love vs. cake toppers*

*I first posted the following piece about gay weddings on March 2, 2006. I’m including it here with a comment from a reader and my response (read: rant).

Since then, I’ve been to several other same-sex weddings, most recently that of a femme trans woman and her very butch Syr, which I attended with both my bois as dates (oh! the handsome!). Their ceremony included explicit reference to butch-femme dynamics and leather. And I’ve got two more coming up next spring – a pair of leatherdykes and a pair of sweet trans guys, one of whom is my sometime-lover, and all four of whom are Jewish, each couple made up of one born-that-way Jewish person and one convert. I can’t wait to see the blend of traditions, and of families and friends, that’s sure to be present at each ceremony. A couple of weeks ago, one couple was discussing dinner arrangements in my living room and stated emphatically that they were not going to make their wedding a potluck (horror of horrors!), and the very next day, I got chatting with one half of the other couple, who cheerily crowed, “We’re going to make it a potluck!” So it appears that next spring’s weddings will be a study in contrasts.

Really, this marriage thing is extending well past the domain of heterosexual imitation… and it’s fascinating to watch. I especially appreciate watching people create new traditions and fresh ceremonies that represent who they are and how they move in their communities. Though I realize this is a subjective point of view, I have only experienced one same-sex wedding that had the flavour of assimilationism, and even then only barely, which means that queers are definitely getting creative when it comes to appropriating the institution and making it our own. Much fun indeed.

***

I’m going to my first-ever gay wedding this weekend!

Well, sort of. I’ve been to two lesbian weddings already. But this one is a ceremony for two men, and that part will be a first to me. They’ve been together for almost a decade, and they came together via an intensive selection process on the part of D, the half of the couple I’m friends with. Looks like his partner fit the bill, because since that first date – after D had apparently screened 40 or more other men – they’ve been together and happy.

So, the question is, of course… what do I wear? Do I go butch or femme? It really does seem to be pretty difficult to dress up somewhere in between. Maybe I should do what my ex does, and dress in a style resembling Prince. Yeah. Prince could be a good model for a queer girl’s dress-up occasion. Do I have to match my outfit to T’s, or do we do the independent thing? Is a tie too formal? Is an open collar not formal enough? Oh yeah, I’m a girl, we can get away with that. What about high heels? I never quite feel fancy enough in flats. But do those clash with the butch thing? And what about sandals vs. boots? Agh.

I think I’m going to make it an official policy to choose the gender of my formal wear based on temperature. On days where it’s minus 20, that wool blazer and buttoned-up shirt are just fine. In the summer, a slinky cocktail dress showing more skin than it covers works just dandy. Switch them and you’re miserable. Yes! Problem solved. Butch it is.

Oh, OK, so I didn’t start writing about this just to be able to agonize about my wardrobe.

Really, this whole wedding has just gotten me thinking about the whole same-sex marriage thing yet again. I’ve written fairly extensively about it over the past few years. The first time was an article on same-sex civil unions, which was published in the West Island Chronicle in 2002. The article basically said, civil unions are great and of course people of the same sex should be allowed to have them, but at the same time if we’re going for full equality, let’s just open up marriage to everyone who wants it and get it over with.

In 2003 I went to a conference and met a dyke in her forties who almost immediately became one of my favourite people in the whole world. She had some choice things to say about marriage – against it, to my great surprise. Wha…? This was definitely one of the more educational conversations I’ve ever had. She basically explained that to make marriage the focus of queer political action was to gun for inclusion in the mainstream instead of to open people’s minds to the existence and rights of people who fall outside of it.

At the time that gave me a lot to chew on. I finally decided that I do agree with her in many ways, and all the more so after reading the super-fantastic book The Trouble with Normal by Michael Warner. Truly one of my absolute best reads of 2005. I highly recommend it. He argues that marriage is a form of social legitimization, and as long as it exists as a mechanism for legitimization, by definition the relationships of people who choose not to marry are considered illegitimate. No matter what sort of alternative relationships married people have with one another, the fact of buying into the institution perpetuates its power.

That makes lots of sense to me. And yet, I can’t find it in myself to see my married queer friends as having done something wrong. I can’t help but feel all excited that two people who love one another are making a public commitment to one another, a statement of their devotion, an invitation for their friends and families and community members to share in that happiness. Political cynic though I can be, I just can’t bring myself to see this as a bad thing.

Maybe it helps that so far, all the queers I’ve known who’ve gotten married have done so in pleasantly alternative ways, and not in “traditional” ceremonies – now that’s a weird word to use in this context! And they haven’t all of a sudden become heterosexual imitators or started looking down on me for my alternative lifestyle. (For those interested, I wrote a pretty in-depth dissection of my politics around this a few years ago, an article entitled “I Do… I Don’t… I Don’t Know.”)

