My First Weddings
Note: Much of what follows is from memory, but the ‘seventeen weddings' described near the end are from local copies of old blog posts I had written on the topic, many years ago. Hence, the detail.
I have, to date, been an official participant in 21 weddings in the US since I turned 18. Twice I was the groom. The other 19 times, I was the minister. The story gets weirder from there.
My first wedding was three decades ago. It lasted five years and she and I grew apart. The divorce was difficult, but then, they often are. I hope she’s doing well.
My twenty-first, and last, wedding was in Tower Bridge, London, on June 20th, 2010, to my lovely wife Leïla. We’re still happily married, with a beautiful daughter, Lilly-Rose.
Being a husband and father has been exhilarating, wonderful, and sometimes exhausting, but I wouldn’t trade my wife and daughter for anything.
Getting back to the wedding, the date, June 20th, was selected because it’s my birthday. I have no excuses if I forget. She knows me too well and I can’t fault her for that.
Curiously, this is my second wedding on my birthday. The first “birthday” wedding was also the first wedding I officiated at. My friends, we’ll call them Alice and Bob, called me, frantic because they lost the judge who was going to perform their wedding at a lake. Apparently he was retired, senile, and had no recollection that he was to perform their wedding.
I, however, was neither old nor senile (I’ll not swear to either today), but I am an ordained minister. Despite being an atheist, I was ordained by The Universal Church in September of 1990. Back then, you had to do it the hard way by sending them a postcard with your details. Today, you can do this online.
Because I was an ordained minister, Alice and Bob explained the problem and asked if I could officiate at their wedding. I told them I would call them back after I found out. I called my church and they agreed to Fedex™ the paperwork to me, free of charge. I called my friends and told them I’d be honored to preside at their wedding. I neglected to tell them it was my birthday; that would have been bad form.
I filed my paperwork with Multnomah county, in the US state of Oregon and was quickly approved, though not without some odd looks. I was wearing a pair of black earrings and a silver/grey shirt that buttoned up the side, just the sort of thing I’d wear for a Goth Night of clubbing. But Portland being Portland, odd looks were all that came of that.
The wedding at the lake went off without a hitch and I got a good laugh when I pointed out that the witnesses were named “Tom and Jerry.” I also discovered, as a minister officiating at a wedding, it’s easier to pick up women then you would think. The date went poorly and my friends later told me that had they known who I met, they would have warned me not to. (Amongst other things, on our second date, not only did I find out that she was hopped up on little pink pills her former boyfriend had brought her from Mexico, she asked me to convert to Judaism because she had recently converted and couldn’t date outside of her faith. She was also an atheist. I declined a third date).
That couple also went their separate ways, so my first two weddings, one as groom and one as minister, ended in divorce.
Why I Stopped Officiating Weddings
The third wedding made me swear off officiating at weddings ever again. It was a favor for a friend of a friend. A couple couldn’t afford much, so they wanted a wedding in their home. I agreed, and spoke with the couple on the phone. I asked them about the theme (“non-religious”), who they’d like to include (“uh, we’re not sure”), if they’d be exchanging rings (“we don’t know”), and when they could send me a copy of their vows (“can you write them, please?“). Not one answer was particularly bad, but all of them together, coupled with very strange vibes from the phone call told me that something was, well, off.
I wrote their vows and called them back to arrange a rehearsal. They were busy, they said. Every time I called to try to arrange a rehearsal, they had an excuse. I simply could not get a rehearsal with them. So I finally said I’d show up to the wedding early, meet with them, and have a quick run through of the vows. In turn, I shortened the vows, knowing this was going poorly. It’s a very good thing that I did.
The day of the wedding, my friend (er, we’ll call him Charlie), who asked me if I would help the couple out, drove me to their place in the middle of nowhere. It was early October and they had decided on a Halloween-themed wedding. As we pulled up the house, little white trash bags hung from the trees. I later realized they were supposed to be ghosts, but they looked for all the world like Klan hoods.
As I walked inside, I immediately assumed a “minister” persona, wanting to put the people at ease. Charlie introduced me to sexy vampires, unshaved cowboys, and one under-age Pocahantas who wore an ill-fitting costume and no bra. She was flashing everyone but no seemed bothered. I bit my tongue as I smiled. The phrase “feeling like a nun in a brothel” never felt more appropriate.
