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Queering the Marriage Discussion

By Donna Riley on August 15, 2014

A year ago in this blogspace I articulated concerns about the LGBT movement’s focus on marriage to the exclusion of other important justice issues in and beyond the LGBTQ community. As General Assembly rapidly approaches and marriage is again at the center of our agenda, I hope we can remember and reclaim what’s Queer about this particular struggle.

As Jamie Heckert explains:

To queer is to make strange, unfamiliar, weird; it comes from an old German word meaning to cross. What new possibilities arise when we learn to cross, to blur, to undermine, or overflow the hierarchical and binary oppositions we have been taught to believe in?

What could it mean to queer the same-gender marriage discussion in the PCUSA? Can we return to a discussion that more fully resists gender normativities, binaries, and hierarchies in all relationships? Surely there is more to it than merely removing gender from the equation, so the PCUSA affirms and recognizes marriages “between two people.” Surely there is more to it than treating all church members the same, so a session will not refuse them a wedding in their home church, or so a pastor does not deny members critical pastoral care. Surely there is more to it than honoring freedom of conscience for teaching elders.

No, there is something decidedly queerer at stake here than mere marriage equality. As with ordination, the heart of this issue remains: they call queer relationships sinful; we call them holy.

A quick review of the history of General Assembly actions reveals that the fight has only recently focused on same-gender marriage per se, while it has long been about the multiple forms we have of honoring any and all queer relationships. Attempts at restrictions on blessing queer relationships date back before legal same-gender marriage, to a time when queers (in same-, opposite-, and other-gender relationships) were entering domestic partnerships. Holy unions marked and honored both formal, legal partnerships and other commitments made without any such formalism.

The 1991 General Assembly Authoritative Interpretation (AI) allowed pastors to officiate at ceremonies for same-gender couples as long as they weren’t put forward as “the same as” a marriage. It was never clear exactly what that meant, since at that time queers held a clear position of difference in society. Marriage wasn’t a legal option for most queer relationships, so it seemed to be de facto the case that such ceremonies weren’t, and couldn’t be, the same as legally sanctioned opposite gender marriage. Yet the existence of this restriction in the face of such obvious legal difference suggests that these ceremonies were to be considered different (and less-than) spiritually and ecclesiastically, not just legally.

One cannot decouple the 1991 AI on marriage from the action taken to reject the report on human sexuality at the same Assembly. With a radical concept of justice-love, the report argued that what mattered ethically was the content, rather than the form, of relationships. The report held up values of mutuality, consent, trust, faithfulness, honesty, and love, rather than adhering to heterosexual marriage as presumptively inherently ethical, whether or not the marriage upheld those values of justice-love. There was room for a larger social critique of marriage, and queer relationships presented a challenge to marriage as a social institution (as did single parent families and other non-normative relationships). In those days, feminist critiques of marriage were part of a broader social justice landscape; to the extent that normative nuclear families constitute a building block of our present economic system, non-normative resistances to marriage also present profound challenges to economic injustice.

With the ambiguous language of the 1991 AI, the LGBTQ community went on about its business of being spiritually alive and experiencing glimpses of the divine in our loving in its many varied forms, albeit often with second-class status. Amendments to the Book of Order went to the presbyteries in both 1995 and 2000 in an attempt to prohibit pastors from blessing same-sex unions, even when they weren’t “the same as” marriage. These actions were again not about legal marriage but about denigrating queer bodies and queer relationships. To be sure, the specter of marriage was frightening to our opponents, but it was the realities of unmarried queers in deeply meaningful spiritual relationships that drove their reaction. Given this history, GA actions that (re-)affirm pastoral discretion and freedom of conscience in principle have the potential to affirm all queer relationships, not just marital ones.

