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.

Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



December 2018


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

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
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.


e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Chance that a homeless-shelter resident in a major U.S. city holds a full- or part-time job:

1 in 5

Turkey hunting was deemed most dangerous for hunters, though deer hunting is more deadly.

The unresolved midterms; Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III replaced; the debut of the world’s first AI television anchor

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


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.”

Subscribe Today