A Memory.  A Challenge            Part 1

In February of 2004, my partner and I woke up to NPR reports of jubilant same-sex weddings in San Francisco.  We looked at each other and said, “Why aren’t we down there?”

To everyone’s surprise, we called in “getting married” to work, bought two plane tickets and loaded 5-month old Henson up for a quick trip to the City by the Bay.  Our marriage certificate was issued the next morning.  And while it would not be recognized in Washington State and therefore would not grant us the benefits that come with civil marriage, it seemed like a meaningful step.

That Shabbat, back in Seattle, Rabbi Michael asked if there were any simchas to celebrate.  We said we had just re-tied the knot in San Francisco.  The response was immediate and beautiful—can you guess what happened?  Yes—everyone started singing Mazel Tov to us—spontaneously and in unison—the effervescent, innate joy to celebrate with a newly wed couple was reflexive and irrepressible—encoded in our Jewish community’s collective dna.  It was one of the sweetest moments in my life, and I do not exaggerate here:  It epitomized what we wanted from a sacred community.

A few months later, our legal marriage was involuntarily annulled by the State of California.  The state had rescinded the status of “married”, but the religious significance was still completely intact.  Nothing the state could do could take away that spontaneous blessing by this sacred community.

In these days, with the religious right dominating the public discourse, it can seem rare to have a social issue where religious people are far out in front demanding justice and change.  But, for years, progressive Jews have insisted that Rabbi’s recognize same-sex unions in congregations across the country.  Such prophetic courage transformed lesbian, bisexual, gay and trans people’s experience—instead of condemning, ignoring or merely tolerating gay relationships; Reform communities now commonly celebrate our religious unions.

Of course, in the United States, legal marriage has always been a civil, not a religious, institution.  So when rabbis preside over a straight couple’s marriage, it is with two authorities: It is by the authority of our traditions that Rabbis officiate the rituals of religious marriage—exhorting us to Jewish values—lovingkindness, tikkun olam, hospitality.  Values needed to create a Jewish home, sustain community and build a just world.

But it is by the authority vested in them by the state that Rabbis confer upon heterosexual couples the 1,200 rights of civil legal marriage.  Rights like access to immigration and residency status, family medical leave, Social Security spousal benefits—all fully transferrable from state to state—rights taken for granted as necessary to make it through “the better or worse” that life will inevitably offer.  Though they are mostly invisible to us, those rights are of enormous value to married people

Most progressive clergy, such as our own Rabbi Micheal, proudly officiate weddings for same-sex AND straight couples.  For all couples, progressive rabbis officiate the religious wedding celebration.  But for straight couples, rabbis also use the power vested in them by the state of Washington to officiate the civil marriage and thus bestow those 1,200 rights.  Rights not equally available to gay people.

So, here is my dvar.  What if Kol HaNeshamah took a prophetic stand?  What if we set a different example for Jewish congregations?   What if we continued officiating religious marriage—singing joyfully together at the simcha—but we stopped performing the state component of marriage?  What if we refrained from being the conduit for the 1,200 state granted rights until all of us have access to legal marriage? Could it edify our sacred community? Could it cause us to understand the two separate marriage institutions—civil and religious—more clearly?    If straight couples added an extra step, going down to the county courthouse to be civilly married, could it be a sweet opportunity to reflect on the legal rights they receive?  Could such a stand make a pernicious state discrimination more visible, and thus challenge us to work more diligently for equal rights for gay people?

A Passing.   A Blessing.            Part 2

Del Martin, a truly amazing lesbian leader, died a little over a week ago.

Del Martin and her partner, Phyllis Lyon, were unrelenting advocates for human rights and for the full participation of lesbian women in American civil and social life.

Both journalists in Seattle at the time, Del and Phyllis met in 1950.  They became lovers two years later and moved into an apartment together on Castro Street in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day 1953.

They had been together for three years when they founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955– the first social and political organization for lesbians in the United States. Through the Daughters of Bilitis, they fought for the decriminalization of homosexuality, the end of psychiatric atrocities against gay people, and to exhort lesbian women to stand together to recognize their own humanity and demand human rights.  They would found and edit the lesbian journal, The Ladder, and would be the first lesbian couple to join NOW.  Over the decades, they lead numerous activist organizations, continuing the fight for equal rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation.

In 1975, Del Martin published the first American book about domestic violence, titled Battered Wives.  Del understood that marriage is a flawed institution.  Like me, she did not romanticize marriage.  As an early feminist activist, (—seriously, she started working to decriminalize homosexuality in the middle of the 1950’s) she understood that marriage, both civil and religious, is problematic for women—often a trap of unequal, stifling and sometimes violent unions.

But both on Feb 12, 2004 when Mayor Newsom called for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and again on June 16, 2008 when the California Supreme Court’s decision legalized same-sex marriage in that state—Del and Phyllis were the first same-sex couple to be legally wed in California.

In recognition of their leadership and the sheer audacity of their beautiful loving half-century together—they were married first.   Each time they married, even though they have been together for over 50 years & even though they understand that marriage remains a flawed institution, both of them cried.  They marveled at such a humbling, historic and humanly validating experience.

Del Martin died from complications of a broken arm on August 27th, 2008.  And while their marriage in California guarantees that Phyllis can decide how and where to bury her, and allows Phyllis to continue to possess the household items they accrued together over their half century of commitment—rights most gay couples in most of the United States do not share—all the federally regulated benefits of marriage are still denied to them.

I know that Phyllis is mourning now.  But, believe me, I will be surprised if she doesn’t build on their legacy of justice seeking even in the face of her own grief.  I will be surprised if she doesn’t file suit against the Social Security Administration in a couple months when they refuse to pay spousal benefits.

My life is immeasurably enriched by the breathtaking courage of these two women and their remarkable lives together.  So, I want to offer this prayer from the new Reform prayerbook.  I offer this prayer in thanks for you all considering my dvar tonight.  For just being willing to be open to the possibility.

And I offer this prayer in thanksgiving for the life of Del Martin and her beloved Phyllis Lyon.

For the expanding grandeur of Creation,
worlds known and unknown
galaxies beyond galaxies
filling us with awe and challenging our imaginations
Modim anachnu lach.

For this fragile planet earth,
its times and tides,
its sunsets and seasons
Modim anachnu lach

For the joy of human life,
its wonders and surprises,
its hopes and achievements,
Modim anachnu lach.

For human community,
our common past and future hope,
our oneness transcending all separation,
our capacity to work for peace and justice
in the midst of hostility and oppression,
Modim anachnu lach.

For high hopes and noble causes,
for faith without fanaticism,
for understanding of views not shared,
Modim anachnu lach.

For all who have labored
and suffered for a fairer world,
who have lived so that others might live in dignity and freedom
Modim anachnu lach.

For human liberties and sacred rites,
for opportunities to change and grow,
to affirm and choose,
Modim anachnu lach.

We pray that we may live
not by our fears but by our hopes
not by our words but by our deeds
Baruch atah, Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot.

Connie Burk
Shabbat Marriage Discussion
September 2008