As a pastor in D.C., now that same-sex couples can legally wed, it's wonderful to see pictures of gay and lesbian couples, at the altar, making vows that will now be legally recognized. And it warms my heart to focus just beyond the couple to catch a glimpse of the person standing in the background -- that minister presiding over the ceremony, the one with the collar who smiles as broadly as the couple. We hear religious leaders chastising gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. We endure the pastor pundits spewing hatred on news talk shows. We know the Roman Catholic Church in the District fought long and hard against the rights of same-sex couples. But what about that smiling pastor? Why would he or she care? For many clergy, fighting for the freedoms of same-sex couples is the Civil Rights movement of our time. While the law for marriage equality was debated, ministers testified before the D.C. Council, giving theological grounding for their support of these historic unions. Oftentimes pastors face great criticism for striving on behalf of LGBT rights, risking their comfortable careers and livelihoods. Pastors can be thrown out of their churches or they can endanger their professional status because of their support of gays and lesbians. So why do we do it?
We support marriage equality because we know that same-sex unions are a matter of life and death. As clergy, we often watch over the most profound and tender moments in a person's life -- birth, marriage, and death -- and in each of those sacred transitions, we know the importance of a legally recognized union. I presided over a funeral of a gay man who was much too young to die but whose body finally gave up after an extended illness. The small conservative community was not accepting of gays and lesbians, so his family kept his orientation quiet. While preaching in the funeral home, I searched the eyes of all of the people gathered and realized that there could have been a partner there, someone who sat by the bedside caring for the dying man, counting out his pills, sponging his lips with water, and tending to his every physical need. The loving caregiver would have been barred from the ICU as his partner died, and at the funeral, I could have been keeping him from the particular comfort that a surviving spouse needs. The funeral director handed me his obituary, which never mentioned a partner, and I had no idea of this man's personal life. If he had a spouse, I could not imagine the pain that I must have been causing. The spouse ought to have been in the newspaper, he should have been in the front row with the family. He ought to have had some say of where his beloved should be buried and what he should be wearing. And I should have been beside him, comforting him. But in that town, there was no marriage equality, and so ignoring a same-sex partner at a funeral was socially acceptable. After the service, I swallowed the lump in my throat as I asked his brother, "Was there anyone caring for him? Did he live with someone? Did he have a spouse that I should have recognized?" His brother shrugged with heavy grief, replying that he had no idea. He loved his brother, he knew his brother was gay, but they just didn't talk about it.
Around the same time, my husband, who is also a pastor, visited a wonderful woman who worked with the youth in his congregation. She had lived comfortably with her partner in a beautiful home. They enjoyed long, happy years together, and their partnership looked like many marriages in that time, as she took care of the house while her loved one worked. She was in her late seventies when her spouse died. The couple had not made preparations for the death, there was no marriage equality, and the family, who did not approve of the women's relationship, fought for the property. After decades of partaking in life and love together, the widow had no right to any of it. As a result, the surviving partner became destitute.
Clergy often remind beautiful young couples that marriage is not just about the dresses, suits, flowers, and party -- as important as that celebration is. Marriage is a commitment throughout life and even through death. And I think that's why the clergyperson smiles so broadly. Because in D.C. the lives of so many same-gender couples just got a lot sweeter.