At a recent marriage equality rally, I saw a middle-aged man wearing a t-shirt that bore the slogan: “I’m straight but not narrow.” I asked him why he chose to don what some would consider politically provocative garb. His answer reaffirmed my long-held belief that what’s personal is also political: Attending a same-sex wedding had changed his mind about marriage equality.
“I got the shirt after my lesbian niece wed her partner of eight years,” explained California resident Martin, 44, who’s been married to his wife Jane for 22 years. “I’d worried that gay marriage would harm the institution, but a year after her wedding, nothing changed. My marriage and those of my straight friends didn’t fall apart because my niece got hitched. I didn’t see the decline of Western civilization. What I saw were some happier and committed gay couples whose agendas seemed pretty normal to me: love your spouse, work hard, and do what you can to build a happy life together.”
This conversation made me wonder: With so many straight people attending same-sex weddings these days, what are they learning about love from these unions? After conducting a few interviews on this subject, what I learned surprised me more than the time I accidentally caught the bouquet intended for a bride’s BFF at one reception a few years back.
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Some people told me that they’re experiencing (or maybe it’s more accurate to say “re-experiencing”) the idea of love and commitment as a privilege. It brought them a better understanding that marriage is not just about celebrating romantic love between a man and a woman. Almost all of them noted that current conversations around marriage equality offer a primer on the financial and practical reasons why this particular piece of paper matters so much (including the ways in which it benefits both partners’ health).
Regardless of your sexual orientation, here are the five biggest love lessons you can learn from same-sex marriages:
Love Lesson #1: Don’t take your rights for granted
Seeing how much people in the GLBT community are fighting for this right themselves makes many heterosexuals appreciate what they have more than ever before. “Every straight person grows up with the notion of marriage as a given,” says Colorado native Peter, 57. “Maybe it never dawned on us that gays and lesbians should be just as entitled to those same expectations and opportunities, too. As the issue gained more attention, I had an ‘aha!’ moment when I pivoted from thinking that it’s OK to realizing it’s absolutely unfair that marriage is not everyone’s right.”
“Any same-sex couple implicitly has to work harder to make this decision than most straight couples,” says Floridian Chuck, 56. “Suppose that for work reasons, a couple has to move to another state where their marriage isn’t just unrecognized, but legally nullified. No straight couple worries about that.” While it seems increasingly likely that prohibitions against marriage equality will eventually disappear — just like the ones that made it illegal for interracial, interfaith, and international couples to wed in the past — many people are constantly reminded that prejudice still exists, and the need to fight it continues.
Love Lesson #2: Same-sex weddings can bring out the best in people…including your best people
“To attend a gay wedding can be a valuable lesson in tolerance and how far we’ve come as a nation,” says Connecticut native Cathy, 46. It can also provide an opportunity to show how loved ones will change a long-held position if it specifically means more happiness for you. “A lot of couples face resistance to their marriages,” says Washington resident Mary, 57. What sometimes happens next, she adds, is a testimony to the power of familial love. “I have seen so many older, conservative people — like my dad, for example — who are opposed in political principle to same-sex unions. But their love for their children conquers that opposition. I think my dad — a homophobe in the truest sense of the word — was genuinely happy to see my brother find a partner who made him so happy. His love for his own son was far greater than any political leanings that my dad thought he had.”
Not only can a same-sex wedding bring out the best in people, it may also ensure that only those who have your best interests at heart are in attendance. “People quickly realize gay weddings are filled with so much love and are truly joyous occasions, which I think is because of the people who attend them,” says marriage equality advocate Evan, 31, of Maryland. “Because of the special nature of these events, rarely do your fourth cousins and all of your father-in-law’s business partners attend. The people invited truly love the couple and are loved in return.” Sounds like a good litmus test for anyone deciding who belongs on a wedding invitation list, don’t you think?
Love Lesson #3: When it comes to marriage, being pragmatic matters just as much as romance
“For me, same-sex unions underscore what marriage really is,” says Mary. “It’s not so much about true love, passion, or finding your soul mate. At its core, it’s a social and economic arrangement that comes with legal rights and responsibilities. You can have all that mushy stuff without a marriage certificate, but you can’t have the tax breaks, inheritance rights, and rights at hospitals and in emergency situations without being married. Looking at why people marry, I realize that it’s as much for the legal reasons as it is for the emotional ones.”
Being pragmatic about such a big commitment is a solid reminder for anyone considering marriage these days. And this pragmatism can also offer insight into those whose religious beliefs are attached to the cause of social justice. “I’m a practicing Catholic, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many religious people support marriage equality — not in spite of their beliefs, but because of them,” says Maryland native Nicole, 31. “The discussion has really shifted from ‘redefining marriage’ to ‘this is about equality.’ More people realize that the ‘civil unions’ alternative to full, legal marriage is insufficient because it does not give same-sex relationships equal recognition [in the courts].”
Love Lesson #4: Couples should celebrate in a style that embraces their fabulous individuality
The very idea of a same-sex wedding is non-traditional, and there are many positive things to embrace about that. First, there’s being able to personalize your ceremony instead of just repeating some cookie-cutter vows and being done with it. “After attending my best friend’s lesbian wedding, my fiancé and I got great ideas for our own,” says North Carolinian Linda, 27. “Linda and her wife Mary incorporated some religious aspects, since Linda is Jewish and Mary is Episcopalian. But they didn’t stick to an old, tired script. Instead, they incorporated a Buddhist prayer, several non-traditional readings, and even folk music that you wouldn’t expect at a wedding. Their wedding reflected both of them perfectly. I want that for mine, too.”
And hey, don’t forget about the party that follows after the ceremony! “Committed love is beautiful and courageous — period,” says Florida resident Chuck, 56. “This may sound as if it plays to a stereotype, but the first two same-sex ceremonies that came to mind have been far more creative and entertaining than most straight couples’ ceremonies,” he enthuses, adding: “And the receptions? I have to say it — fabulous!”
Love Lesson #5: In the end, love is love — no matter what the couple looks like
Maybe the most important lesson of all is also the simplest: love is love, regardless of gender. “Love, commitment, and fidelity are the most important things in the world to me, and that’s why I got married,” says Cathy, 46. “Why should that right be exclusive to just one set of people?” All couples who say “I do” are a little scared; it’s a huge commitment to make, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But they make that leap of faith anyway, despite the current U.S. divorce rates. Given those risky odds, it’d be easier for most couples to skip the vows and ceremony altogether. This adds an important new layer of meaning to the enthusiasm gay and lesbian couples are demonstrating in pursuit of marriage. The GLBT community isn’t endangering heterosexual marriages; rather, their focus on legal commitment being recognized for same-sex couples may give the somewhat shaky institution a much-needed shot in the arm.
“When you’ve been married as long as I have, you see friends divorce and it can make you a little cynical,” says Martin. “Seeing gay couples get excited about legalizing their love rubs off on me. It reminds me of how far people will go to be together, and that the need for loving commitment is universal.” If the personal is truly political, then the best advocates for marriage equality just might be those who’ve attended same-sex weddings and thus widened their once-narrow perspectives. When you’ve basked in two devoted people’s love — the most powerful human emotion, and one that’s as old as the hills and as unique as the couple expressing their vows — labels like “straight” and “gay” don’t seem to matter much, do they?
“I haven’t been to a gay wedding yet, but I sure hope I’ll be invited to one soon,” says Cathy. “Nothing would make me happier than seeing two people proclaim their devotion to one another in front of the people who matter most to them. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it.”
Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for Match.com since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Visit hiswebsiteand send your dating questions and comments to him firstname.lastname@example.org.