I’m a guy who’s never been married, but I have some definite impressions of the institution that I’d like to share. You see, I marry people. At my current rate, over 300 couples a year! No, my dateline is not Las Vegas. It’s Los Angeles, where I volunteer for Los Angeles County as a Deputy Commissioner of Civil Marriages (a Justice of the Peace in many places).
Actually, my dateline should be Beverly Hills, because that’s where I go, to the old Courthouse on Burton Way, every other Wednesday morning, where from 9 to 12, at 15-minute intervals, I have a dozen couples on my roster.
Sometimes the couple doesn’t show up for one reason or another (recent cases: heavy traffic, the bride was still 30 miles away getting her hair done at the appointed time, they already got married somewhere else and neglected to cancel their appointment with us, last-minute failure to secure a pre-nup). Maybe someone got cold feet.
But then we have walk-ins, too, usually more than no-shows. A couple gets their marriage license and just can’t wait any longer to tie the knot; so if I or another Commish is available and willing, we’ll squeeze them in as a courtesy. A little last-minute change in the schedule is always fun.
And, yeah, fun is why I do it. I have a fabulous time meeting all these beautiful people from every corner of the world and partaking in the joy of their wedding day for just those few minutes that in all likelihood I’ll ever see them. It’s a Felliniesque morning of short subjects on the theme of marriage, in which I play the same recurring character.
Of course, when a same-gender couple shows up (which a quarter to a third of my marriages are) I tell them why I started volunteering in the first place: When the Supreme Court threw out California’s infamous Prop 8 a year ago, and same-gender marriage returned to the state, I wanted to be part of making history in this country.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a palpable sense of pride being in all these couples’ photographic and digital albums. Who knows how far abroad, onto how many cell phones, iPads and desktops my picture has traveled? Occasionally someone Skypes the whole ceremony to loved ones in the Old Country – Italy, Romania, Turkey, Argentina. I wave to the folks at home.
It didn’t take me long to sense that my couples were standing before me for much more than love. In countries with universal healthcare not tied to employment, where not so many people are immigrating to, or where seniors are cared for well and irrespective of their or their spouse’s career success, marriage is less of an economic imperative. Here in the U.S., these are undeniable factors. I’ve had couples, together for decades and never before uncomfortable with the unformalized nature of their relationship, finally getting hitched. I ask, Why now? “Our lawyer said we have to!” Inheritance, Social Security, power of attorney, and many more – not to mention the refusal to testify in court against your spouse – are all rights pertaining to the institution of marriage.
Right-wing politicians and church leaders are always sniping at the poor because the rate they get married is noticeably low. Well, duh. A big wedding is an expensive enterprise. That’s another reason I volunteer – to help provide couples a short, not elaborate, but meaningful opportunity to make it legal. I take special comfort in seeing them come in with a child or two, or maybe one on the way.
And then there’s the cost of having kids: For all the prattle about the village it takes to raise them, where are the community elders (i.e., government, because private philanthropy can never adequately step in to do the job it requires) when it comes to education, sports, camp, lessons, vacations, counseling, after-school programs, decent housing, meals and clothing, etc., etc?
We provide a distinctly secular, civil ceremony. It couldn’t be any other way, as so many of the couples come from different nations and religious/cultural backgrounds. That’s why I always say “as long as you both shall love,” because “live” lays too heavy an emotional weight on their shoulders. I don’t want some person I married to be tortured in a relationship gone bad by the belief that they had once promised to keep their vows until death. That would feel too psychologically damaging.
When I have a substantial turnout for a wedding, say, eight or ten or more, I’m often moved to give them a mini-sermon along these lines: “Thank you all for attending this ceremony today. It’s so important for the couple to know that their family and friends are here supporting them in this momentous decision. But a marriage is not just for the couple alone. No, it’s about the weaving together of families and communities, a reminder that we are all part of each other’s happiness. The vows you hear today about respect, honor, integrity, transparency, honesty, generosity and love recall the commitments we all have made, to spouses and partners, to parents and siblings, to ourselves and to whatever groups we are part of, to treat other people decently, to put their concerns on the same level as our own. The ripples of all that consciousness go far out, reaching many people we will never see or know, making for a kinder, more tolerant, stable world.”
In that sense I guess I have become – what? – a little more “conservative.” I am no longer marching on Gay Pride Day shouting “2-4-6-8, Down with family, church and state!” I do believe that marriage can help people combat the crippling loneliness and anomie of modern life, and provide a healthier environment for kids to grow in. I don’t make this a moral preachment, as other “conservatives” might, except in the largest sense: A world at peace, where we devoted our attention to solving the problems of conflict, hunger, homelessness, disease, exploitation, climate change, is a morally better place to live. Maybe there’s a reason they call what I do “justice of the peace.”