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Ceremonies of The Heart: Celebrating Lesbian Unions

CEREMONIES OF THE HEART: CELEBRATING LESBIAN UNIONS edited by Becky Butler. The Seal Press, Seattle, 1991.

In this anthology, twenty seven lesbian couples describe their ceremonies of commitment, including the decisions that led to these, and their impact on participants’ lives since. The cultural sources of these ceremonies are as diverse and varied as their participants, and range from more-or-less traditional Christian weddings, to Wiccan handfasting rituals, to Jewish ceremonies. The forms that these ceremonies take are similarly diverse: some are huge public affairs planned months in advance with attention to every last detail (from the invitations to the dress); others are spontaneous, private demonstrations of commitment made between two women in the company of a small group of friends or alone.

Jewish ceremonies include an interracial wedding with Gospel music under a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy); a Hanukkat HaBayyit (housewarming) which invokes the shekhina (female presence of God) to honor the act of two women creating a Jewish home together; a “recommitment ceremony” by two longtime lovers; and a Brit Ahavah (covenant of love) modeled after a liberal Jewish wedding ceremony.

Many women agonized about how to include in their ceremonies relatives who had not come to terms with their lesbianism. While dealing with parents is a challenge for any wedding couple — lesbian or heterosexual — accounts of dealing with parents are among the most poignant in this volume.

Lesbian relationships do not receive support from the legal system. This lack of recognition in the eyes of family, culture, and polity figures as an important reason for having a ceremony. As Deborah Johnson put it, “If you’re heterosexually married, and you haven’t lived, or even spoken with your spouse for two or three years, you’re still considered married . . . With gay and lesbian relationships, there are no such definitions. Our relationships have only the significance that we give them.”

In each instance, these ceremonies enabled couples to step further out of the closet than ever before. Rosanne Leipzig and Judy Mable describe negotiations with the artist who made their ketubah (marriage contract), the jeweler who engraved their rings with the words “ahuvot chayim” (“life partners”), and the man who sold them kippot (skullcaps) printed with their names. Rosanne writes that in the process, “We began to have the feeling that by doing all this we were starting to participate in the process of healing. People who had never before recognized their encounters with gay people began to see us as living, breathing human beings.”

There’s a paradox here which runs through many of these stories: by appropriating a ceremony which is regarded by many lesbians and gay men as the most powerful symbol of privilege that heterosexual culture has to offer, some feel better able to challenge the very thing which oppresses them. (For this reason, I found Rosanne and Judy’s description of their Brit Ahavah, which relies on Jewish cultural authority more than any other, to be the most moving selection in the book.)

This volume will be helpful to anyone who is considering a ceremony of commitment, as well as to clergy who are increasingly challenged to take a position on officiating at such ceremonies.

It is significant that this, the first volume of ceremonies created to honor the lesbian lifecycle, addresses a ritual which so closely resembles marriage. By focusing on the similarities between heterosexual women and lesbians. Ceremonies of the Heart can play an important role in building understanding between both groups. Let us hope that it also inspires future volumes which honor the lesbian lifecycle for the ways in which it differs from that of heterosexual women.

Christine Balka is an editor of Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish.