Appropriation, erasure and historical revisionism: gay marriage’s hyperconservative origins, and why DOMA’s repeal mustn’t be framed as a secular(ist) victory

Since Wednesday, I’ve watched friends and allies either side of the Atlantic celebrating the Defense of Marriage Act’s partial repeal. On reflection, perhaps tellingly, the ones who’ve celebrated most have been my colleagues in the atheist community, or at least the part of it which keeps an eye on social issues: in the chorus of online cheering I saw Dan Fincke, Greta Christina, Adam Lee, Melody Hensley, Laci Green, Chana Messinger, Miri Mogilevsky, Kate Donovan and Ashley Miller, among various others. (These last three, I think of fondly as Miri, Kate and Ashley. Let’s make that a thing.)

There is no one listed here I don’t respect and admire enormously – and for that reason, I’m scared to publish this post: scared what I’m about to write will be misread, or provoke a fiery, personal, heat-of-the-moment reaction; scared that it won’t be taken how I intend, as a constructive contribution rather than a joyless sneer or an attack on the elation friends are currently feeling; scared, ultimately, that it’ll alienate me from people whose opinions I care about, whom I regard tremendously highly.

I’m more scared of their responses and other readers’, actually, than I was of upsetting the friends whose wedding I recounted a week ago. This post is almost as much to do with marriage as that one, because the way DOMA’s semi-dismantling has been framed bothers me; more specifically, it troubles me as a queer atheist how much of the skeptical community (though far from unaccompanied in this) has framed the broader gay marriage narrative primarily as one of (pro-)LGBTQ secularism versus religious conservatism.

Some examples. (Again, these are all people I look up to, whose work and writing I support and will continue to support – I’m exemplifying here for clarity, but I don’t mean anyone to feel personally targeted. I’m resolutely not throwing anyone under the bus, nor hoping to be thrown under myself.)

DOMA was a stupid, reactionary, medieval law. I’m glad the U.S. is rid of it. But the reason we (or rather, Americans) are rid of it is not that it was theocratic. Yes, the ideals encoded about queer relationships’ inferiority and the nature of marriage have been transmitted by religions extensively, and religion’s cultural footprints enabled DOMA as much as actual religious structures and beliefs; but DOMA, despite the extent of its religious support, was never a religious law as such, or in any rigid sense a breach of church-state separation.

Much more importantly, the rhetoric its opposition employed beyond the skeptical community was never primarily secularist: the language of gay marriage campaigns in the last decade is characterised much more by references to love, equality, progress, rights than by outright rejection of God in the public sphere. My region of queer politics, as will be central to this post, is generally averse to any marriages’ state recognition, and some arguments for this have hinged on separating church and state, among them Betsy Brown’s in ‘A Radical Dyke Experiment for the Next Century’. While I don’t wholly subscribe to her argument, I do maintain there’s slippage between secularism and support for contemporary gay marriage campaigns; the twain need not meet, and haven’t in most gay marriage advocacy.

The discourse we build around this issue matters greatly, just as it has for every other queer or trans* issue. Our sexes and genders, our sexual identities, the closets in which we’re placed by parents and teachers, our legal rights and our standing as equal beings or perverted sinners are products of language we use and narratives we spin: the history of queerness is one of representations, and the way we represent recent moves around gay marriage will shape future realities of queer activism, as representations of Stonewall shape today’s. I think the discourse being built here around DOMA and gay marriage risks appropriation, erasure and historical amnesia – actually, while I empathise with all forms of hostility to America’s religious right, I worry it already demonstrates them.

Framing DOMA’s neutering as a secular(ist) triumph invites us to view the prior conflict principally as a secular-religious one, where homophobic religious conviction fuelled U.S. law reform to forbid gay marriage, and LGBT populations pressed for gay marriage as an anti-theocratic project; it suggests religious belief to be the first cause in this progress of events, and gay marriage advocacy to have spawned in reaction. This runs counter mainstream gay marriage rhetoric employed in recent years, as detailed above, and I’d argue moreover that it inverts the historical truth. DOMA was not directly produced by religious belief or tradition in 1996, as religion tends directly to spawn, say, ideas of XX and XY bodies’ superior sexual complementarity. Rather, it was itself a reaction – after the fact – to contemporary shifts in queer politics toward the ideal of gay marriage, which owed little to secularism and much to AIDS.

