Their wedding was like any other wedding, and like any other wedding it was extraordinary. Two people took a leap of faith together in hope and love. Two people surrounded by their family and friends celebrated their new life together. These two people were women.
Tania and Kristen met 18 years ago. Tania had struggled with her sexual orientation. For years, she drowned it with alcohol, cigarettes and promiscuous relationships with men. Then she met Kristen, and everything changed. Tania had been sober for 16 years and had not smoked for 14.
It was painful for Tania when she came out to her family. Her sister, Jean, was so taken aback that she didn’t understand what Tania meant when she said that she and Kristen were compatible. Over the years, the family came to accept Tania and Kristen’s relationshipsome more than others.
In the summer of 2010, a year after Iowa legalized same-sex marriage, Tania and Kristen decided to wed, mainly for their own legal protection. A spouse has a say in the medical treatment if the other is incapacitated. In the event of death, the surviving spouse has a lesser estate tax burden. Kristen and Tania also thought marriage would validate their relationship. They would be the equal of any married heterosexual couple.
Tania’s mom took the news hard. “Why can’t you just live together?” she asked. “It’s an embarrassment. We never thought you’d turn out this way.” She declared she would not attend the wedding. On the phone with Jean that evening, Tania sobbed, “Just what every daughter wants her mother to say.”
Tania’s brother, Dave, complained bitterly to Tania that she was hurting their mother and demanded she not bring it up anymore. He and his wife were not going to attend either, he said.
The invitations went out a few months before the big day.
“With grateful hearts we invite you to join us as we exchange our wedding vows. Once in a lifetime you meet someone who changes Everything.”
Tania’s other sister, Susanah, emailed that she and her husband, a retired Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, would not attend, saying what Tania and Kristen were doing was wrong. Susanah said Tania was forcing her sexual orientation on them, which she had promised not to do when she came out. Susanah ended the email by saying it was not too late for them to change their minds. Tania and Kristen each wrote back a difficult email. Kristen said the God of love she worshipped and read about in the Bible was different from the one Susanah and her husband worshipped.
Family and friends gathered on the evening before the wedding in Tania and Kristen’s home, a 100-year-old two-story white farmhouse in the middle of the bare, brown fields of Iowa. They served a fish fry rehearsal dinner with au gratin potatoes, Asian coleslaw salad and homemade bread.
Tania and Kristen had bought the family home after Tania’s father died and her mom had sold the rest of the farm and moved to town. Family was important to Tania and Kristen.
Kristen’s niece, Sue, undaunted by the family drama, said this would be her second gay wedding of the year, with one more to go. The first had been small and informal like Kristen and Tania’s; the third would be large and traditional. Those brides would wear traditional wedding gowns.
After dinner, Kristen, Tania, their attendants and I went to the living room for the rehearsal while the rest looked on curiously at an event many had never seen before. Kristen and Tania had asked Pastor Paul, their minister, to officiate, but he could not because of his Methodist denomination’s prohibition. Tania asked me to preside since I am an Episcopal priest and in-law of the family.
After Iowa legalized same-sex weddings, I had encouraged them. “Make Kristen an honest woman,” I had joked with Tania. In light of California’s reversal on same-sex marriageProposition 8there was no guarantee they would always have this opportunity.
“Stop! I’m going to cry,” Tania said as she and Kristen rehearsed what they would read together: “We come before God and this community; believing that we belong to each other and together we belong to God. We ask for God’s blessing on our life together.” Since there was no official same-sex wedding liturgy in my denomination, Tania, Kristen and I made one up. The result was similar to the marriage ceremony in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.
The next day, three hours before the wedding, Jean walked into the farmhouse to check on Tania. “How ya doin’?” she asked.
“I’m nervous,” Tania said, still dressed casually in shorts and a pullover shirt. “I’ve got all butterflies in my stomach.”
Kristen was upstairs getting dressed. This was her second marriage. She had two sons from her first. One had flown in from Charlotte; the other, from California, was unable to come. Something had never seemed right during her earlier marriage. Everything clicked when she met Tania.
A half hour before the wedding, two of Kristen’s co-workers and Tania’s nephew were busy putting salads, stir fry, pork barbecue and chips in large serving bowls in the small kitchen of the public North Ridge Pavilion in Coralville, Iowa. The pavilion was nestled on one side of a fishing pond. Just across the water, the word PEACE was emblazoned in the dark green lawn of the Community of Christ Church, a church that does not allow same-sex weddings.
The pavilion hall was filled with round tables and chairs for the dinner after the ceremony. Kristen and Tania nervously flitted from person to person, taking care of last-minute details. The photographer worked the room, snapping flash pictures as guests gathered. The sound person tested the microphone levels and the music.
Moments before the service began, Tania pushed her mom’s wheelchair into the pavilion hall. “Somewhere in Time” played in the background. Tania wiped tears from her eyes as she headed back to the small lobby. Kristen’s eyes misted while escorting her son to his seat. After a deep breath, Sue and Jean, their attendants, walked from the lobby to the front of the hall, followed by Tania and Kristen. The sound reverberated through the room, creating a screeching feedback as I intoned in my best clerical voice, “Beloved people of God …”
Pastor Paul read from Romans 12:3-21, one of the scriptures that had been used just a day earlier at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”
Kristen and Tania had picked this reading months before. Both are devout Christians. They faithfully attended their Methodist church.
The photographer, also Kristen’s friend, cried as the two read a personal message to each other before exchanging their vows. Tania’s mother, dressed in black, looked away. Dave sat next to her, stone-faced. They did not want to be there, but they came anyway.
The service ended with people greeting one other with the sign of peace. Tania and Kristen kissed warmly. Everyone applauded. They immediately danced to “Still the One.”
As the 125 guests laughed, drank and ate together, it did not seem to matter that two women had been married instead of a man and a woman. It had been a beautiful wedding.
Two months later, Tania sent a thank you note to Jean for our gift to Shared Blessings, their church’s community meal ministry. They had invited guests to make a donation instead of bringing a gift.
“Words cannot express how grateful we are for you on our wedding day,” she wrote. “It meant so much to us to have you both in the ceremony. Jean, you finally were my matron of honor. Who’d a-thunk?! It’s a day I will cherish forever.”
When I asked how their relationship had changed, Tania later told me over the phone: “I feel different. I feel married. The commitment in front of family, friends and God makes our relationship deeper. I love Kristen even more. There’s more respect. The commitment changes everything. It makes our relationship more special. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
The Rev. John Gibson is a priest at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh. He lives in Cary.
Names of the couple and some identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy.