I’ve been to two commitment ceremonies this summer. The first was in a public park in San Francisco, between a transman not taking T and a bioboy. The second was a legal heterosexual marriage in a wedding chapel in Tahoe, where I’m reasonably sure that fewer than ten of the 70 or so people there would have been able to understand the previous sentence. (If I reformat to “a cisgendered man and a nonsurgical FTM,” I don’t think that would raise the numbers very much.)
The first one was just plain fun for me. The second was more confusing. For the first, I put on a fancy shirt with my jeans and sandals, and made some crustless cucumber sandwiches for the potluck tea. For the second, I was a bridesmaid, with a custom-made dress from India, my very first ever manicure and pedicure, and a surprising array of expectations.
The bottom line: in both cases, the couples love each other, are good together, understand what they’re promising, and wanted to do what they were doing. So in the ways that really matter to me, it’s all good.
I hated the “custom-made dress” experience from start to finish. The dress wasn’t any more expensive than a comparable one bought off the rack, which I know means (in both cases) sweatshops. The big issue was that I decided at a very early age not to learn anything about being a “girl,” and I’ve stuck to it stubbornly, and yet part of me believes that the skills were supposed to be issued with my chromosomes and I’m somehow a failure for not knowing what I’m doing. The people in India didn’t really believe my self-taken measurements, and kept calling to recheck them. I had no faith in my ability to measure, even though the numbers kept coming out the same, so their repeated questions made me defensive. They couldn’t or wouldn’t explain their concerns to me, and I couldn’t get my fears across to them.
The dress, when it came, “fit” in the sense that I could put it on (a testament to my measuring skills, I guess), but it was form-fitting to my measurements, and a very bad cut for a form-fit, so it did not look good. In fact, it only looked good on the mid-size bridesmaid–the two of us who are fatter both looked like we had been squeezed into it. If I had more girl skills (or the sense to ask someone who does), I could have picked a different cut that would have looked much better. At the same time, if the dressmakers had more skill, they could have built a couple of extra inches of fabric into this cut, and it would have looked fine. What I take from that (I knew this, but not deeply enough) is that girl skills are, in fact, skills, and I should respect the fact that I don’t have them, and get lots of advice when I need them. A useful learning, at a cost of some frustration and dissatisfaction.
Then the bride very generously bought us all manicures and pedicures. These were socially lots of fun (everyone else sitting around chatting and playing cards while one of us was getting nails done) and sensually pleasant, though I wish I had known that a leg and ankle massage is part of the deal–I was wearing jeans that don’t pull up very far on my leg. And I loved the results–I really enjoyed having sparkly purple fingernails, and I’m still enjoying my sparkly purple toenails.
Every time I looked at my fingers and toes, I would think about the amount of social information those colored nails carry: on me, they say, “Look at me; I’m out of my element.” On many women, they say something along the lines of, “I enjoy being a girl.” On a straight man, they’re transgressive. On a gay man, they’re campy. On a genderqueer person, they’re a very complex statement. There’s a naive piece of me that just looks at them and thinks, “Oooh, shiny! Everybody should get to be shiny!”
Then there’s the wedding: my friend Matthew talks about the “marital-industrial complex,” and I have to say these were about the nicest people you could find in any marital industry: genuinely friendly, cooperative, responsive. And the chapel is right on the lake; we could hear ducks quacking during the ceremony. But they’re still about pushing 500 weddings a year through 365 days, and what they are clearly not about is the quality of anyone’s experience, except perhaps the bride’s. They managed to seat 70 people on this long narrow terrace, so that everyone was looking directly into the not-quite-setting sun. The wedding party was exempt from the painful squint, after each of us walked up the aisle into the blinding glare.
Not only was it impossible to see; it was also impossible to hear. Again, the wedding party, and the people in the first two rows, could hear the thoughtful ceremony and the deeply personal vows. They were worth hearing. I’m glad I was where I could actually see and hear the wedding, but I kept thinking of all the people who were excluded by the planners’ inattention and unconcern.
Bridesmaids are expected to be in the formal wedding pictures after the ceremony. I didn’t mind, except for the “now gape at her ring” pose. You see, I know what a wedding ring is, and what it really means. The long list of reasons why I’ve never gotten married finally come down to understanding that marriage–which can be heartfelt and mutually delightful in an individual case, such as this one–is socially and historically about ownership, particularly of children. Most of the time I can put that aside, but gasping theatrically at the delight of being able to wear a wedding ring was over my limits. Yes, I did it, and with good grace.
Now they’re married, in their own eyes and the eyes of the state. And sort of in the eyes of their family and friends, if the friends and family aren’t still blinking away the sun’s glare. Meanwhile, the transman and the bioboy who had a ceremony in the park have shared their commitment with their family and friends, but not with the state. By my actions, I’ve supported all four of them in their choices–and I’m glad to have done so. At the same time, there’s absolutely no doubt which kind of road I would go in the unlikely event that I would ever choose such a ceremony of my own.