be seen as the most pressing queer equal rights issue of our time, but that change was incited and has rippled out, on national and international levels, opening up dialogue and visibility of LGBTQ issues across the spectrum.

And this is where Here Come the Brides nails it: the sweep of change that has reverberated (albeit with some reversals and ricochets) not just throughout queerland but on the radar of our allies and the homophobes far and wide, echoes through us as we read the book. It is not that we get swept away as the reader—we get swept in. Essay after essay, the authors (comedians, artists, historians, professors, policy leaders, psychologists, scholars, cartoonists, and of course activists) discuss how marriage as a rallying call, as a locus for civil rights, has imprinted on and shifted their lives, minds, choices and relationships, often in ways they wouldn’t have predicted. The emotions—confusion, ambivalence, frustration, and disappointment, along with elation and triumph—become ours to feel as we ride the roller coaster with women who, whether they planned to or not, became frontrunners and heavy-hitters in the campaign for the right to choose marriage. The questions and answers are a mighty brew, one that, if tended to with the diligence of this book’s writers, editors, and readers, could have the potential to uproot and reinvent the way we look at marriage for straights and queers alike, and, in the end, perhaps redefine the very institution itself.

Queers have a unique propensity for activating the border between public and private, and if there is one thing LGBTQ people have done to marriage, it is to make it a public affair. Stonewall, queer liberation, and the feminist movements all catalyzed change by asserting how our bodies, desires, and personal lives are deeply political; we have waged movements by exploding the socially constructed borders between the sheets and the streets, the kitchen and the legislature. Here Come the Brides takes us right into the heart of that complicated border: state by state, community by community, couple by couple, our choices toward, through, or away from marriage have become a platform for showing what matters to us as feminists, queers, and seekers of a more just world. Almost midway through the book is the interview “First Brides.” Along with the editors, Kate Kendall (a pivotal leader in the same-sex marriage movement) interviews Phyllis Lyon, the eighty-seven-year-old lesbian foremother who, with Del Martin, her partner of fifty-six years, founded the first lesbian organization, Daughters of Bilitis, and also wed twice as the first same-sex couple to marry in the 2004 and 2008 landmark public group weddings in San Francisco’s City Hall. As a matter of principal, not romance, the two women chose to chart the way, knowing it would open doors for many others. These lesbian elders stand as a testament to a different kind of marriage, where duty to your community is part and parcel of the binding love between two people. At a time when the state of the union on marriage is diagnostically in collapse, leave it to the queers to reinvent, redefine, or reject an old standby.

Whether you are a history buff, a fan of the gays, a marriage cynic (straight or queer), a newly engaged lesbian, or someone who just enjoys the drama of a good human story, you should pick up this book. Wedding cakes, registries, vows, dresses, rings, and flowergirls all get discussed, as do divorce, broken engagements, relationship drama, and gender panic over gender roles. But trust me, the stories of another kind of wedding planning are what take the cake: the wedding as a public act, where city workers, hospital employees, government officials, and throngs of families and friends across racial, cultural, and sexual lines are swept up, along with the line-up of queer brides, in making a bit of history. This book reminds us that there is nothing better than reading a page-turner of a history whose pages are still being written. Whether or not you care to marry, dive into this book and feel history, rather than wedding rice, crackle in your hands.

K. Bradford is a poet, performer and cultural worker who hails from too many places to list. Currently, she's pursuing her MFA from CalArts and living down a dirt road at the fringes of one strange SoCal suburb.