Dispatch — March 3, 2017, 8:00 am

Like Never Before

At the world’s largest lesbian wedding

Photograph by the author

Photograph by the author

Bride Pride is not America’s first mass queer wedding. That distinction probably belongs to a ceremony held three decades ago, on October 10, 1987, when 2,000 couples got “married” in front of 7,000 witnesses on the National Mall as part of a march for LGBT rights. The event was immortalized in a newscast shot by the Gay Cable Network. In the grainy footage, women in lacy white bridal gear and men with handsome Selleck mustaches pose for pictures as “Family,” a song from the musical Dreamgirls, plays in the background.

My uncle David, sporting a blond mustache himself, was one of the thousands on the mall that day. On his way home to San Francisco, he came to meet me and my twin sister, born two months earlier, for the first time. Today, thirty years later, he’s gone, his generation wiped out as much by political neglect as by a virus. And on a sunny weekend in mid-October, I’m on my way to Provincetown to be a spectator at another mass gay wedding: the first ever “Bride Pride: The World’s Largest All-Girl Wedding and Renewal Ceremony.” The event is aiming, as the name suggests, to set the world record for a mass lesbian wedding. There’s just one big difference: it’s legal.

I’m not exactly the most likely front-row attendee at a mass lesbian wedding. I’m one of those queers who’s critical of the institution of marriage, not to mention gay assimilation at large. I was raised by radical lefty parents who didn’t get married because they didn’t believe in it, and I suspect I’ll follow in their footsteps. Beyond marriage’s roots in patriarchy and its ties to the state, I’ve come to agree with my parents that a relationship is not something you sign a contract for.

I’m also, however, a sap, and a realist about the fact that human emotion doesn’t always align with radical political theory. I cried when Edie Windsor won her case against the Defense of Marriage Act, not so much because I thought her inability to marry her partner was the pinnacle of oppression, but because the wounds caused by decades of being told that you’re sick and inhuman are devastating—and winning in the same court that has thrown you out is one small kind of healing.

Bride Pride’s organizers, Roux Bed & Breakfast owners Allison Baldwin and Ilene Mitnick, planned a full menu of events for the fifty-three couples getting married or renewing their vows: a bridal shower the day before, mimosas and breakfast the morning of the ceremony, and finally, a trolley ride down Commercial Street to a champagne reception. The wedding was borne out of Baldwin and Mitnick’s plans to renew their own vows; hoping to bring more women to Provincetown, they decided to open their ceremony up to everyone.

I arrived in Provincetown on Friday, the day before the wedding, and checked in at the Seaglass Inn & Spa, a hotel on a hill that practically glowed in the early afternoon sun. The inn, one of Bride Pride’s sponsors, was hosting the bridal shower, so I followed the sound of voices to the party in the garden.

It was a perfect fall day, so warm that I regretted wearing a sweater. Tables arranged around a heated pool were set with hors d’oeuvres, alcoholic and non-alcoholic punch, and vanilla and chocolate cupcakes with rainbow frosting. A well-kept lawn surrounded the pool, and it was here that I encountered a crowd of about forty women, who were all in the process of taping yellow balloons to their butts.

I was more than a little sheepish as I walked up, holding my notebook in one hand, shielding my eyes from the sun with the other. I had no bride, no date, and no reason to be here other than to document this incredibly personal event in the lives of strangers. But almost no one noticed me. Those who did smiled welcomingly. A woman with a Southern accent called out, “Is my balloon okay?” Someone reassured her that it was.

The emcee, a handsome butch with a pompadour, explained the rules of the game, which turned out to be a balloon-humping relay race: the women form two lines. The first woman in each line runs up to a lawn chair and holds onto it. The next woman runs up and humps the hell out of her until the yellow balloon taped to her butt pops. Then the humper becomes the humpee, and the next woman runs up and attempts to pop her balloon. And so on, and so on.

The game began and I found myself in the middle of the most gleeful party I could remember attending. Women grabbed each other by the shoulders, the hips, anything they could hold onto. Short women stood on their toes to hump higher. Women being humped, impatient at the ineffectiveness of their humper and eager to help, thrust their butts backwards. Everyone was laughing. I couldn’t help myself—I was too. It felt easy to forget that all of these women, having come here in units of two for a mass wedding, were strangers to each other.

At the end of the game, two middle-aged women were left pumping away hopelessly at each other. “Remember the night you met!” the emcee instructed. “Show her you can still do it!” The whole crowd started to cheer them on: “Pop that balloon! Pop that balloon!” The women kept trying, kept humping. It was a theoretically vulnerable moment, but there wasn’t a shred of embarrassment on either of their faces—just laughter. Finally, after what felt like a year, someone took pity on them and popped the balloon with a car key. The garden erupted in applause.

