February 14, 2005

By the power vested in all of us

Happy Valentine's Day from Language Log. Appropriately enough, I just got back from the wedding of a dear friend in Oakland, California, on Sunday afternoon. To be more precise, the legal wedding had actually taken place in a rush a year ago without a chance for friends and family to be gathered together, so strictly what I just got back from was a renewal of wedding vows already taken, combined with a full-scale reception. It was a warm and affectionate occasion. The room (the wonderful Soizic Bistro) was full of happiness; teardrops moistened many a smile. It was a very conventional ceremony and reception, from the largely Episcopalian wording of the preliminaries and vows right down to the staged cutting of a huge cake followed by the married couple feeding each other chunks of it (in what I assume is a symbolization of the way married couples commit to taking care of each other's bodily needs). I don't think anything much would have raised an eyebrow if someone from rural Kansas had stopped by to witness the event — except that the two people renewing their wedding vows to each other were both women.

Other than that, it was just a modern wedding, and a particularly happy and successful one. Each woman had a proud and beaming father by her side taking part in the ceremony; each had a younger brother there to give a speech to the guests after the main course; the two families welcomed each other warmly as in-laws and sat intermingled, visibly enjoyed getting to know each other and like each other, while their young kids played on the floor or ran around in the next room. I never in my life saw ordinary family values so deeply and peacefully affirmed at any kind of event. If family values is your political bedrock, this was for you.

Ian MacKaye, the musician (founder of the band Fugazi , and of The Evens, and of the Dischord record label), was there to support his sister Susannah in the life choice she was making. Anyone who witnessed the sincerity and directness with which Ian welcomed his new sister-in-law Kirstin into the MacKaye clan would have lost most of their doubts about what the future holds for gay marriage. No one with a still-functioning mind and heart could have been at this event without seeing that it was a glimpse of the future. Our culture cannot continue forever to prevent gatherings as happy and socially affirmed as this, to deny the status and benefits of marriage to people as committed as this couple (who have been increasingly in love for fourteen years now). Not when their families and circles of friends and whole communities wish to recognize them as married and to support them in marriage.

Now, there were some linguistic obstacles to be negotiated (hey, c'mon, this is Language Log, we don't do merely social blogging here) But what struck me was how tiny, how trivial those linguistic difficulties in phrasing things turned out to be. Certainly, the person presiding can't say we are "gathered here to join this man and this woman"; so that is replaced by "join these two people". There certainly was no "Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?" (both women were in fact presented to be married via brief speeches by long-standing women friends of theirs); so the "giveth" piece of Church-of-England language was just deleted. Likewise the line about "love, honor, and obey" (jettisoned from nearly all heterosexual marriage ceremonies today anyway). The phrase "I now pronounce you man and wife" has to be replaced, of course; the replacement was "I now pronounce you spouses for life.". And at the end, there was no "You may now kiss the bride" (with its assumption that the male instigator is the subject and the blushing bride the object). (Susannah and Kirstin were bursting with happiness, and once the rings were on and the words were said they didn't need to be prompted to kiss each other's similing faces.) But basically everything else about the language of a wedding ceremony — in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live, and all that good stuff — can be used unchanged. The alterations needed in the language of a typical wedding ceremony in order to accommodate gay and lesbian marriages are so minor as to be utterly negligible, and comparable to the minor adjustments that are made these days in quite conservative heterosexual marriage services in churches all over America.

One technicality involving a subordinate clause functioning as adjunct to a performative clause provided the biggest departure from weddings I've seen in churches and courthouses. Performatives are utterances that, instead of merely saying something, do something. Conferring degrees, making promises, or causing people to be legally married, for example. The performative "I now pronounce you..." is normally preceded by an adjunct like "By the power vested in me by the City and County of San Francisco" or whatever, to make clear the source of the legal authority to marry people. And there was something of a problem about what to say there.

Susannah and Kirstin had already been (as they then saw it) legally married in City Hall across the bay in San Francisco back in mid-February 2004, when for a period of a few days Mayor Gavin Newsom had decided that it looked to him like the Constitution didn't permit him to deny what so many gay and lesbian couples were asking him for, and the officials doing the marriages at that time understood themselves to have powers vested in them by appropriate civil authorities of California that made the marriages real in law. A month later a Supreme Court judgment stopped same-sex weddings in California. And months after that, the court told Mayor Newsom that he had overstepped the bounds of his authority in issuing the marriage licenses, and they declared Susannah and Kirsten, and 3,954 other same-sex couples, to be in possession of marriage certificates that are invalid. No legal authority now exists for a wedding of two women to take place. So what did they do about that adjunct, "By the power vested in me by..."?

Well, the woman presiding over the ceremony simply said: "By the power vested in all of us," and declared that by the will of the whole community, as represented by all those present, Susannah and Kirstin were married. (This is in fact modelled on Quaker practice: the Friends also hold the view that it is the community, not some priestly authority figure, that causes a couple to be married.) Everyone in the room seemed to approve heartily. In fact every single person there signed a large certificate to say so (another Quaker custom).

That certificate doesn't alter the law, of course. But I want (not for the first time) to counsel everyone to pay heed to the words of our President, George W. Bush. On February 24, 2004, President Bush made a firm and outspoken statement on the topic of relevance here. He objected to the "activist judges who are defining marriage", and he said plainly what he thought:

"Marriage ought to be defined by the people, not by the courts."

I think I agree with him. Anyway, on Sunday afternoon I definitely saw his plan being put into effect. Suddenly it became very hard to see how there could possibly be a future in which things would be otherwise. As I remarked on Language Log last year, when Susannah and Kirstin were newly married, dictionary entries show that the word marriage is certainly defined broadly enough in everyday English to cover same-sex marriages as well as the different-sex kind. But you really have to attend a same-sex marriage to get a real sense of just how natural it is going to be. Recalcitrant states may resist for a few years; perhaps there will even be a serious move to whip up a ban by constitutional amendment (they tried that with alcohol once, but it didn't last; and alcohol isn't as good for you as marriage). But I no longer think the resistance can last forever. The wisdom of our President quoted above, taken together with a few thousand gatherings like the one in Oakland today, will sort things out within a few decades, by the power vested in all of us.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 14, 2005 12:44 AM