So just for the fun of it, I decided to log onto http://www.gayweddings.com and see what they had to say. I thought maybe a gay wedding site would have a few other viewpoints to share, more stuff to keep me thinking.

Instead what I got was this: “You and your partner have met each other, fallen in love, gotten engaged, and picked a date. Though you’ve covered great distances, you are now coming to find that you’ve actually only just begun and “square one” is staring you in the face. You are asking yourselves: We’ve come this far and know we want to build the gay wedding of our dreams, but what’s next? Where do we begin?”

Good God. Square one is the wedding? What happened to the relationship – meeting someone, discovering all the beautiful things about them, working on your communication, sharing your histories, building a life together? Since when did square one become the ceremony? To me, that’s square middle somewhere, or square irrelevant unless you want to be legally protected when you have a baby or when you want to bring your partner into the country from abroad. Maybe square lots of fun but not the basis for our existence. Like, yikes. Do gay people now have dreams of gay weddings? I mean really? Is this the new thing we’re supposed to be focused on? Gah. The whole thing started to feel kinda squicky to me.

And that’s before I even went into the boutique section, http://www.twobrides.com – because of course, this can’t possibly be just about love and legal protection, it has to be about products and sales! Like, for example, sales of the “African-American Butch-Femme Cake Topper.”

I giggled so hard when I saw that, I just about fell off my chair. It’s… so fucking cute! And so pleasantly inclusive of folks who are not lily-white! And so hilarious and significant that there’s actually a market for this. And yet… so absurd it’s almost disgusting! (Remind me again that this is not heterosexual imitation?)

Let’s not forget the heading to an article on the associated site http://www.twogrooms.com: “Can A Gay Wedding Be Complete Without Place Cards for a Seated Dinner?”

Um, I gotta say… YES. Yes indeed, a gay wedding can be complete without place cards for a seated dinner. In fact it can be complete without a seated dinner. Maybe without even food. What the fuck!

All of a sudden I’m starting to see this anti-marriage thing as pretty darned legit. I still wouldn’t take away anyone’s right to get hitched, and I will still get all teary when a buddy of mine tremblingly declares eternal love for their honey in front of an audience. But egads, is it ever gross to see queers buying right into the whole weird wedding industry. I thought it was gross when my het friends were doing it, but oh man, this is a bit harder to stomach.

To my great relief, the two lovely gentlemen marrying this weekend have emphatically requested that guests not give them any gifts. I like this idea very much. It says something about them.

But I do plan to give them a little something. Just a card, which I plan to adorn with some calligraphy. A couple of my queer-girl friends suggested some verse by Kahlil Gibran, from his book The Prophet, which he published in 1923. I found the following, which, oddly enough, is a very traditional piece to read at a wedding:

“Love one another, but make not a bond of love: / Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. / Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. / Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. / Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, / Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. // Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. / For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. / And stand together yet not too near together: / For the pillars of the temple stand apart, / And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

That’s what a wedding should be, in my books. Fuck the cake toppers and the new china. Fuck the place cards and the expectations. Let’s talk about love.

***

Here’s that reader comment:

“I’ve actually always thought of wedding presents as one of those cool tribal/community aspects of the whole ceremony. People embarking on a new life together often actually need shit. It’s the community of loved ones sending them off on a new future, blessing them dinnerwear that isn’t from the dollar store. Because really, if you’re a struggling young couple, are you really going to buy all that china yourself? But it’s still nice to have… Not giving wedding presents (as a theoretical policy, not as a response to a specific request on the part of the wedding couple) seems a bit classist. A rich young couple could just buy whatever stuff they want or need. A poor young couple might really rely on or benefit from the gifts given to them buy their community. Therefore, I think there is a good reason for this tradition.”

And my response:

I think my problem with the idea of wedding gifts – at least, wedding gifts of the medium- or big-ticket practical variety – is that they’re not actually related to need anymore. Fifty years ago, when you lived with your parents until you moved out to live with your spouse (heteros only of course), it was common for people to actually need all the stuff they got, and that tribal thing made a lot of sense – a community rallying around its members to celebrate their union and set them up for a new life together.

Nowadays, it’s much more rare for that to be the case. Much more common are people who leave home to make their way in the world five, ten, or twenty years before they ever get married – if they choose to get married at all. Why not have gift-giving traditions for that? For poor students who are in a strange new city with a minimum-wage job? For single women in entry-level positions and their first apartment? And so forth.

I find it a holdover from times past that people associate a wedding with those needs. It’s material reward for entering an institution of couplehood, whether or not you’re actually beginning a new life. I’ve been attending weddings at least twice a year for at least 12 years now and the vast majority of them have been between older (read: past their early 20s) people who are already financially independent. And I’ve known way, way too many people who have been in need of pretty basic things but who haven’t had access to them for lack of funds, with minimal or sporadic help from their tribes and families, and it irritates me to think people would all of a sudden shower them with gifts if they got married.

To me, that’s the height of classism – if you can afford to hire the people to perform a ceremony, a space in which to celebrate, and a lavish spread of food for 200 guests, then you get lots of gifts. But if you’re poor and just pay fifty bucks to the justice of the peace and invite five friends to come witness because you can’t afford to rent a hall and your apartment’s too small for a party, you get fewer gifts.

And that’s not to mention people who do start out a new life (or a new set-up at least) by living together as a couple but who choose not to marry or have a ceremony. The old gift-giving logic doesn’t quite hold up. I totally get the idea of wedding gifts as a marker of a happy occasion, but in that case it should be a “thought that counts” thing and not a “buy me a washing machine” thing – much like any other special occasion.

We haven’t yet invented traditions that respond to people’s actual life patterns of the past 30 years, and it would be really nice to see more creative approaches to helping out newly independent people, or people in need at any age and at any stage of their romantic life, rather than sticking with old traditions that are only sometimes and somewhat appropriate for people’s lives.

6 Responses

  1. I have yet to have a gay wedding to attend, but can’t wait for my first. I have several couples who are close to me which want to eventually have the opportunity and the idea is just so exhilarating for me. I’m trying not to worry about the gifts or what to wear at this point…..too stressful! lol

  2. Okay, I totally respect your right to literary embellishment, but can we please change “cheerily crowed” to “blushed and mumbled into her tea”? Really.

    XOXOX
    Jacqueline

  3. I think it was during a phone conversation, so I missed the blushing and the tea. ;) Hey, I’m not knocking it – I love the idea personally!

  4. I thought this post was very thoughtful and intelligent.

    However, this bothered me: “Like, for example, sales of the “African-American Butch-Femme Cake Topper… [it's] so hilarious and significant that there’s actually a market for this. And yet… so absurd it’s almost disgusting! (Remind me again that this is not heterosexual imitation?)”

    I have seen that butch-femme cake topper because I was curious to see if there was such a thing, and so I googled “butch-femme cake topper.” And I was curious because in a few years I hope to be a femme proudly marrying my butch partner. Yes, heterosexuals originated marriage so naturally marriage ceremonies tend to follow a lot of traditional guidelines. Whether people “buy into” this or not does not make them any more or less queer. Furthermore, the issue of whether butch-femme is heterosexual imitation is, frankly, tired. Up until the 1970s, butch-femme was the way that most lesbians organized their relationships, and yes, it was restrictive because no one was allowed to variate from those roles. Nevertheless it was important, especially for those whom it truly resonated with. Then, at the dawn of lesbian feminism, suddenly femmes were too femme and butches were too butch, they were seen as buying into the patriarchy, misogyny, etc. simply for expressing their gender in the way that felt best to them. This annexing of butches and femmes continued all through the 90′s and has finally been receding in the 21st century, and I, personally would like to continue to see that happen.

    Butch-femme is not an imitation of heterosexuality, it is simply one mode of queer expression among many. And yes, when I get married I will wear a beautiful dress and my partner will wear a handsome suit, but under our clothes we are both women, and our love is our own, not an imitation of anyone else’s.

  5. Hi Christine – Thanks for your comment. Very well said! Let me clarify: I’m not trying to say that butch-femme itself is a heterosexual imitation thing, not at all, for all the reasons you mention. I say this as a longtime lover of butches, and as someone who is not femme-identified but is usually read as one anyway. :) (If you are curious to do so, if poke around on this blog a bit you will come across some of the stuff I’ve written about butch-femme.)

    My aim, in that line you caught on, was not to say anything about butch-femme pairings at all. Really, what I was aiming to do was to use that cake-topper example as a way of pointing out the degree of consumerism that has very quickly arrived on the heels of same-sex marriage rights, or in the case of the USA and many other countries, before those rights are even legally won. I do find it ironic that some queers, if the Gay Weddings website is any indication, have bought into the entire institution of marriage and the industry that comes with it, no questions asked. It reads to me like an effort to be as heteronormative as humanly possible, irrespective of the gender presentation of those doing the buying-in.

    In my opinion, if the institution of marriage is going to remain relevant and not restrictive, it needs to expand and change and become much more interesting and flexible and creative, and as much as possible separated from a consumerist agenda. I think queers are well placed to bring a range of fresh new perspectives to the whole shebang, and I find it kinda baffling when instead of doing that, some people simply opt in and proceed. Now, that’s not to say I don’t support their right to do so. I just find it politically disappointing – much the same as I continue to be disappointed with hets who do the same.

    And on that note – I hope your wedding is fabulous. :)

  6. I need a website for me and my girlfriend to order a wedding cake topper. She’s butch and I’m a femme…please help! Didn’t read info above, I figured it would take to long.

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