I was ushered into the back to meet the bride and while she stood their, half-naked, she read through the vows quickly and handed them back to me, assuring me they were fine. I then met the groom in a back bedroom and he told me he was busy and had no time to read the vows. I was brushed off quickly. It felt weird. No matter. I had shortened the vows because they wouldn’t meet for a rehearsal, but this was still very unsettling.
Finally the ceremony started, the happy couple faced me, their assembled family and friends faced me, I handed each of them a short copy of the vows they would read, and I started.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the marriage of ...”
And that, dear reader, is when I realized that in the two months of failing to arrange a rehearsal, I had no fucking idea what their names were.
“... of the lovely bride and her handsome groom.”
The audience smiled. I had gotten away with it.
I then turned to the bride and asked her to read her section of the vows. I was proud of the non-religious, life-affirming, gender-equal vows I had written. None of this, “honor and obey” nonsense. She read the vows and the audience smiled again.
I then turned to the groom and asked him to read his section of the vows. He stumbled and I discreetly pointed to the section clearly labeled “groom” so he could recover.
That was when I discovered that the groom was functionally illiterate. He couldn’t read the vows. He slowly, awkwardly, sounded out the words and I held a supporting smile as I died inside. He was probably dying, too. As was his fiancée. This was a low-point in my life.
After the groom finished, I quickly got through the “do you take your bride ...” and “do you take your groom ...“—still omitting the names I didn’t know—and finished with, “you may now kiss your bride.”
After the kiss finished and the applause died down, I had them turn to face the audience and said, “I now introduce you to the happily married couple!”
More applause, followed by dead silence due to our lack of rehearsal. I had no idea what to do next. The audience stared at us. I stared back. I silently cursed Charlie (sorry, Charlie). Then I piped up with, “how about a question and answer session? I’m sure we’d all like to what their life plans are.”
That’s me, the professional speaker. Always prepared to improvise.
After another awkward pause, the audience got into the swing of things and started peppering the bride and groom with questions as I embarrassedly slunk away to the kitchen, desperately in need of a drink. That’s when I discovered it was a “bring your own beer” wedding and no one had bothered to tell me. I was filling a glass with water when some kind soul hurried up and pressed a can of room temperature Olympia beer into my hand. Olympia beer must always be served ice cold because you desperately want dead taste buds when you drink it, but I was grateful.
Later, Charlie and I stood on the back porch, smoking, drinking, and rather uncharitably speculating about how long the marriage was going to last, when the back door slammed open. An angel with a cigarette dangling from her lips burst out, cussing up a storm. Slipping back into “minister” mode, I asked, “what’s bothering you, child?”
“My sister married an asshole!”
I told Charlie I was never doing another wedding. He was, and still is, a friend, but I can never quite forgive that nightmare.
A couple of years later, I learned that the smoking angel was being charitable. The marriage ended very badly.
Why I Started Officiating Weddings Again
But that’s only four weddings. Given that I had sworn off weddings, it’s probably a surprise that I officiated at seventeen more. Over the course of two days.
In March of 2004, Multnomah County of Oregon briefly legalized same-sex weddings , a full two months before Massachusetts started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples . In fact, the political mess was so awful that at one point, Bend, Oregon banned all marriages , whether they were same-sex or not.
The Multnomah County ruling was a contentious affair, with the city councilors passing the ruling on a day that they knew an objecting councilor would not be present. County clerks were instructed to waive the three-day waiting period and the 60 license applications a day soared to 400.
Given the overwhelming numbers and the fact that many ministers would not officiate, there was a call for ministers to perform the ceremonies. On March 4, 2004, I called up a woman I was due to have a blind date with the next day and informed her I would be cancelling it because I had to help. She was delighted with my excuse (and we later started dating).
On March 5th, I found myself standing on the sidewalk outside the Multnomah County Courthouse, wearing a nice suit with a clerical collar. I had bought the collar years ago for a Halloween party and was happy to discover that it was a real collar from a ministerial supply company.
One couple I married had been together for eight years and another for seventeen. Their joy at finally being married was wonderful. They cried, they laughed, they hugged and kissed. It was a great thing. I can’t understand how anyone could tell them “no.”
