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In 1973 Harry Freeman married Bob Jones at Boston’s Old West Methodist Church. Having a Christian ceremony was important to them. They had both been students in seminary school, and although they chose not to pursue careers with the Church, they remained deeply committed to God, the Christian faith, and to the development of spiritual life on earth.

The night before their wedding the Bishop of the New England Conference warned them that if they proceeded with their ceremony they put Reverend William Alberts' career at risk. Alberts was the minister at Old West and, as we saw in the last post, he was deeply committed to a wide range of progressive social issues. He also was not easily intimidated. Just as he believed in openly fighting racism within the Church, he believed in the right of same-sex couples to marry. The wedding proceeded as planned.

Reproduced with the permission of the photographer

Well, not exactly. Many friends and even some family were invited to attend, but no one expected to walk into a church full to overflowing. Everyday Bostonians turned out to show their support for them as a couple and for the rights and dignity of lesbians and gays in general. Harry knows this because at one point in the ceremony they held an “open mic” session during which folks were invited to come up and talk about why they were there and what the day meant to them.

Of all the people to speak, there were two groups that Harry remembers most. The first were members of the local chapter of the National Organization of Women, the first and most influential national body to emerge from the 1960s women’s movement. These women’s presence is particularly significant because at that time NOW’s leadership was working hard to keep lesbians from having any kind of visible presence in the organization. NOW president Betty Friedan had in 1969 described lesbians in the organization as a “lavender menace.”

Rita Mae Brown, in Lavender Me... Digital ID: 1582297. New York Public Library
[click through to visit NYPL.org]

Issues of special concern to lesbians were not permitted on NOW’s official agenda until 1971. The women who went to support Harry and Bob stood up to say that their wedding was precisely the kind of thing NOW should be supporting.

The other memorable group to stand and speak was a typical-looking young, white, heterosexual couple with young children in tow. Unknown to Harry or Bob, they came simply to show their support for the newlyweds, and to stand in solidarity with the fight against prejudice toward lesbians and gays.

Not a single word of protest was breathed that day, despite the major media coverage leading up to the event. The “religious right” had not yet mobilized. That would come later.

I learned these details from Harry Freeman-Jones in a recent phone interview. I rely heavily on oral history to uncover the undocumented past, but luckily for us the entire ceremony was recorded by Boston’s local NPR radio affiliate. Hopefully I’ll soon be able to hear the voices of everyone who spoke that day. Hopefully. Who knows if the tape has been preserved?
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This past week I met with Vancouver's queer seniors writing collective Quirk-e to talk about a draft of an article I recently completed with the title: “Freak Wedding! Marriage as Postwar Lesbian Pleasure Practice.” The article was inspired by the headline of a 1957 tabloid story about a butch and fem lesbian wedding in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The question I ask in the article is simple enough: how can we make sense of butch and fem lesbians' highly conventional marriage practices when everything else about them was highly unconventional? There are extraordinary parallels between working-class butch and fem lesbian bar culture and the culture of early twentieth century circus freaks, so I use the critical studies understanding of late 19th and early 20th century circus "freaks" to deepen our understanding of butch and fem culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Margot Dunn, a Quirk-e collective member, made a brilliant comment during our discussion. "There is nothing freakier than a wedding ceremony," she said. People dress completely out of the ordinary, they say things that are out of the ordinary, and the day is spent in a very unordinary way.

Everyone agreed, myself included. Margot could see something so obviously freaky, but made so ordinary by its status in our culture as “normal,” that no one else could see.

The wonderful thing about the word "freaky" is that it can mean different things. Something can be freakishly weird or freakishly wonderful. The challenge in writing Outlaws to In-Laws is to make the story of same-sex marriage in the 1950s, '60s and '70s as interesting to people who see marriage (gay, straight, or otherwise) as freakishly weird as we might expect it to be for those who see it as wonderful.

I am one of many who see same-sex marriage as weird and wonderful. Since the late 1800s marriage in Western culture has increasingly come to be a public celebration of love, intimacy, and commitment between two people. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, mainstream American society insisted lesbians and gays were incapable of authentic love, intimacy, or commitment. That same-sex couples married each other anyhow makes these weddings freakishly wonderful. On the other hand, as a cultural institution marriage typically reinforces gender stereotypes. When Daisy de Jesus performed wedding ceremonies in New York’s Broadway Central bar in the late '60s, she asked: "Do you take so-and-so to be your butch, to love and protect you? Do you take so-and-so to be your fem, to love you and to be faithful?" Daisy would come to reject this kind of gender differentiation as she became more and more involved in the women's liberation movement in the early 1970s.

What guides my exploration of this topic is the largely forgotten gay liberationist argument that love outside the bounds of society's prescriptive norms is a radical action. To truly embrace other human beings as having a value, a dignity, and a humanity equal to you and everyone else, they claimed, is the most direct path to uprooting of social and political inequality.

People do not always marry for love, and it is certainly not the only way to express love, but the couples I am writing about loved radically. At the time, most Americans thought such love to be so freakishly weird it was perverted; in this context how can it be anything other than freakishly wonderful?

What do you think?

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Last week I wrote about Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church. At the same time Perry was building his church in Los Angeles, Father Robert Clement, an ordained priest of the Old Catholic Church of America, was building his congregation in New York City. Also like Perry, Clement was an out and proud gay man. He famously participated in the June 1970 Stonewall march wearing his Catholic collar and carrying a sign that said “Gay People This Is Your Church.” He meant his Church of the Beloved Disciple, which held regular services at the 9th Avenue and 28th Street Episcopalian Church of the Holy Apostles.

Also like Perry, one of the most popular services Clement provided was to bless the unions of same-sex couples. In an interview on the LGBT Religious Archives Network he explains that he and his partner coined the term “Holy Union” to describe this particular rite. He also claims that he was the first to publicly perform Holy Unions, a claim that Troy Perry disputes. Perhaps Outlaws to In-Laws will set the record straight. I’m working on it.

Undisputed is the fact that when, in 1970, Clement wanted to marry his partner John Noble, he asked Troy to officiate. Through his work as a priest serving the lesbian and gay community, Clement had a very high public profile. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Perry filling this role.

The photo, taken at the Robert and John’s wedding reception, appears on the LGBT Religious Archives Network page featuring Clement’s full story. Clement and Noble’s beaming smiles suggest that it was a happy day indeed.

[Image Description: Father Robert Clement and John Noble standing together behind their wedding cake.]

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