To narrate the gay marriage project’s history before all else as a tale of secular(ist) LGBT folk battling religious rightists misrepresents the dialectic which gave birth to it, and had precious little to do with religion. Internal queer tensions in the years before DOMA, not theocratic heterosexism, were what first pushed marriage onto the gay agenda. If we want consider ensuing developments in the next two decades clearly, and avoid homogenising LGBTQ communities when we discuss gay marriage, I don’t think we can lose sight of those tensions.

Religious bodies at large prior to the late eighties only passively opposed gay marriage, because gay marriage had yet to become a solidified concept. What currency the idea gained during the nineties can be traced back to Andrew Sullivan, a gay conservative who in 1989, two years prior to becoming its editor, authored a column for The New Republic entitled ‘Here Comes the Groom’. His central argument, still instructive reading, proceeds as follows:

DOMAsullivan

Let’s take a moment, in case its sheer vomit-inducing nerve eludes you, to parse this genesis of contemporary gay marriage efforts.

Legalizing gay marriage would offer homosexuals the same deal society now offers heterosexuals: general social approval and specific legal advantages in exchange for a deeper and harder-to-extract- yourself-from commitment to another human being.

‘Including queer people in state marriage would give them everything straight people have – and why would anyone want anything else (or, God forbid, anything more)? – as long as they didn’t do anything socially unacceptable, of course, and earned the right to things like medicine and financial aid by giving up sexual autonomy for the rest of their lives.’

Like straight marriage, it would foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence.

‘Like straight marriage, it would make abusive domestic situations harder to escape and help keep poor people in their place – actually, it’s a really great excuse not to have a functional welfare system.’

Since there’s no reason gays should not be allowed to adopt or be foster parents, it could also help nurture children.

‘There’s no reason gays should not be allowed to adopt or be foster parents – only the married ones, though, obviously.’

And its introduction would not be some sort of radical break with social custom.

‘Far be it from beleaguered minorities to challenge mainstream customs – it’s not like anyone needs wide-ranging social change, is it?’

As it has become more acceptable for gay people to acknowledge their loves publicly, more and more have committed themselves to one another for life in full view of their families and their friends.

‘…what do you mean, “provide the data”? Look, everyone knows more people pledging lifelong monogamy to one another is a good thing – it must be, that’s what straight people have always done (and hey, it always works out for them). Let’s make sure only those people get basic citizenship rights and social support, and throw in some unfair privileges. People who don’t want to “commit” just deserve less.’

A law institutionalizing gay marriage would merely reinforce a healthy social trend.

‘A law institutionalising gay marriage would merely reinforce what I’m claiming is a social trend. Which, again, must be a good thing.’

It would also, in the wake of AIDS, qualify as a genuine public health measure.

‘Well, no one ever gets HIV from a monogamous partner! And married people, naturally, are always totally monogamous.’

Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it.

‘It’s one thing being gay, isn’t it – I should know – but actually having more gay sex than strictly necessary or normal?! That’s the secret to solving all this AIDS malarkey, you know. Forget sex education, provision of condoms and clean needles or funding research for new treatments, we just need good, old fashioned sexual morality to stop people fornicating; same kind the Catholics go in for, and it’s never caused them any trouble!’

‘Since AIDS’, Sullivan wrote, ‘to be gay and to be responsible has become a necessity.’ Gay people needed marriage, in his view, as a mass form of prophylaxis: mere use of condoms and clear dialogue, of course, wasn’t an option – and in any case, was much less responsible than lifelong monogamy. These are the hyperconservative roots of queer liberalism’s cause célèbre, and to a great extent the secular community’s. Yes, right wing Puritanism birthed today’s gay marriage movement, but not the theocratic kind; portraying that movement as a secularist one, defending queer citizens from religious homophobia’s fiery breath like St. George and his dragon-afflicted maiden, ignores the fact the bigotry which prompted it began within the queer populace, elite, class-privileged media figures selling sex workers, polyamorous lovers and HIV positive people down the river; it conceals the uncomfortable truth that in this story, damsel and dragon were one and the same.

No doubt Sullivan’s willingness to sell out his own ostensible community earned him the stature he used to that end – at the height of the AIDS crisis, it seems hard to imagine any out journalist but a reactionary one becoming editor of TNR. As it turned out, he cared neither for monogamy nor for condom use; as Richard Goldstein described the debacle twelve years ago in The Village Voice,

Using the screen name RawMuscleGlutes, Sullivan posted on a site for bare backers (the heroic term for gay men who have sex without condoms). He was seeking partners for unsafe anal and oral intercourse. Sullivan revealed that he was HIV-positive and stated his preference for men who are “poz,” but he also indicated an interest in “bi scenes,” groups, parties, orgies, and “gang bangs.” This hardly fit the gay ideal Sullivan had created in his book Virtually Normal. In fact, RawMuscleGlutes is just the sort of “pathological” creature who raises Sullivan’s wrath. Hypocrisy has always been a rationale for outing, and it’s the justification for a group of gay journalists who teamed up with the tabs to expose him.

Some would call this character assassination, though one can’t help feeling it seems more an assisted suicide.

That Sullivan’s case for gay marriage (that is, the original case) was as regressive as it was needn’t mean, of course, that no valid case exists. But the fact the gay marriage project started out so divisively and oppressively has consequences: given its weaponisation so early on against the queer population’s most vulnerable members, it’s impossible to claim it unambiguously for that populace as a whole. Treating pursuit of gay marriage as the central or quintessential queer struggle homogenises us; it suggests it to be an aim equally representative of or accessible to everyone outside the cishet mainstream, when its history has alienated those from day one who lie furthest from it. To gloss the partial repeal of DOMA as a ubiquitous one-size-fits-all gay rights victory ignores that the campaign for it, whatever view we take of the end goal, always fit some of us better than others.

To claim it as a victory by (mostly straight) secularists on behalf of the queer population, to use support for gay marriage as a metric of queer-friendliness, to locate it as the pinnacle or culmination of all past queer activism – risks erasing everybody alienated from or othered by the project’s history, and obscures the sheer sectionality of the last twenty years’ campaigns. It means using figures like Sullivan and those not driven away from gay marriage politics by their influence as a barometer of the queer population’s priorities and desires, and not their victims, or the many marginalised queer people for whom poverty, the closet or the fear of violence will make marriage a pipe dream even post-legalisation.

One cannot legitimately claim the erosion of DOMA, or any ultimate achievement of complete marriage reform, as an equal victory for both these sides. Framing them as secularist, (pro-)LGBTQ victories against religious homophobia, beyond being out of touch with mainstream gay marriage rhetoric past and present, whitewashes over the cracks, painting the queer population as a singular, happy whole and not the fractured hierarchical wreck it really is. Presenting that whole populace as equally happy and liberated means presenting it in the image of the most privileged; the greatest conflict around gay marriage rages not between queer and religious populations, but within the former, as it always has.

DOMAnotsoequal

None of thus in itself means gay marriage is a bad idea, or that no one should pursue it. But while we’re told scrapping DOMA marks the fulfilment of historical queer activism, with figures like Harvey Milk and events like Stonewall hauled out to suggest a long, hard fight for justice led by ordinary queer people, the truth is that grassroots struggle never occurred – and it shows. What victories are achieved won’t now be equal victories for us all – not for Sullivan’s HIV positive pariahs, not for trans* people told by the HRC to take down their pride flag or LGBTQs made to hide their immigration status; not for polyamorous people deemed ‘irresponsible’ from the very beginning, othered when activists and politicians insist gay marriage won’t lead to polygamy, so there’s no need to worry; likewise not for people interested in their relatives, who we’re  assured won’t gain marriage rights themselves, the disgusting incestuous perverts; not for kink communities expelled from queer spaces and events through bans on nudity; not for those of us unconvinced of the military’s heroism. For thousands of people, the gay marriage project’s ultimate achievements, whatever they are, can now only be mitigated triumphs – celebrated, at best, despite the cost at which they came.

Brendan O’Neill is a homophobe with homophobic intent – one quotes him at one’s peril – but a contrarian stopped clock is right twice a day, and when he says gay marriage campaigns are nothing like the Civil Rights Movement, he has a point (as any such indiscriminate hurler of reactionary silage occasionally will, if only be accident):

In order for gay marriage to become one of the most celebrated issues of our time, embraced by everyone from David Cameron to The Times to Goldman Sachs, nobody had to fight on the streets; nobody had to organise long and bitter boycotts of public institutions; nobody was water-cannoned by the authorities, attacked by police dogs, burnt out of their homes.

When bricks were thrown at Stonewall and San Francisco burned on White Night, gay marriage was not on the agenda; until the nineties, the concept barely registered on anyone’s agenda. Its passage into popular awareness and LGBT political centrality was triggered in the early noughties not by marches, riots, sit-ins or public meetings but by the celebrity lawyer Evan Wolfson’s establishment of Freedom to Marry, an elite lobby group powered by a multimillion dollar endowment. If Sullivan was the architect of contemporary gay marriage politics, Wolfson oversaw its construction; both are now heralded, instructively, as ‘fathers’ of the current gay agenda, and their role in setting it – alongside politicians, NGOs and the liberal media – illustrates perfectly that this has been a top-down project for the most part, fostered and promoted by elite, comparatively privileged LGBT ‘leaders’ and their straight allies, trickling down into everyday queer consciousness and subjectivity as the fortunes of the untaxed rich are claimed to trickle, much more than it was ever advocated from the ground up.

DOMAsolutionNone of this, once again, means it’s a bad idea by definition. But there are those of who think, incidentally, that it is; that inclusion in a legal structure like marriage is regressive and misguided, that assimilation is not liberation, that the state is not the solution – that serious reform and social change are needed, not just a reconfigured status quo. I’m not going to argue for that here and now; my point is, the argument has never really been had. Presenting DOMA’s half-haulage as a development welcomed universally by the queer population – or, moreover, as a secular(ist) LGBT coup against the religious right – obscures and erases the history of gay marriage. There has never, in fact, been a sufficiently serious, grassroots internal dialogue about its value as a goal.

Last year in the secular community, it came to light that numerous prominent women had been harassed at conferences. They shared and compared experiences, considering the available responses and reported what had happened to their readers and our broader community; eventually, this led to a coordinated effort for codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies at skeptical events, and for the most part it was successful: a plurality of well known conferences established clear, considered policies and took other measures to prevent harassment. This is exactly how social movements progress at their best – initiated and steered by the people most strongly affected, self-reflective and thoughtful about which course of action should be taken; it used shared discourse and collaborative dialogue to identify the problems, examine them and reach practical conclusions, which afterward were implemented.

And this is precisely not how gay marriage was popularised, dreamt up by those atop the social food chain and handed down via lobbying efforts, politicians (often straight ones) and the liberal media. There was never an internal consultation period, when queer communities at large reflected on the idea, assessed its pros and cons and declared it, in conclusion, worthy of treatment as the flagship LGBT initiative. If you think there was, when was it?

Yes, DOMA was a response to a smattering of queer attempts at legal marriage in the early nineties – in Hawaii, principally – and to Denmark’s introduction of basic civil unions a few years before; but it was just as much a Republican fortification against the ‘normalising’ rhetoric of high-up figures like Sullivan. Those first civil unions, too, were far more a pragmatic response to the threat of partner death and destitution in the height of the AIDS crisis than a political expression, and certainly not one of secularism. Certainly, after Freedom to Love’s emergence in the early noughties, gay marriage’s grip on queer media narratives slid unencumbered into place, a meme spread with the marketing guile of progressive think tanks, the commentariat and the gay elite – such that supporting it became a presumption. As an adolescent, back when I still identified as gay, I grew up presumptively supporting marriage reform; not because I’d weighed the costs and benefits to reach a prognosis – I hadn’t – but because gay people wanted that, and if I was gay, I must want it too.

I believe today that most straight ‘allies’ support gay marriage because it seems the obvious expression of queer-friendly solidarity they wish to display, and not because they’ve examined the queer arguments for and against it on its own terms. It’s an attempt at allyship, ironically, which erases thousands of queer people, including me, who are skeptical of assimilation and of propping up state marriage, along with significant parts of our history and politics which criticise the gay marriage project from the queer left. It’s by no means absurd to imagine Harvey Milk, if abstracted to the present day, might be more on our side than Sullivan’s and Wolfson’s.

Like most queer people with earnest reservations about it, I think the debate amongst ourselves we never had about gay marriage is one we desperately need to have, and should have had before large-scale legal changes were underway. Again, this post isn’t the time place to stage that debate, but there are those of us who see as empowering conservative agendas on healthcare, welfare and immigration among others (I see this above, in Andrew Sullivan’s original proposal; I see it around me in David Cameron’s marriage rhetoric). There are those of us who find state marriage discriminatory, oppressive and unjust whoever has access to it, and those of us who think the state has no more right to rule on whose relationships (or families) are valid than does religion. Even if we accept government to be legitimately democratic, why ought our relationship choices be up for debate?

You don’t have to agree with any of this, at least straight away. It took me a long period of careful thinking to arrive at the position I now hold, thanks largely to the culture of crappy discourse, mentioned above, in which I grew up. In media and political narratives, queer critiques of structures like marriage to which LGBT activism now aspires are marginalised, ignored and left out of discussion.

We contribute to this whenever we use support for gay marriage as a litmus test for queer-friendliness; when we presuppose all critics of it to be right wing bigots, or especially to be religious; when we devote whole reams of coverage to the same familiar, reactionary right wing arguments against marriage reform but only the scantest reportage (or none at all) to the dissenting queer left’s; most of all, when we allow the marriage debate to be straight-led and straight–dominated.

Again and again, I’ve watched whole public rallies for gay marriage where straight politicians and mostly-straight crowds cheered for progress, love, acceptance, equality – seen current affairs programmes where all-straight panels debated the merits of ‘equal marriage’, read pages and pages of straight journalists’ applause for ‘gay rights’ measures I and many others, as queer people, find deeply worrying. Much of the time the secular community, though far from unique in this, feels the same way. It’s enough to lend new credence to the phrase ‘to the exclusion of all others’ – particularly when the conflict over marriage is framed discreetly and sans nuance as a pitched battle between The Gays and Evil Christian Bigots. Yes, they’re often pretty evil; yes, their bigotry is often religiously fuelled – but why they getting more airtime and acknowledgement than folk like me are?

The queer agenda, on marriage or anything else, needs to be set by us – not by our well-meaning straight ‘allies’, and certainly not by homophobic theocrats – and I believe this culture of erasure is inhibiting that. It’s harming our ability, as a social movement, to be self-critical, to evaluate our goals more carefully, and also to be self-theorising – not just to pursue automatically and reactively whatever it is homophobes want to deny us, letting their bigotry dictate our actions, but to generate ideas, ideals and ideologies of our own for queer liberation, on our own terms, for ourselves and for a better society.

If you’re a gay marriage supporter, then, active in secular or atheist circles or a straight ally, think carefully about the discourse you promote.

You don’t have to be on my side in this issue. Many people aren’t, queer and straight alike, and I appreciate a multitude of voices even though I think they’re wrong. But please, let voices like mine and those I’ll link to beneath this post join in that multitude; in the argument over marriage reform and LGBTQ people’s future, please give us a seat at the table. Our arguments aren’t for everyone, but nor are they trivial. They deserve to be acknowledged and properly considered, and to be part of the mainstream (secular) discourse from which they’re so often excluded.

If you define the current gay marriage wars uncomplicatedly as conflicts between heroic, secular(ist) LGBT couples seeking marriage and villainous religious conservatives, you are homogenising a whole population, and in doing so erasing a great many of its members and much of its political thought from a discourse which badly needs their contributions. You are contributing to a mass culture of that homogenising erasure.

If you represent gay marriage’s critics as by definition religious, including by saying or implying no secular criticisms exist (they do – see below!), you are doing the same – and by representing the conflict as predominantly secularist-theocratic, you are expunging from the record all the oppressive, repressive, regressive actions taken historically by gay marriage advocates against other queer and trans* people, motivated far less by secularism than by deeply puritanical, reactionary conservatism.

DOMAmattachinesIf you’re a straight ally, and you treat support for gay marriage as a component of ally-ship to be taken for granted, you might well similarly be erasing and ignoring thousands of members of the population whose rights you claim to advocate – and you’re in danger of upholding a status quo where the primary movers for and representatives of LGBTQ people are often straight people; where LGBT activism’s goals and queer activism’s context are dictated more by straight people than LGBTQ people. However much you oppose our stances, we’re still part of this, and shouldn’t be expunged from queer history – no more than anarchist feminists like Emma Goldman who opposed women’s votes, or the homophile Mattachine Society, whose members covered the battered Stonewall Inn with pamphlets demanding the riots ceased.

So here’s where I ask you to do something positive.

  • If you haven’t encountered the strands of queer politics and argument I’m discussing here before, especially around marriage reform, read at least a few of the pieces I’m linking below, if not all of them. Whatever your conclusion, think carefully about the arguments raised; use them to inform your broader thinking on LGBTQ issues; be willing to re-examine positions you hold, and relinquish some of your assumptions, before you reach a stance you feel you can solidly justify. (In short, be a good skeptic.)
  • If you find them hard to follow, or you don’t have the time or energy to put into reading them, feel free to talk to me or others about the relevant discussions. (This being said, these topics matter, so particularly if you’re someone with an influential voice – a prominent writer or speaker, a straight ally or activist, or someone who discusses gay marriage a lot – be prepared to invest time and energy in raising your awareness where it needs raising.
  • If you’re a gay marriage supporter, including after considering the queer critiques on offer, stop presenting that support as being a de facto part of (pro-)LGBTQ existence, and acknowledge the internal critiques of gay marriage when you talk about. Criticise the criticisms as much as you like, but remember to make them part of the discussion. This goes doubly if you’re writing a one of the familiar ‘Worst arguments against gay marriage’ articles – instead of just hauling out the typical right wing homophobia, think more critically about the arguments made for gay marriage, plenty of which are just as terrible and equally offensive.
  • And if you see people making bad arguments for it, conflating being (pro-)LGBTQ necessarily with gay marriage support, conflating criticism of it with bigoted religious conservatism or rewriting history, tell them to stop. Or, better still, link them to this.

