I came to a stop in my tracks. I stood and stared as I began to watch a wedding; a deliberately public event announcing itself, lakeside, on a bright – but still cold – winter day in Canberra. I didn’t know the guests, the bride or the groom. But I still stopped. Maybe weddings were different in Australia, where same-sex marriage debates had intensified during my visiting fellowship at the ANU? Maybe I was about to witness something different?
I gauged presence, absence and significance as certain guests were ushered forward, shown to selected seats, or made to wait; others stood on the grassy public periphery and heads turned back to await the main arrival (of the bride). I guessed who-belonged-to-who, as the groom stood and waited too, gazing out into his own audience and his own future. There seemed a rehearsed pattern to these presentations. Pausing to take in the format and rules (where to sit and stand, how long to wait, when to get fed-up, frustrated and perhaps even change your mind), I realized that of course this event was rehearsed (over and over again). Compellingly, it still pulled me in despite the rules, rehearsals and reproductions. I sat, like a patient guest, in someone else’s day.
I sat getting colder, watching cold guests wait for a (likely cold) bride. Shivering bridesmaids in a matched array of satin sleeveless dresses were also part of the waiting. Despite the chills I persisted, the guests did similarly and more and more people filled the lakeside front to watch and take part in someone else’s public-private commitment. Pictures were taken and I wondered how the event could fill a general public ‘memory’ of what-happened-today (as everyday): we are all called upon to participate in weddings, marriages, civil ceremonies and to celebrate relationships that are already recognizable in normative, legitimate ways. Sometimes this stops us in our tracks and pulls us in unexpectedly.
To mark the place, chairs were dressed-up and covered, flower petals were distributed and expectations were raised. I was waiting, the guests were waiting, but for what? I found myself pausing and questioning as I still stood smiling: did I want to see the pretty bride in the pretty dress? Why was this sight so appealingly anticipated, and where was my usual sociological cynicism? I didn’t imagine or fantasize this event as mine – but it seemed a shame not too wait for the moment since I’d already invested time in the gaze.
When does the wedding event ‘arrive’? Why does the anticipated appearance of the bride and groom signal a new arrival, a private-public ‘moment’ – in something we know is often problematically repeated even as it is celebrated? Does the display of affection, familiarity and consumption provide a seductive gloss over what and whose ‘private’ lives might be made public? What public returns are (re)made in following a set-track towards legitimized, visible heterosexual relationships? The bride can appear in the moment, and claim the day as hers, but we know that inequities in marriage may mean new invisibilities and un-viabilities (her care, his career).
I found myself asking, why have a wedding in public? Why have a wedding at all? In Lesbian and Gay Parenting: Securing Social and Educational Capital (2009), I came across lesbian and gay couples desperately wanting to marry, to present publically as ‘all legal and above board’; I also came across women and men who refused this kind of public recognition, as well as others who felt somewhat in-between, critically observing an institution which had excluded them while intrigued by what new possibilities might now be available.
As I argued in the research generally, the celebration of civil partnerships as one-off special days reinforces the moment of celebration/acceptance, against everyday, ongoing struggles (and the significance of class in this). One interviewee, Kathy, spoke of the draw of big parties, where roles can be played with if not defined, and potential gift lists imagined if not received:
Every now and again I’ll say, ‘Well, if we did, we could get the house tidied … Think of all the gifts we could get, we could actually get a toaster that pops up on both sides at the same time. But no, it’s a bit of a joke and we’re not thinking about it. But they [her children] have been to a few civil ceremonies and so they’re quite like, ‘Oh.’ Both of them, they’ve been to a fancy dress one, so it’s not a good example of people taking things very seriously. They know about it and they ask about it, Harry’s very much, ‘Well you could do, you know, you really, really could’, and they’ve chosen what role they want to play. Celia doesn’t want to do bridesmaid because she doesn’t want to wear a dress but she’ll happily show people to their seats and throw petals … no doubt it will be on and off the agenda for many years, but I can’t see it happening, unless we have to, for the kids. If it was a case we had to, we might do it, but it’s not something either of us either seriously mentioned or contemplated at all. But we’re looking at the colour co-ordinated kitchen stuff at Fenwick’s and we’re thinking, ‘Just think, if we could tie in the new house with a civil ceremony and get things!
Kathy’s evaluation moves from the humorous to the serious, bringing in a sense of solidarity and refusal in considering what her closest friends are doing – against that which others want and expect to see, negotiating points of sameness and difference. When we stop to watch a wedding, let’s pause on the different presences being (re)made when not everyone gets to present or appear in or as the public.
Yvette Taylor, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research