The wedding at Roux Bed & Breakfast was set to begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday, but the brides had been invited for a pre-ceremony breakfast with mimosas and photos an hour beforehand. I arrived at 10:15, passing between tall, neatly trimmed hedges to find a white Victorian house, restored to the letter and gleaming under a cloudless blue sky. A few guests milled about on the freshly cut lawn, toting cameras and chatting. If it weren’t for the Bride Pride flag waving from the porch, this could have been the pre-wedding party for a straight New England wedding—for just one couple, of course.

The breakfast was around back, so I walked through Roux’s brightly painted rooms—marigold entrance hall, peacock dining room, royal purple kitchen—and opened a screen door into a long backyard bathed in sunlight. Bamboo fences lined the garden, and flowerpots full of roses hung from the posts. Buffet tables were set with trays of chocolate truffles, crudités, fruit, mimosas. At the far end of the yard a professional photographer had set up a mini-studio.

There were women everywhere: women in white button-downs, white pants, and matching rainbow bowties; women in lavish wedding dresses with partners holding their trains; butches in black dress shirts and matching embroidered vests; butches in grey suits with purple and yellow ties; women in long cardigans and glasses; women in tiaras and black cocktail dresses; women wearing all-white denim and aviator sunglasses; and quite a few women in flashy, chic pantsuits.

After breakfast, the ceremony began, and all 106 of these women joined hands and stared into each other’s eyes on Roux’s front lawn. Hundreds of their friends and family crowded in, spilling onto the sidewalks, the driveway. A drone overhead was recording the official wedding video. Then there was me: standing in a flowerbed where I found a few feet of unoccupied space, trying to write it all down without crushing the hydrangeas.

I had been expecting to feel moved by this wedding. A few years ago, a woman in a car called me a dyke and told me she hoped I’d die; I’m guessing that’s a rite I share, in some form, with every person who was on that lawn. As the women exchanged vows, I found myself thinking not about marriage but about shared history: queer people kicked out by their families, forced into conversion therapy. Thousands of lovers and friends turned away from “family-only” hospital room visiting hours, millions of glass bottles thrown at bowling alleys and on street corners. And we’re not just defined by tragedy, either: I was thinking of queer sex, of drag, of learning to love ourselves in the face of a culture that violently hates us. I was thinking of 4,000 queers making out on the National Mall in 1987, and 106 women kissing now—two giant fuck-yous to anyone who has ever called any of us disgusting.

Tin Pan Alley, a local bar down the street from Roux, hosted the champagne toast after the wedding. I made my way around the crowded room, listening to people’s stories. Everyone had one: the couple from Ireland who met playing soccer and had been together for thirty-six years. The couple who had been married five times, each time seeking—and failing to find—legal recognition. After their wedding in Oregon was ruled invalid by the state Supreme Court, they received a check in the mail, refunding the cost of their license, and a letter informing them that they were not married.

I spotted a couple in matching New Balances sitting in the window. Their names were Sharon and Sue  and they had been together thirty years. They talked to me with a guardedness that had become familiar. (Another older couple, earlier this weekend, had made me promise not to identify them. They’re out, they said—“it’s just not the kind of thing you put on paper.”) Sharon and Sue were from Florida. They both worked in the school system. For decades they hid their relationship: they sat through meetings full of homophobic jokes, concealed the fact that they lived together, went to Christmas parties without each other, listened to their coworkers talk about their spouses and pretended not to have their own.

They’d been together for years when Sharon’s supervisor called her into his office and asked her point blank if she was gay. She told him she wasn’t.

“You have to understand,” Sue said to me, like she was talking to a child too young to remember a war. “We would’ve been fired.”

All weekend, I’d been asking couples, “Why marriage?” A lot of women talked about fighting so long for this right. One woman told me, “I always grew up thinking I would never be able to get married. It’s validation of us being part of humanity.”

All of which made sense. But the most common answer I heard was security. Legal reasons. When I asked Sharon and Sue, they didn’t hesitate: “We need some protection.”

They reminded me that Florida’s governor is no friend of gay marriage—that in fact, if he’d had his way, the state’s ban on weddings like theirs never would have been lifted. I imagined a thin red thread stretching all the way from Sharon’s supervisor so many years ago to the Florida Governor’s Mansion in 2016. In January, that thread extended north to the White House, where the 45th president began packing his cabinet with men who want to make America white, straight, and Christian again. Already the Trump administration has revoked federal guidelines ensuring transgender students’ right to use the bathroom matching their gender identity. “Protection” has become an open question.

As I left the bar, I saw a woman with a guitar beginning to play. I stopped to listen by the door. It was a sweet, simple song—the chorus some variation of “I love you, I love you / like never before.” The couple from Ireland was the first to start dancing. The five-times-married couple joined in. They kissed each other’s hands. “Could this be your first dance?” the woman with the guitar asked, smiling.

And of course, it was not. Not at all.

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Combustion Engines

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

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At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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