Photograph by Rory McNamara
Spouses For Life: Donna Piepgras and Lucie James are among the 4,100 couples who wed in San Francisco.
Lovers in a Dangerous Time
Same-sex marriage, religion and the great escape from loneliness
By R. V. Scheide
Being lonely sucks. Maybe Greta Garbo vanted to be alone, but for the rest of us, we pair off, hanging on to our partners 'til death us do part, or, short of that, for as long as we can stand them. Civilization itself sprouted from the seeds of loneliness, and today it is the rare person who stands alone, who sticks up for his or her own beliefs, no matter how odd or repugnant these beliefs may seem to others. That's why Roy Lamoreaux was just about the loneliest man in the room at the Sebastopol City Council meeting Tuesday night, March 16.
The council was scheduled to vote on a resolution proposing that the Sonoma County clerk begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Citizens from Guerneville to Petaluma, including a large number of lesbian and gay couples, packed the room in support of the resolution, which passed unanimously.
Like many of the resolutions proposed by the Green Party-dominated Sebastopol City Council, its effect will mostly be symbolic. It would by no means make same-sex marriage legal in Sonoma County. Nevertheless, Roy was on hand to vehemently oppose the resolution.
It was the last place Roy, a 45-year-old devout Mormon, ever imagined he'd find himself. But a month earlier, newly elected San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had shocked mainstream America by permitting same-sex marriages in San Francisco County. From Feb. 10 until March 11, when the California Supreme Court intervened, 4,100 gay and lesbian couples, including many from the North Bay, flocked to San Francisco to tie the knot. And a line of newlyweds, ministers and other same-sex marriage supporters were queued that night for the opportunity to speak during the public comments portion of the council meeting.
Roy, oblivious to the growing line, sat outside by himself in a folding chair in the community center's overflow section, nervously concentrating on what he planned to say at the lectern. Lanky, mild-mannered, with a neatly manicured mustache, the Rohnert Park resident might easily be mistaken for a same-sex marriage supporter.
But Roy's a religious man. Raised as a Pentecostal, he converted to the Latter Day Saints when he was 21. Those theologies taught him that same-sex marriage is not just a moral wrong, but a moral evil--fire-and-brimstone evil. As one woman finished talking, Roy took advantage of the pause between speakers and suddenly lurched up to the lectern.
"This is the minority's opinion," he said, sputtering before catching his rhythm. "The gay-rights issue only affects about 2 to 3 percent of the population," he continued, correctly noting that according to most polls, a majority of Americans and even most Californians don't favor same-sex marriage. "I would like them to look back in history, to Rome and Sodom and Gomorrah, and see what happened to them. My God, if families are not protected, this nation will be destroyed!"
Someone then pointed out that he'd spoken out of turn, and blushing politely, Roy scurried back to his seat. He was still the loneliest person in the room, but he was confident that God was on his side. After all, the institution of marriage was under attack, and all it would take for evil to prevail was for good to do nothing.
The sun cut through the morning mist shrouding the forests around Guerneville by 10am the next Sunday morning, just in time for services at Metropolitan Community Church of the Redwood Empire in Oddfellows Hall to begin. Unlike such larger denominations as the Mormon and Catholic churches, Metropolitan caters to gays and lesbians who wish to worship openly instead of pretending to be straight.
Excommunication stories from the larger religious ranks are common among Metropolitan's congregation. Imagine you discover you're gay, look to your Pentecostal pastor for help, and instead of turning the other cheek, he boots you right out of the church.
That's precisely what happened to Tim Davis, 47, as a teenager growing up in Portland. He quit going to church altogether until discovering Metropolitan several years ago. He enjoys the small-church "Sunday morning coming down" atmosphere at Oddfellows Hall, and is a member of the choir. He drives up from San Francisco for services every weekend, staying in the Guerneville cabin he shares with husband Wayne Joiner, 55.
That's not a misprint. Tim and Wayne were married by Metropolitan pastor Elisabeth Middelberg in San Francisco on Feb. 13. As she noted during her Sunday sermon, "Jesus has been known to tweak with people's belief systems."
Wayne knows all about that. He grew up in Georgia knowing he was gay early on and took the cure at age 19: he got married. He knew it was a mistake from the get-go, but stayed married for 26 years. Tim's attempted cure at age 23 wasn't as long-lived; his straight marriage crashed and burned after just nine short months.
For both men, having society's official stamp of approval on their marriage, if only for the moment, is more a civil matter than a spiritual or religious issue. "I don't feel like a second-class citizen anymore," Tim says.
As members of San Francisco's gay community, which has been ravaged by HIV and AIDS for the past 20 years, they're quite familiar with the grim red tape longtime same-sex partners must negotiate just to ensure that personal property can be bequeathed to loved ones rather than being snatched from the grave by hostile surviving members of the deceased's family. Tim and Wayne won't have to go through that now.