Only one couple gave me pause, a couple of boys who looked eighteen. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that they were gay, of course. It was just that they were so young and I was worried they weren’t mature enough to be married, much less face the discrimination that they were going to face, as evidenced by people standing around with signs announcing that we were going to burn in hell. However, their mothers were with them, beaming with pride. Of course I officiated.
As for myself, I should have brought a lot more water with me. My throat was getting scratchy. I also should have brought some Advil because I found that standing on the sidewalk officiating at wedding after wedding was painful. I was cold and was getting a bit rummy at the end. I stared at some of the forms and once had trouble figuring out what my name was over the shouting of protestors.
There were loud cheers for the first wedding, trickling down to a handful near the end of the day. I married seven couples that day and it was awkard at times. I would ask their names and carefully write them down on their copy of the vows I had hastily written the night before. I had already learned my lesson about forgetting names. It was also mortifying to ask, “For purposes of filling out the paperwork, who will be the groom?” Unsurprisingly, the paperwork hadn’t been updated for same-sex couples.
I also needed two witnesses for every wedding and some couples were there alone, no family or friends to support them. I had no trouble finding volunteers in the crowd.
When the day ended, I was approached by another minister who was also dead tired. He explained that he had secured a free banquet room for the following day and had arranged to have couples sent there for their ceremonies. He saw my ceremonies and asked if I could come help. I was delighted to.
Somewhere out there is news footage from a local television station filming me doing weddings on the sidewalks. I had several calls from excited friends who congratulated me. I wish I could find that footage.
The next day I showed up at the restaurant and throughout the course of the day, the other minister and I would trade off batches of weddings. I performed ten of them that day. Most were lovely and the couples were often crying at the end. One was horrendous when one of the men was very belligerent, demanding to know why I was wearing a clerical collar. I pointed out that I was doing him a favor and his partner quickly calmed him down, but the man glared at me throughout the ceremony. I was tempted to stop and hand them off to the other minister, but his partner looked so embarrassed that I continued.
While waiting for my next batch of weddings, I found myself talking to a delightful lady who was terribly excited that she could finally get married to the love of her life. We had a great conversation and when it was her turn to get married, she asked the other minister if I could officiate instead. It was a lovely ceremony and after I finished, she insisted I come to their reception. I was happy to accept, and she gave me the address of a place nearby that I had never heard of. As I looked at the address, I noticed she included her phone number, “in case I got lost.” I pocketed the address as she was explaining to me that she was actually bisexual and she and her partner had an “open” relationship. And then she just looked at me and smiled.
I might be open-minded, but I was not going there. However, I had already agreed, in front of the wedding party, to attend the reception. I made my excuses, found the address, and walked in the front door of a smoke-filled dive bar. Several patrons glanced over, trying to figure out why a minister would be standing there. I had forgotten to remove my collar.
Screw it. I stumbled up to the bar, lit a cigarette and ordered a whisky. This was Portland and the bartender didn’t bat an eyelash. The wedding party arrived, were having a great time, and as soon as I felt I could escape, I made my excuses and left. I never did call that phone number.
So those were my twenty-one weddings, only one of which survived. A little over one month later, the Oregon Supreme Court annulled the almost 3,000 same-sex weddings on the grounds that only the state legislature has the power to regulate marriage. Once again, right and wrong only had a passing flirtation with legal and illegal. My seventeen same-sex marriages were over. I was crushed, but that’s nothing compared to how many lives were devastated by that ruling.
And that is how, in 2010, I found myself working at the BBC in London, trying to deal with a rather awkward phone call.
I was moving in with Leïla, my then-fiancée. She had offered to pack my flat in Pimlico and then we’d move all of the boxes to her flat in Finsbury Park. Leïla is methodical. Organized. Careful. She went through all of my belongings, very carefully, and sorted them into appropriate boxes. She does this every time we move to ensure that when we unpack, nothing is misplaced.
As she was packing my belongings, she stumbled across some paperwork. She’s French and at the time, her English was good, but not fluent. My new fiancée had called me at work, quite unhappy, to know why she found seventeen wedding certificates with my name on them. Was I a bigamist?
We still laugh about that to this day.
Update: I’ve since been reminded of another wedding I officiated at. Oops. That makes 22 of them. That marriage has also ended, so excluding my current marriage, I am proud of say I have a 100% track record of having presiding over failed marriages.