Moreover, our opponents do not fully realize the power of Queer liturgy. What happens in holy union ceremonies, whether there is a legal relationship established or not, matters. I have attended many queer unions and commitment ceremonies and what was meaningful about each was the way in which we invoked the divine, in which the Spirit was present with the couple in community, in how we affirmed – so queerly – the holiness of the relationship.This is not to downplay the significance of Presbyterian pastors officiating at legal marriages. In the mid-2000s, after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, a friend of mine chose to marry her same-gender partner of many years, and asked a Presbyterian pastor to officiate. It mattered that a Presbyterian pastor acted with the power vested in him by the State of Massachusetts. I saw my same role as part of the collective acknowledging their relationship and pledging to support them in their life together, but I also saw then that this wasn’t just about individual freedom or right to marry, nor just about the individual conscience of this pastor to provide pastoral care to this couple. It wasn’t just about the 1000 benefits now accruing to this couple. It was also about the power of community, bearing witness to what God is doing in all of our lives.

Another way we can queer the marriage discussion is through solidarity. Our pastors are currently taking individual risks and being persecuted or prosecuted individually, including last GA’s vice moderator who stepped down after mere hours in office, pressured and bullied for having performed a same-gender marriage. I am reminded of the More Light Conference in Urbana-Champaign in 1998 when Lisa Larges, having been denied ordination 5 years earlier for being an out lesbian, was invited to give the words of institution for communion, words reserved normally for Ministers of Word and Sacrament. It would have been deeply powerful to witness her speaking those words, but what she did in that moment was all the more astounding. She invited all of us who were not ordained as ministers to say the words with her. It was a moment of solidarity, of risk-sharing, and of empowerment. It is my hope that GA actions this year might be a path toward greater solidarity with risk takers for justice, one that brings justice for pastors and all of us living out our calls at great personal risk, for LGBTQ justice, for racial and economic justice, for gender justice, for justice that ends imperialism, colonialism, ableism, and other forms of injustice everywhere. How do we as a community find paths toward greater solidarity with those at risk?

Ultimately the PCUSA cannot stop what God is doing in the lives of LGBTQ people, and it cannot stop what more and more states are doing. It cannot stop what so many pastors are doing and continue to do because it is the right thing to do. In that sense, we have already won. But we can only achieve Queer victory if we continue to challenge normative and idealized definitions of family, if we refuse to leave behind unmarried folks, if we resist the role of nuclear families as building blocks of unjust economic systems, and if we continue to dismantle the hierarchies of gender, race, and class built into marriage structures. None of these is a trivial endeavor, and it needs to be at the heart of our work on marriage at GA and beyond.

Donna Riley is a member of the MLP Editorial Board. A life-long Presbyterian, ordained deacon, and bisexual woman, Donna Riley served as the first webspinner for Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns starting in 1995, as a member of the national boards of PLGC and MLP from 1997-2005, and as Co-Moderator of MLP from 2003-2005. She has been a member of Sixth Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA, Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York City, and Treasurer of the Western Massachusetts House Church. Since 2001 her day job has been teaching engineering at Smith College, the first US women’s college to house an engineering program. She will be spending the next year in Washington DC and looks forward to reconnecting with the Open Doors chapter and More Light churches in the area. She is currently working a federal government detail in Washington, where she is a member of Church of the Pilgrims.

Her posts can be found here.

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  1. Madeleine Mysko #

    Because I am NOT a life-long Presbyterian, I really appreciate the overview of the history of the GA actions with respect to queer relationships–going back to before those actions became focused on marriage equality. My favorite line: “As with ordination, the heart of this issue remains: they call queer relationships sinful; we call them holy.” Thank you, Donna, for this in-depth piece.

    May 20, 2014
  2. Rodger McDaniel #

    QUOTE: “Ultimately the PCUSA cannot stop what God is doing in the lives of LGBTQ people, and it cannot stop what more and more states are doing. It cannot stop what so many pastors are doing and continue to do because it is the right thing to do.” AMEN. Wonderful and timely piece of writing.

    May 21, 2014

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