Both are still relatively healthy. Wayne suffers from a debilitating form of arthritis but is HIV-negative, and Tim, who is HIV-positive, could easily live another 20 years if he keeps taking his medication. They've built a comfortable but modest life together. A small apartment in San Francisco, a home entertainment system they're still making payments on, a car, a pet parrot. Now that they're married, they've gained a little peace of mind.
"It's not that we have much," Tim says. "But I don't want Wayne being emptied out by my family."
Tim and Wayne refer to each other as husband and husband, but the phrase of choice emerging from San Francisco's month of gay marriages is "spouses for life." That's how Petaluma residents Randy Hansen and Dean Westergard, who tied the knot in San Francisco on Feb. 14, now refer to each other.
"We've been together 35 years, so there hasn't been a big difference," Randy says in a telephone interview. "We've always loved each other." Randy and Dean had been together longer than any of the hundreds of other same-sex couples waiting in line at San Francisco City Hall, so the lesbian couple who had staked out first place in line gave up their spot to them, making Randy and Dean the first couple to be married on Valentine's Day. Relatives from their native southeastern Idaho later saw them on that evening's NBC national newscast. They've come a long way since moving to California in 1975.
Like Tim and Wayne, Randy and Dean also wanted to set a precedent in case one of them should die. "Both of our families are loving," Dean says. "But when money is on the table, things can get ugly." Prior to getting married, they'd entered a domestic partnership and established a living trust. Officially sanctioned marriage is one more piece of legal evidence proving their lifelong commitment to one another.
Santa Rosans Donna Piepgras, 55, and Lucie James, 60, have been together 20 years and never thought same-sex marriage would be legal during their lifetimes. When Mayor Newsom first presented the chance, Donna balked, and the couple argued about it.
"To me it was a big deal, I really wanted to go!" Lucie says. "I wanted to be married, just like everybody else."
Donna relented, and they were married on Feb. 15. "The whole experience was totally awesome," Lucie gushes. "It was like a love-fest without the sex and the drugs," Donna deadpans.
Both women are surprised to find that marriage has added a whole new dimension to their relationship.
"There is a feeling of commitment that is different for me," Donna says.
"I didn't realize how validated I would feel," Lucie adds. "It doesn't change the amount of love we feel for each other, but it's all about love, and that really feels good to me."
For the most part, co-workers, friends and family members have reacted positively to their marriage. Lucie's sister, estranged for 15 years, recently made contact and will soon visit with her new husband. Donna's parents are still trying to figure out what to make of it all, and have yet to return the e-mail announcing their daughter's same-sex marriage.
Donna and Lucie don't talk about who's going to get their stuff when they die, but like their male counterparts, they seem to view marriage as a civil issue, not a moral or religious matter. When they say that same-sex marriage makes them feel validated, it's civil society that's stamping the ticket. Gaining any specific religion's seal of approval is another matter entirely. Even when the discussion is confined to Judeo-Christian belief systems, widespread agreement on the issue of same-sex marriage is difficult to reach.
Roy Lamoreaux says that plenty of friends have told him privately that same-sex marriage is like saying "two plus two equals three." But not one of them volunteered to go to the city council and say that in public. Roy found the implications of same-sex marriage so alarming he decided to take the burden upon himself.
Roy's easy to talk to, with a worldview filtered through the twin prisms of Mormonism and perhaps a tad too much Fox News. Same-sex marriage threatens the moral fabric of the country from within, he says, even as it makes us look "weak and vulnerable" to our terrorist enemies abroad.
"The gay lifestyle is looked at around the world as evil and wrong by Muslims and other groups," he explains. "They would feel justified in praying to Allah to have us all wiped off the map."
Roy feels that the freedoms granted by the Constitution and the institution of marriage are inseparable, and that the evil in same-sex marriage corrodes the foundations of both. "The Founding Fathers had a reason to trust the people," he says softly. "They were a moral people. I don't think this is the right way to take our country."
The idea that marriage is a sacred right granted only to a man and a woman is shared by most of the major Christian denominations, Catholicism and Mormonism included. The New Testament passage most often cited as supporting this view is Rom. 1: 26-28: "For this reason, God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error."
But as the Rev. Middelberg points out in a research paper she wrote while studying at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in order to understand the text's meaning, it must be placed in the historical context of its author, Paul. When Paul writes that women and men exchanged "natural" intercourse for "unnatural intercourse," Middelberg argues that he's referring to the social hierarchy of his native Tarsus, A.D. 5-67.
Free men owned slaves and were placed over women and children in a "natural order" based on social status; free men were permitted to have sex with free women, free male youth and slaves of either sex. Teachers were permitted to have sex with students. Free adult males were forbidden to have sex with other free adult males; likewise for free adult females, who were also forbidden to have sex with slaves.
"When Paul talks about what is natural, he is talking about this particular construction of sexuality," Middelberg writes. "Without adopting the same worldview in the 20th century, it is hard to use this text to condemn homosexuality as it is lived out in today's society."
So it goes with the Old Testament passages used most often to condemn homosexuality, Leviticus and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah cited by Roy at the Sebastopol City Council meeting. It's all a matter of historical interpretation.