My name’s Gabriel, and I want to recruit you.

* * *

Queer critiques of gay marriage politics: a reading list (in no particular order)

Bibliographies for further reading:

A queer atheist’s survival guide: thoughts from my friends’ church wedding

Four days ago, for the second time this year, I went to church. Some months ago an elderly friend died, through whose funeral – an Anglican affair, dusty and impersonal if dignified – I sat with family members; it was the first I ever attended, and on Saturday, also for the first time, two friends of mine got married.

Both knew me via interfaith exchanges and had wondered, I later learned, how likely my attendance was. Though I’d met them through a project which meant much to me, considered them good friends and was touched to be invited, despite our differences, to an event important to them, those differences remained: they were evangelicals, wed in Oxford’s most evangelical church, where I was an atheist hostile (and happily so) toward religion – moreover, a queer, polyamorous one of anti-marriage politics. It’s hard to imagine anything more contrary to my principles than a church wedding – but nonetheless, my friends’ was meaningful for them, and I was honoured to be invited.

With any luck, you’re beginning to sense cognitive dissonance. I attended this wedding to share in my friends’ happiness, not disparage its origins. Unliksie at my old friend’s funeral, or Christmas services through which atheists sit to please their parents, it wasn’t enough to put up with the ceremony – I wanted actively to enjoy it, and the point of my write-up here is to relate how it felt to attempt this. It’s one thing to let sermons fly over your head in secular passivity, putting aside the impulse to roll one’s eyes; it’s another, as a queer atheist marriagephobe in the pews, to grasp for a slice of the happy couple’s joy.

Without wishing to disappoint the groom, then, who asked that my account hold nothing back, this piece isn’t about what I found objectionable, but about my attempts to negotiate and ignore them while enjoying the proceedings and finding joy in them. I hope if you’re an atheist, or as uncomfortable at wedding services as I am, this post provides some thoughts on experiencing them with positivity, and that if you’re planning one as a serious believer, it helps you relate to your secular guests.

I doubt I’d succeed at either of these goals, though, if I didn’t outline what felt alien or uncomfortable.

To a great extent, all marriage involving the state makes my knuckles itch: to recognise some relationship structures as worthier than others (via the civil register or reference in law), or otherwise assume the state has anything to say about the legitimacy of our sexual and romantic choices, makes me uneasy. This goes for all state marriages (and civil partnerships), whether in churches or not, however secular or ‘progressive’. It’s a broad gripe, and not one overtly bugs me at weddings or stops me enjoying them, but a gripe I think bears mentioning nonetheless.

To a greater extent still, there are tropes and memes embedded in our marital traditions which I find unsettling, and which often appear around wholly secular nuptials. There is sexism, of course: in the idea of the bride’s white dress denoting virginity-therefore-purity (and, before that, wealth-therefore-beauty); in words like ‘husband’ and ‘groom’, suggestive more of an animal-keeper than a lover or partner; in the general heteronormative asymmetry of the bride and groom’s gendered roles; in the clichéd proffering of an engagement ring during proposals, as if to purchase love with shiny items of jewellery; in the possessive notion its presence will discourage unwanted suitors; in the ‘giving away’ of its wearer by her father, and his traditional payment for festivities, the relics of a time when daughters were commodities for trade.

There’s monogamy-worship too – the implicit treatment of lifelong, two-partner exclusivity as the only valid way to live and love – in our customs of congratulating the recently engaged and of applauding their marriage’s pronouncement, as if forming such a relationship were a greater achievement than forming a different kind; in our reference to friends’ wedding days as ‘the happiest of their life’, as if no one ever married more than once; in our statements the couple will be together ‘for the rest of their lives’, when half of marriages end in divorce. Our kidding ourselves about this suggests the dissolution of a marriage is shameful or humiliating, rather than a natural, often faultless development, and contributes to the idea relationships which don’t last till we die are worthless failures.

And it’s true, as well, that the religious elements at this wedding – the references to existential sin and shame, the implicitly homophobic, transphobic descriptions of marital relationships depending on ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, the assertion of divine insistence that wives submit to husbands, and the direct instruction of the bride to speak to hers in a soft voice – made relating to it hard for me. There was the statement no married or loving relationship could succeed without God, the readings from scripture, the hymns involving blood and sacrifice; the question, directed at the congregation, will you pray for and support them in their marriage?

For all but the wateriest non-realists, prayer requires spiritual beliefs, of which I hold none – I wouldn’t be capable of it even if the idea appealed. While I hope my friends’ time together is filled with joy, and to be there for them if ever they should need me, I’m an atheist, and any claim I planned to pray for them would be a lie. I could no more join the collective We will in good conscience than the hymns or actual prayers of the ceremony, for which I remained quietly seated, head unbowed.

My instant urge is to defend myself from accusations of disrespect or spitefulness. I’ve witnessed discussions among atheists on how to conduct oneself in church for loved ones’ funerals or weddings, many of which inspired this post, and some of which involved the instruction to sing along, avoid making a scene and not be a dick. On entering the church, in fact, I sat discreetly in a small pew toward the back corner so as not to draw attention or seem hostile, curmudgeonly or insincere; the ceremony, after all, wasn’t about me.

Still, there are two things I’d ask here.

Firstly: why is atheists’ partial non-participation in rituals like these interpreted as spiteful, aggressive, insensitive and generally typical of negative atheist stereotypes – why did I fear I’d be perceived this way on selecting my seat, and why have I seen this characterisation of it elsewhere – when identical behaviour by non-Christian believers is viewed as peaceful, pious and worthy of respect? If I’d refrained from worshipping Christ because I was a devout Muslim or Jew, I can’t help feeling no one would doubt this showed my principles’ integrity, not disdain for the Christian couple or congregation; as an atheist, I worried I might give the latter impression. I don’t think all beliefs are equally valid (the contradictory ones couldn’t be), or claim to respect ones I think are false (the acid test for respecting beliefs, one can’t help feeling, is adopting them), but why is the conscientious value I attach to secular convictions deemed less legitimate than that which any believer attaches to their faith?

Secondly: given my friends knew on inviting me that I was an unbeliever; given they’ve heard me speak at length about why this is, and how little love I have for Christianity’s claims, surely to stand praisin’ Jesus among the crowd would be an insult? Surely it would ignore the reality of our friendship, which centres around our conflicting beliefs and has grown because of, not in spite of them? Surely the person they invited to witness their marriage was someone they knew to be secular in the ‘aggressive’, tabloid-paper sense – surely they wanted me there, and not a pretence? That ceremony was important to them. While I don’t share their belief in the ceremony’s sacredness, at least in a theistic sense, I can acknowledge it; and to lie to my friends on a day sacrosanct to them, behaving with no integrity, seems like a desecration – a transgression almost akin to blasphemy. (Almost.)

As it turned out, there was much about this wedding which I enjoyed, and which I focused on appreciating. One half of the couple was American, the other South African, and the service mixed national customs intriguingly: the wearing of dinner jackets to weddings, a U.S. habit which continues to mystify me, was dispensed with in favour of traditional morning dress (albeit it outfitted with a large, rather striking white rose instead of a carnation), but the maid-of-honour’s distinctive procession – bobbing recognisably down the aisle before, not after, the bride – remained in place. Brooke Fraser’s ‘Love is Waiting’ was sung, deftly, in place of Mendelssohn or Handel, as novel and interesting a departure from tradition as the playing of James Brown to close the service, and on standing for the entrance of the bride I was aware the church was unusually bright and airy for one of its age.

Of all the spaces I might have been in, this was a good one, and I blocked out the Jesus-songs to concentrate on appreciating that, besides the pleasant music and the happiness of my friends. (While I abstained from all the hymns, some were better than others; I should probably admit a soft spot for ‘Be Thou My Vision’.) Afterward, undulating through buffet tables laden with cakes and appetising, unusually plentiful soft drinks, which spread end to end across a tennis court sized room, I thanked the musicians for performing as well as they had, wished the newlyweds the best of times together and socialised with mutual friends, bumping occasionally into their family members.

To focus on drawing enjoyment from all of the above and not the elements which troubled me, so as to share a portion of my friends’ happiness, took a certain amount of cognitive effort. It was, after all, a situational compromise. When I attend religious events, as I did last summer, it’s usually to provide secular commentary and criticism, and I think in general that preachers who teach existential shame to children (several were present) and advocate poor gender politics deserve to be challenged. But this wasn’t for my presence on Saturday, and would have come between me and what I was there to do – namely, sharing an important moment non-judgementally with people I like. Dwelling on the less comfortable aspects was an intuitive but undesirable temptation, an itch not to be scratched, and devoting concentration to the positives meant assuming a perspective very unfamiliar to me, like squinting or tilting one’s to the side in a museum so as to appreciate a work of art’s hidden details. Squinting mentally for the best part of an hour, especially when bombarded with things you’re used to scrutinising with a burning stare, is difficult: it required a degree of self-awareness and mindset-control rarely asked of me.

