SAN FRANCISCO — For some gay and lesbian couples, a proposal before the local bar association to legalize homosexual marriages won't make much difference. They're already married.
For 20 years, the international Metropolitan Community Church has been performing Holy Union ceremonies for homosexual couples who want to exchange religious vows.
Although the ceremonies have no legal standing, they are not illegal, and pastors at two of the city's churches perform about 100 such unions every year, according to the Rev. Jim Mikulski.
Kittredge Cherry and Audrey Lockwood, both 31, were married April 11, 1987, after 12 years together.
'Marriage Is Real'
"I don't think we need the state to tell us our marriage is real," said Cherry, a free-lance writer who is studying to become a minister. "I think our marriage is just as real now as if it were legally recognized."
For Cherry and Lockwood, exchanging vows was both a personal and a political statement that followed years of keeping their relationship secret.
"We had never done anything to publicly acknowledge our commitment and we wanted to acknowledge God as an important part of our relationship too," said Cherry.
The women walked down the aisle together, exchanged vows based on traditional wedding vows and gave each other gold wedding rings. Friends gathered afterwards for cake and a party. "It was fun to get to have all those things I never thought I could have," said Cherry.
The ceremony helped intensify the couple's bonds to the church community, and that relationship was strengthened as congregants rallied to support the couple.
"That was very powerful," said Cherry. "I'd never felt that kind of support before. I had mostly felt pressure from society to split up, to not have this type of relationship."
For Lockwood, a consultant and executive search coordinator, the ceremony triggered a "psychological change."
"I became much more self-confident," said Lockwood. "I realized there was absolutely no turning back now. I had nothing to lose."
On the negative side, Lockwood has felt some pressure to stay together and "act as a couple," and both women complain that some people tend to assume they share all the same opinions and views.
"They think we've merged into one soul or something!" said Cherry.
Mikulski, the minister who married Lockwood and Cherry, said the "level of depth and commitment is deeper for gay and lesbian couples."
"They're not doing it to please anyone," he said. "They're making a choice--a choice the rest of the world is not necessarily ready to recognize or support them in."
If the state of California ever legalizes homosexual marriage, Cherry said, the automatic legal protections that marriage offers would likely prompt her to take the legal vows.
Inheritance, hospital visitation rights, tax benefits and insurance advantages are compelling reasons to consider marriage, she said.
The couple has signed legal documents that will enable each woman to make medical decisions if the other should become seriously ill, but marriage offers automatic protections, Cherry said.
But Lockwood expressed some reservations, saying she would have to explore all of the legal ramifications of a state-ordained union.
"I'd have to look into the restrictions," she said skeptically.
For now, Lockwood said she will concentrate on setting aside some time to celebrate her anniversary. Last year, the day came and went in a whirl of activity. "It doesn't feel like an anniversary," said Lockwood. "It's like a date on the calendar."