"As I said at the [city council] meeting," Rabbi Michael Robinson recalls on the telephone, "I take the Bible seriously--too seriously to take it literally. Biblical literalism does not make sense. In Leviticus, it says 'love thy neighbor.' But it also says if you have a stubborn rebellious child, stone him."
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is told in Gen. 19: 4-11. Lot settles with his family in Sodom, a city reputed to be as inhospitable as neighboring Gomorrah. When two angels come down to investigate, Lot offers them his home for the night. The neighbors object. "Bring the visitors out unto us, that we may know them," they pound on Lot's door. He offers up his daughters, which fails to satiate the mob. The angels smite the crowd with blindness, and the next morning, after Lot escapes, God levels Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone.
"The cities were destroyed for not recognizing the obligations of hospitality, and the whole story is a moral allegory on the dire effects of inhospitality," writes British scholar Rictor Norton in his book A History of Homophobia. Norton writes that most modern Biblical scholars, aside from the more evangelistic ones, accept this interpretation.
No doubt Roy Lamoreaux and many other Christians and Jews will refute such interpretations. But the interpretations are out there, and anyone searching for an open-and-shut case for or against same-sex marriage in the Bible will be disappointed. Attempting to apply a modern meaning to the texts of antiquity is fraught with potential misinterpretation. Perhaps that's one reason the Founding Fathers saw the wisdom in separating church from state.
Not every progressive thinks that same-sex marriage is an inherently good thing. "Why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about?" asks Alexander Cockburn in a recent essay in the online edition of Counterpunch. "Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of 'equality' as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged.
"[I]ssues of hospitals visits or healthcare should have nothing to do with marriage, and marriage as a rite should have nothing to do with legal rights," he continues. "Separate 'marriage' from legal recognition of a bond, of a kinship. . . . Get religion out of the law."
Like Cockburn, Sebastopol civil attorney Peter Mancus supports legal unions for same-sex couples but is concerned that advocates of same-sex marriage may be mistaken in assuming lesbians and gays are covered by state and federal equal-protection laws.
"I think that current California law that says marriage must be limited to a heterosexual couple does not violate the equal-protection clause," Mancus elaborates later by phone. In order to invoke the equal-protection clause, same-sex marriage advocates have to clear two hurdles: the strict-scrutiny test and the rational-basis test. The first hurdle is higher than the second. If same-sex opponents can show that there is the slightest rational basis for making a distinction that excludes homosexuals from marriage, then the strict-scrutiny test cannot be applied, and the case will fail.
"A lot of people will probably cringe when I articulate what I think some of the rational bases are," he says. Suppose, he suggests, studies showed that the rate of HIV infection was much higher among homosexual males than the rest of the population. Since HIV can result in AIDS and AIDS has no known cure, an argument could be made that there is a rational basis for making a distinction between heterosexuals and homosexuals when it comes to the societal sanctioning of marriage. Mancus thinks a much stronger argument for same-sex marriage can be made using the Ninth Amendment.
"The Founding Fathers knew that it was impossible for them to think up all the rights in advance," he says. "The Ninth Amendment was intended as a reservation of those rights." Even, perhaps, a right for same-sex couples to marry.
For now, the same-sex marriages have come to a halt, but not soon enough for Roy Lamoreaux. As a recently divorced father, he's experienced the deteriorating institution that is modern American marriage firsthand.
In fact, his ex-wife left him for a woman. "It's not funny!" he protests good-naturedly.
Heidi Lamoreaux and her new partner, Panther, were among the first same-sex couples to wed in San Francisco.
Roy found out about the wedding from his seven-year-old daughter, with whom he and his ex-wife share joint custody. He was surprised at the news, but not shocked. Since coming out as a lesbian and divorcing him in 2000, Heidi has become an outspoken advocate for the cause. Roy's still fond of her, and says that Panther is "a nice and nurturing person. I just don't agree with them on the morality issue."
Heidi was raised as a Mormon in Bonneville, Utah, and met Roy while on missionary duty. He was 33, she was 26, and both were relatively old to be single and childless in a religion that puts such a heavy emphasis on marriage and procreation. They had a baby and lasted six years before Heidi discovered who she really is. The church excommunicated her and she hasn't spoken to her parents since, but she and Panther, now spouses for life, are happy. She still has a soft spot for her ex, too.
"I respect him for standing up for what he believes in," Heidi says. "His dream family was destroyed by this whole issue."
It's something, to stand up before a priest or a justice of the peace and pledge to love another human being for the rest of your life. It used to be insurance that you wouldn't be spending your old age alone.
Most marriages don't last that long these days, as Roy Lamoreaux can testify. Don't feel sorry for him, though. No matter what you think about his beliefs, Roy's a nice guy, and while nice guys may finish last, they very rarely spend long periods of time alone. The right woman is waiting out there somewhere. Or who knows? Perhaps it's the right man. Either way, it sure beats the heck out of being lonely.
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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.