And this is why, when the person in the next seat began to evangelise, my temper frayed.

As I waited for things to start, he had asked if the place was free, and we exchanged the usual pleasantries. When my hometown came up, so did his attendance of its annual evangelical convention, and to stem any awkwardness should he assume I was a Christian, I casually volunteered my atheism. Beyond being told he was an atheist but became a Christian, there was little follow-through until after the service, when he asked if I was secular-minded for any particular reason. My response – that in the absence of a God-shaped hole inside me, I simply don’t find religions’ claims convincing – seemed not to satisfy him, and he took to asking which churches in Oxford I’d attended and how many times, before inviting me to the weekly Christianity Explored discussion group. (I shan’t be going. He might be glad of this.)

In other contexts, I wouldn’t mind so much. I’m a believer, on the whole, in defending the beliefs by which we live, and not against arguing about who’s right. In the meetings from which I knew the bride and groom, I was hotseated more often than anyone, and I didn’t resent this – I enjoyed it, in fact. But isn’t there a time and a place for this? My statement I didn’t believe wasn’t an invitation to grill me, but a heads-up, a (perhaps too) subtle message not to engage me in prayer or worship should the time come, an attempt to have my partial non-participation read as an act of sincerity, not spite. If he’d really been desperate to take me to task, I’d have happily supplied my e-mail address or directed him to this blog, but as it was, I attended this wedding to honour my friends, not defend my worldview or interrogate theirs, and the energy it took not to breathe fire on him for doorstepping me this way was energy I needed to focus on mental squinting; on forgetting about worldviews and enjoying my surroundings.

If you should find yourself the believer in this scenario, non-atheist readers, don’t interpret your neighbour’s statement of atheism as summons to interrogate them; it’s likely that at this moment, beliefs are the last thing they want to discuss. Don’t raise the standard of your former non-belief as a smug, I-used-to-be-an-atheist standard – just because you changed your mind doesn’t mean you should have – and don’t imply you therefore understand their perspective while acting in a way that shows you don’t. And don’t assume, without a shade of self-awareness, that your interlocutor was never a believer or knows nothing about your religion, inviting them to come and think about what Bible says.

In any case, I’m glad I attended – whatever the cause, two thoroughly happy friends was a pleasing sight on my last weekend in Oxford. All that remains is to say what I would have said, if asked to offer a secular prayer for the ceremony.

As an atheist, I don’t think love can last forever. As a skeptic, I don’t believe in any ultimate design for our relationships – whether God’s, the fates’ or the aligning planets’ – and I recognise it’s significantly likely any marriage will end in divorce.

I know: you’re glad I didn’t say this there and then. But there’s a serious point to be made about our mysticism around partnering: when people are forthright and realistic about relationships, we deem them unromantic and cold-hearted. This is what the atheist comedian Tim Minchin discusses in his song ‘If I Didn’t Have You’; we imagine that the only proper way to acknowledge love is with grandiose, wildly improbable declarations about destiny or everlasting emotional bonds. I think, conversely, that acknowledging love’s own wild improbability is a promising means by which to celebrate it.

The odds of live on earth in the first place are wicked slim; add to that the challenge of being born, and the startling unlikelihood of matter, memory and experience assembling into you, and individual selfhood for a start is a thing uncanny. It seems at least doubly unlikely, then, to meet another individual so well suited to you that you want to share large portions of your life with them – and yet it happens, again and again.

No, these kinds of partnerships don’t last forever, and most don’t last for life, but meeting partners with whom we want to form them is itself phenomenal. I’ve practiced polyamory in great part because I’m not the best fit for many people, but am a good fit for plenty, and have shared parts of my existence joyously with them. For however long their marriage lasts, and whatever its passage entails, it’s pretty extraordinary that my friends should find one another as complementary as they seem to. This kind of total, permanent monogamy is a comparative erotic neologism – it flies in the face of our species’ history and our brains’ evolution, wired on the whole for something broader and more various. Love like this is always star-crossed, in a sense, ignoring its own improbability in human flesh and an indifferent universe, occurring nonetheless. That, one might say, is almost miraculous. Almost.