Gay weddings flourish in a religious stronghold

Can Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah and known for its devout Mormon beliefs, be a new home for gay marriage?

Times Online, UK/April 22, 2008

The day had finally dawned. After 12 years of being girlfriend and girlfriend, Holly Miller and P.R. Banks were getting married. Dressed in a cream trouser suit with a sparkly pink top, Holly, 44, looked radiant as she adjusted a silver tiara on her highlighted hair. P.R., who won't reveal her age, looked equally serene, wearing a traditional wedding gown with a matching tiara perched atop her elegant blonde bun.

"I take you, P.R., to be my beloved," Holly told P.R., looking into her eyes. In the front row, Holly's mum sat enthralled by the ceremony, held in the upstairs function room of a popular upscale restaurant; her father looked vaguely bored. On the right of the makeshift altar, two of the six ushers standing solemnly in shirtsleeves and ties were women.

This was no ordinary gay wedding, if any gay wedding could be construed as ordinary. It took place recently in my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, which doesn't have a reputation for being exceptionally progressive or tolerant.

The city is known as the seat of Mormonism in the U.S. The religion, established in upstate New York in the 1820s, takes its teachings from the Book of Mormon, an additional scripture of the Bible which tells of a visit by Jesus to North America. In wider terms, Mormonism is associated with strict religious beliefs and polygamy, although the church has disavowed the practice.

When I was growing up, my school was about 95 percent Mormon. I was one of three Jewish students in my year and my family was looked down on for drinking coffee and tea, which contain "stimulants" the church is against. I've lost track of the times I was asked when I was planning to convert. This was my first trip back in years from my adopted home of Hampstead, north London.

At the moment, Massachusetts is the only American state where civil marriage is legal for gays and lesbians. But surprisingly, Holly and P.R.'s wedding was more than just a public demonstration of their commitment. In September 2005, Salt Lake's then mayor, Rocky Anderson issued an Executive Order granting same-sex partners in the City proper the same health and other employment benefits available to heterosexual couples. Executive orders have the force of law based on existing statutory powers, and require no outside backing for them to be enforced.

"Fundamental principles of fairness and justice obligated me to grant equal benefits to same-sex domestic partners of employees," Anderson told me. "While my Executive Order granting equal benefits was unpopular in some quarters, even spurring lawsuits, it was the right thing to do."

One couple which has benefited from his laws is MaryEtta Chase, a former Mormon housewife with three grown daughters, and partner Shelle Marchant, whose own mum grew up in a fundamentalist polygamist household. Shelle drives heavy machinery for the City of Salt Lake, and their civil ceremony two years ago means MaryEtta enjoys the same medical benefits Shelle's colleagues' wives get. "It's all about love,"says MaryEtta, stroking Shelle's hand at the reception as the presiding Reverend Bruce Barton of the Metropolitan Community Church, wearing an Indian headdress, danced to the Village People's YMCA with a handful of other guests.

A former Mormon missionary, Reverend Barton has been with his male partner for 30 years and has an eleven-year-old son. He didn't actually come out - to himself or others - until he was almost 30. "I thought I couldn't be gay as the only gays I knew of were flaming queens, and I wasn't," he says.

Holly, who works in health care information technology, was one of my most sensible friends while we were growing up. She grew up Baptist and had several long-term girlfriends over the years, but P.R. was obviously The One. "The first time we met, Holly sang and played her guitar for me, and I fell in love," says P.R. "I've been in love her ever since, and I always wanted to get married. For me, this wedding is a dream come true."

P.R. also comes from a devout Mormon family. A former care assistant studying to become a hairdresser, she is the youngest of ten children.

Although both her parents have died, she doubts they would have attended her wedding to Holly. In fact, only one of her many siblings showed up, an elder brother. A sister had previously agreed to be a bridesmaid but backed out six weeks before the Big Day.

So what's next for Holly and P.R.? In the immediate future, they are going on a week-long Caribbean cruise with Olivia, a travel company that caters to lesbians. "We are so excited! Neither of us have ever been on a cruise before, or to the Caribbean!" Holly told me on her hen night, held in a women's sports bar called Mo Diggity's. "And everyone will be gay!" Now there's a change.

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