September 10, 2012

Unearthing the Western Past of Same-Sex Marriage

By Jeff Wilson

I’m a regional thinker, as my recent book Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South attests. And though that book focuses especially on the South, much of my work is Western, since I study Buddhism, and Buddhism has especially been a religion of the American West. So last year when I started working on uncovering the earliest documentable history of same-sex marriage in America, I thought that I was taking a break from regional, especially Western, studies.

Same-sex marriage status in the United States, July 2012, by Greg Stoll. 
Click on the image for a larger view, or go to Greg Stoll's website for the animated version.
The evidence is starting to suggest that I was wrong. At first, the West doesn’t seem like it might be the most congenial place for same-sex marriage to emerge. After all, legal marriage equality appears to be an Eastern thing. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Washington D.C. all recognize same-sex marriage. The record is better on the civil union/domestic partnership front, but still more Eastern than not: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maine, Delaware, Illinois, plus Washington, Hawaii, and California, with more limited rights also granted in Wisconsin and Colorado. Depending on November voters, same-sex marriage may or may not come to Maine, Maryland, and/or Washington. Here in my adoptive country of Canada, same-sex marriage is fully legal—but the push came especially from Ontario and Quebec.

This map of same-sex marriage rights in Canada is interactive at CBC News.
The situation reverses, however, when we look at religious ceremonies for same-sex marriage. Turns out that the religious milestones of same-sex marriage all occurred in the West. As I discussed in my recent article “'Which One of You is the Bride?' Unitarian Universalism and Same-Sex Marriage in North America, 1957-1972" (in the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History), the earliest clergy-led same-sex weddings I could uncover were Unitarian ceremonies in Santa Monica in 1957. Then there was Troy Perry’s founding of the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, where he began performing same-sex ceremonies in 1968. Also that year, Rev. Robert Cromey performed the first Episcopalian same-sex wedding, in San Francisco. By 1970, Revs. Cecil Williams and Lloyd Wake had performed the first Methodist same-sex weddings and Rev. Thomas Maurer performed the first such services for the United Church of Christ, all in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I documented in my article “'All Beings are Equally Embraced by Amida Buddha': Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States” (in the Journal of Global Buddhism), Rev. Koshin Ogui began performing what are probably history’s first Buddhist same-sex marriages at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco in the early 1970s.

Main worship hall at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, site of history's first Buddhist same-sex wedding.  Photo by Jeff Wilson.
Meanwhile, across the border, Canada’s first same-sex marriage was performed in 1973 at a Unitarian church in Edmonton, Alberta, followed in 1974 by a very public Unitarian service in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and another at a Unitarian church in Vancouver, British Columbia. And of course, many other major religion and homosexuality milestones can also be claimed by the West, from the first clergyman to come out of the closet (Unitarian James Stoll, in Colorado, 1969) to the first openly gay man to be ordained (William Johnson, in San Carlos, California, by the United Church of Christ in 1972), and so on.

There are exceptions, but the pattern seems to be that the West has produced the earliest religious recognitions of same-sex partnerships, while the East has most consistently produced legal enfranchisement for such couples. Is there something about the West, or at least parts of the West, that allows for greater cultural openness to homosexuality, while failing to support legal equality? Like I said, I didn’t expect to be pursuing a regional project when I got started—but like Michael Corleone in the Godfather series, even when I think I’ve gotten out, somehow I get pulled back in.