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    Loving and Living the Questions

    reverendNever before has the legal case for nationwide marriage equality seemed stronger than at the recent Federal Court of Appeal’s argument in the Indiana and Wisconsin marriage cases. For nearly two hours, the Seventh Circuit panel of three judges, appointed by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, tore gaping holes in every argument the states’ attorneys defending Indiana and Wisconsin’s marriage bans offered.

    The states’ attorneys sometimes appeared at a loss for words or flustered, and the Wisconsin attorney even tried, unsuccessfully, to evade answering one of the Court’s questions by suggesting his time was up when it wasn’t. One judge referred to various arguments the states made as “feeble,” “absurd,” “ridiculous,” and “pathetic.” The states’ attorneys came up with nothing credible to defend the bans. When the Court asked Wisconsin’s attorney how ending the exclusion of LGBT couples from marriage would harm anyone else, he responded: “…[w]e don’t know.”

    Perhaps the most important aspect of the argument was the respect all three judges evidenced for the dignity of LGBT Americans and their children. For decades, opponents of equality have slandered LGBT Americans by falsely accusing them of being harmful to children—be it Anita Bryant’s 1970s “Save the Children” campaigns, or the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign. Last year, the United States Supreme Court, in its decision striking down DOMA, held the opposite: anti-LGBT laws, in fact, harm children of LGBT parents.

    The Supreme Court stated that DOMA “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples…mak[ing] it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives…” The Seventh Circuit went further, with one judge referring to many of the harms that the states’ marriage bans have inflicted on children of LGBT parents as “harrowing” and noting America’s history of “savage” discrimination against lesbian and gay people based on “hate.”

    Indiana and Michigan’s attorneys argued that their states could continue to bar same-sex couples from marriage because they claimed the purpose of marriage was to encourage unmarried heterosexuals who engage in sexual activity in which the woman became pregnant to stay together. The Court asked why the states did not criminalize heterosexual “fornication” outside of marriage instead, and it noted that the states’ current laws actually penalize LGBT couples who carefully plan their families.

    One judge presented data showing that, in fact, from 1990-2009, years in which the same-sex marriage bans were in place, the proportion of out-of-marriage births increased 68% in Indiana and 53% in Wisconsin, with the out-of marriage birth rate for some demographic profiles over 90%. Noting that the states’ purported policy of banning same-sex marriage to prevent out-of-marriage births was “pretty unsuccessful,” the judge named the states’ argument for what it was, an ”artificial rationale” to exclude same-sex couples from marriage.

    On Monday, September 8, the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco hears oral arguments in the Idaho, Nevada, and Hawaii cases.  Stay tuned.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for nearly three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA.

    “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke,

    Letter to a Young Poet

    Recently, a circle of wise elders to which I belong was discussing this quotation in relation to our lives now that daily seem to be made up of questions rather than clear and distinct answers. An 87-year-old member of our group said someone over 60 years ago gave her Rilke’s book from which the above quotation is taken. When he gave the book to her, he said, “You won’t understand this now, but eventually you will.” She said to us that indeed, after six decades, she has finally come to understand about living the questions.

    As I officiate weddings for couples of all ages, I hear them say vows that are precise and fairly specific. There’s nothing wrong with that. But knowing what I know now, and having been in 2 marriages that both ended in divorce, I know for sure that I didn’t know all the answers back then. Or any of them! But I thought I knew everything. I thought I had all the answers. Oops!  Nope. To the contrary, the more I was so sure of how everything should be—who should do this or that, and why this would all work—the more confused and lost I and my spouse became. We not only didn’t know the answers, but we were also pretty much clueless. I’m not saying this as a put-down; I’m simply speaking of what I lived and what I have seen of others, trying to live their marriages and their lives on a basis of knowing everything, of having all the answers.

    I think in marriage, and in life, Rilke’s wisdom is helpful, but not easy to practice. Our culture teaches us that we must learn every possible thing about everything. And then we are supposedly well prepared. But now, in my elder years, I can see what it means to live the questions. It is not running away from things we don’t understand or fear, or that make us feel insecure and humbled. It is instead about not needing to have a definitive answer for everything all the time. Rather, have the courage to live each day at a time in the unknowing and the mystery.

    Marriage is the perfect training ground for living questions such as the following:

    What if one or both of us loses a job?

    How do we tell one another secrets we didn’t even know we had?

    What happens when there’s a serious illness in the family?

    What if one of us wants a child and the other doesn’t?

    How can we carve out time to be together, to have fun and to play, for joy?

    What will I do if my partner dies before I do? How then shall I live?

    Some months ago, my Bay Times colleague Howard Steiermann officiated a wedding for two wonderful men, one of whom was gravely ill. They had been together 31 years, but when marriage became legal, they didn’t marry because of that illness. They thought they knew the correct answer, but when we asked them if they wanted to get married, they both realized the answer was a heartfelt “yes.” So they did marry, not knowing how long they would have together. It wasn’t long, but it was a magnificent few weeks. It transformed them.

    Rev. Elizabeth River is an ordained Interfaith Minister based in the North Bay. For more information, please visit