By Mary Spicer
“It’s about being true to yourself,” the groom explained. “Our marriage was about a covenant to each other.”
“It amazed us when we walked into the church for the first time and saw that it was packed,” the other groom said, smiling at the recollection. “Ninety-five people. A hundred and fifty people at the reception. And most of the people who were there were straight.”
On a recent sunny Saturday, Meadville residents Bob Langley and John Despo walked down the center aisle of the packed St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Westfield, N.Y.
They walked down the aisle because they’d been together for 13 years and thought it was about time to do something about it. The deaths of several cherished friends and relatives, including both of Langley’s parents, served as something of a wake-up call. “How many people we care about are going to pass away before we commit ourselves to each other?” Despo asked.
They were in Provincetown, R.I., a year ago when Langley, who serves as a Meadville City Councilman, popped the question. “I was thinking, ‘It’s time. Let’s do something.’ He had no idea,” Langley recalled. The rest, as they say, is history.
They walked down the aisle because they wanted to do it right. “My dad’s very religious, so I decided that if we’re going to actually get married, I’d rather do a ceremony in our own church,” Despo explained. A call to the Episcopal Diocese in Buffalo yielded the name of St. Peter’s, the church closest to the Ohio/Pennsylvania border that also happened to be led by a priest supportive of same-sex unions.
And they walked down the aisle in New York State because they wanted their marriage to be legal. “We figured that if we were going to do this, we might as well do it in a state where it’s legal because once Pennsylvania legalizes it, it will follow us,” Despo said.
“This took us to another level of commitment,” Langley said. “Now we’re considering adopting a child.”
“We want to create a family,” Despo agreed. “One of the first steps in creating a family is getting married. We’ve done that.”
Almost 100 family and friends crossed state lines and even international borders to witness the ceremony. Conducted by the Rev. Virginia Carr and bearing the formal title “The Celebration and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” their union was blessed via the church’s traditional marriage ceremony — re-written for same-sex couples.
“We are at the beginning of a new era in society in general,” Carr explained during a recent interview when asked about the replacement of the word “marriage” with “lifelong covenant” throughout the ceremony.
“We have not completely worked out how to talk about certain things,” she said. “When people are used to using words in a specific context, change can be confusing. We’re looking for language to express the truth and reality of what’s happening — without using the language that for many people has a set meaning .... The English language is very malleable — it’s always changing and evolving. In this case, we’re seeking ways to express profound truths in ways that are not clouded or distorted by language. That’s very difficult.”
Symbolically, certain elements remain unchanged.
Before blessing their covenant, for example, she tied the knot. Literally. “This is where expression ‘tying the knot’ comes from,” she explained. “It’s a tradition for the priest to join hands together and tie it with the stole. I think it’s a very meaningful thing and I include it in even same-sex unions.”
While it’s not necessary for either member of the couple to be of the Episcopal faith, one member does have to be a baptized Christian.
“I am very honored to be able to participate in these marriages,” she added. “This is a very exciting time in the church and I’m honored to be part of it.”
For some, finding the right words to describe the event itself isn’t the only hard part. Despo’s grandmother and godparents, for example, wouldn’t come to the wedding ceremony, but they did come to the reception. They said, “We can’t put our hands around the whole aspect of this, but we’re here to support you,” Despo recalled.
That’s the kind of support that both grooms treasure.
“A lot of people think that if you’re a homosexual you’re a deviant, because that’s what they’ve been taught,” Despo explained. “But once you get to know people, you understand that they aren’t. We’re regular people. We just want the same rights.”
Those rights include things like the right to make medical decisions if something happens to one of them — and the right of survivorship when the end comes and inheritance taxes become an issue.
As for the future, both Despo and Langley are open about their marriage whenever the subject might come up.
“Not that we’re leading the pack on rights and all, but we’re the only ones in Meadville, as of now, who have taken this path and are out about it,” said Despo. “There may be other people who have done this, but people don’t know. My whole thing is, people may not like it, but if we’re doing this and we’re not out about it, it’s the same as not doing it.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.