Early last spring, I heard from a former student who wished me to perform her wedding. Since I had once held office in the Commonwealth of Virginia, she wondered if I had that authority.
I didn’t. But after checking the relevant statutes, I learned that I could petition the Circuit Court for appointment as a marriage celebrant. I filed a petition, appeared before the judge and obtained the necessary order. Four days later, I performed my first wedding.
When I applied for the authority to celebrate marriages in Virginia, it occurred to me that I might someday be confronted by a same-sex couple requesting my services.
Sooner or later, something like that is bound to happen to some minor official here in Virginia. If you take on the responsibility of performing marriages, you can’t ignore the possibility that you’ll wind up as part of a test case.
Now, in terms of my personal beliefs, I entirely support legalizing same-sex marriage. This was not my view before I began working professionally as an actor, because I had a very limited – and inaccurate – understanding of gay lifestyles.
For example, 15 years ago, when I was doing My Fair Lady in Boca Raton, I was one of three straight guys in the men’s dressing room. The chorus boys, who had year-round jobs at the theater, all appeared to be gay. And most of them lived with long-term, committed partners.
This was a revelation to me. These guys had homes and mortgages and spent more time discussing their grocery lists than the latest gossip about Madonna. (For my younger readers, Madonna was the forerunner of someone called Lady Gaga.)
As a result of these experiences, I came to support the idea of civil unions, which seemed a reasonable compromise, balancing the interests of gay couples and the objections of many devoutly religious people who believed marriage was for heterosexual couples only.
That remained my position right up until the first day that same-sex marriages were performed in Massachusetts. On the news, I saw couples coming out of clerk’s offices, courthouses and churches filled with joy. It seemed to me very clear that they weren’t celebrating a political victory. Having been around politics most of my life, I know what political victory looks like, sounds like, and even smells like.
This was something else. This was the joy of two people in love, who had waited for years to make a commitment to each other before their families and friends.
And I asked myself: Who could possibly deny anyone such joy, when it harms absolutely no one?
Now, some among my readers would answer that question with one word: God.
To which I can only reply: Maybe your god.
Personally, I couldn’t possibly believe in, worship or fear a god who didn’t rejoice when two of his children, having built a lasting relationship founded in love, committed to each for better or for worse. Such a god, in my view, is too close kin to the strange gods who authorize stoning rape victims, burning widows and flying airplanes into skyscrapers.
Yet, curiously, I have genuine respect for many people who believe, in their hearts, that their god cannot bless same-sex marriages. And my sense of what’s right in a democratic society includes the notion that those who advocate radical change owe some deference to those long accustomed to older ways.
Which is why I don’t think it’s time for Virginia to recognize same-sex marriage. Not because it’s wrong, but because so many Virginians passionately believe it’s wrong. I believe such fundamental changes must come gradually, after thorough debate, and not because some temporary legislative or judicial majority decides to speed up the process.
I feel the same way about going to war. A simple majority will not do.
Democracy, ultimately, empowers the majority, but there is such a thing as showing respect for your fellow citizens, making an effort to change their minds and honestly hearing their objections before plowing ahead by simple majority vote.
Which is why I think Mr. Obama did a lousy job of selling health care reform and Mr. Bush did the same with the invasion of Iraq.
Which is why I’m happy that five states and D.C. have given the rest of us a chance to watch what happens when same-sex marriage is legalized.
Which is why I’ve never fully embraced Roe v. Wade – and why, though I applaud the federal judge who overturned California’s Prop 8, I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will not use Perry v. Schwarzenegger to impose same-sex marriage on all fifty states.
And which is why, if an earnest, same-sex couple asked me to marry them, I would say, “First, change Virginia’s constitution and laws. I will support your efforts. But until you make an earnest, sustained effort, my fellow citizens say I can’t marry you – and I must respect their judgment.”