The four of us stood at attention, awkwardly, in the Commissioner’s living room. Two of us were there to witness, and two were there to make formal their commitment of love and devotion for each other. It was a warm and cozy living room, with precious knickknacks taking up positions along the mantlepiece and the end tables, all eyes upon us. Glancing up into the vaulted ceiling, I caught sight of the family pet, peering down through the loft’s railing. He, too, had joined the gathering to bear witness to this exchange of vows. With vaccinations verified and protocols for safety in place, the official agreed to marry the couple with only two weeks’ notice – and the fees were much reduced if the ‘house call’ was made by the betrothed!
I felt very honoured to be standing there that evening. A few weeks earlier, my young relative asked if I would consider being his witness for this civil ceremony. I agreed, never considering the alternative. I knew how very special and important this night would be, and wanted only to support him and his partner. However, the deep significance of this ceremony fully registered for me at an unexpected point in the official script. It came before the vows and the invitation to “repeat after me.”
Before the four of us took up our positions in the room, the Commissioner spent several minutes processing the paperwork. Accurately spelled names and parents’ birthplaces were carefully recorded. Additionally, the process and the legalities of the ceremony were reviewed. We were prepared to expect that portions of the service were required by law and were not particularly romantic. One such moment was the ‘declaration.’
Following the introduction – which established the “high and serious state” of marriage and that the “giving of oneself” supports a flourishing marriage – the presiding official stated:
I charge and require of you both in the presence of these witnesses, that if either of you know of any legal impediment to this marriage, you do now reveal the same.
At this point tears came, not for me (yet), but for the first of the two who would speak. In a voice choked with emotion, he tried to make his declaration. Nervous laughter and assurances from the gallery chided him that this was not yet the emotional part! And then, the penny dropped for me. Suddenly, crying at this part was very appropriate.
Less than a generation ago, the very nature of their love was the legal impediment. It is worthy of tears to speak aloud and declare that rules of men hold no power over your love. In Canada and 28 other countries, same-sex couples no longer must play spectator, watching the ritual through the chain link. While there certainly remain challenges in our society for same-sex couples, the systematic legal rejection of their right to join in marriage is no longer one of them. As an obstacle to equity, the fence stood in plain view, resisting deconstruction despite its visibility. Invisible fences may prove a greater challenge. October is LGBTQ+ History Month, providing resources and opportunities to better understand the fences which persist.
And, some of the fences are intimately internal and seemingly innocent. Several years ago, my daughter discovered a version of the graphic depicting fans watching a baseball game from behind a fence. In a succession of panels, the illustrator compares ‘equal’ to ‘equitable’, and ultimately defines ‘liberation’. These images captured my daughter’s developing sense of social justice and prompted many passionate discussions between us. One of these discussions forced me to recognize that my own rigid adherence to pronoun correctness was akin to clinging to a rusty chain link, weakened and protecting nothing, serving only to systematically exclude. Her youthful wisdom advised me to “let it go, dad.” As difficult as it may be to let go, we can only engage with the process if we acknowledge the obstacles that impede equity and liberation for many of society’s communities, and recognize the fences for what they are.
As educational leaders, I believe we are all pulled by the challenge and the critical importance of dismantling fences which obstruct potential, opportunity, and equity. As leaders in our schools and in our communities, Principals and Vice-Principals arguably have the greatest degree of influence in our system. This week, more than 700 school leaders – online and in-person in small regional hubs – will participate in the 2021 Connecting Leaders Conference: Leading for Equity. As offered by one of the keynote speakers, “It takes leaders to ensure there is conversation.” And beyond the conversation, it takes leadership to enact the calls to action, seeking equity and reinforcing that every child matters. Through engagement and connection with hundreds of colleagues and inspiring speakers, the time that conference attendees spend together will help focus their influence to uplift all learners, thereby uplifting ourselves.
I feel blessed and fortunate… uplifted… to have been witness at my relative’s wedding: it is the first I have attended in someone’s living room, and the first I have attended for a same-sex couple. After the legal declarations were complete, I listened to an exchange of vows as loving and real as any I had ever heard. Their very evident happiness moved me as easily as any other joyous occasion. That these words were exchanged between men mattered not; I cried just the same.