Thursday, September 21, 2006

Same-sex marriage is here

The Henderson-Hepner wedding announcement came in, like most do, without explanation or fanfare: a written submission, reciting the basic information about the ceremony and a brief bio on the happy couple, accompanied by a photo.

Occasionally we get a wedding announcement that doesn't follow this usual pattern. They're submitted with great fanfare, most often by the mother of the bride, whose mental and emotional state can best be described as hysterical, for whom the announcement of this important milestone in her child's life is a source of anxiety as large as the event itself. And, of course, there's the occasional "bridezilla," who hasn't downshifted in spite of that marvelous honeymoon on a tropical island that really should have dissolved all the stress caused by getting married. Handling those announcements — more accurately, the people who submit them — causes much angst around our newsroom.

But the Henderson-Hepner announcement wasn't like that at all. It was a simple, cut-and-dried wedding announcement, complete with smiling photo. Yet it caused a little stir around our office here, and the associate editor sought my permission to print it.

For the first time in its nearly 150-year history, The Suffolk Times was being asked to print a same-sex wedding announcement.

Charmaine Henderson and Paula Hepner, part-time residents of Southold, were married last month in Toronto, Canada, where same-sex marriages have been legal since June 10, 2003.

I authorized publishing the announcement, and it appeared in last week's edition of this newspaper, making the Sept. 14, 2006, edition one for the history books.

Of course I knew — we all did — that there would be some negative reaction among some of our readers. And there has been, although thus far it's taken the form of one call from an extremely agitated woman who left a voice mail message for the editor castigating us for publishing such a thing. Among other things, she said that this couple's union wasn't really a wedding, because a marriage can only be entered into between a man and a woman. And she chastised us for exposing the youth of the North Fork to such sordid content. ("Don't you know children will be reading this newspaper?")

While so far we've heard from just one reader about this — and her reaction was mild compared to the angry man who came in here last week and literally threw a copy of The Suffolk Times at our five-foot-two-inch pregnant receptionist because he was mad about the anti-war column I'd written the week before — I think this issue is important enough to address here. I'm hopeful we might engage the community in an intelligent dialogue about it, on these pages and on my blog.

The Suffolk Times will print announcements of weddings and civil unions between same-sex couples.

Among the most important functions of a community newspaper is chronicling the milestones in the lives of people who live in the community the newspaper serves. On the pages of your community newspaper, you find detailed information about the lives of people who live here that you will find nowhere else: births, deaths, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, scholastic achievements. A good community newspaper reflects the demographic composition of its community. The Suffolk Times is among the best of the community newspapers in the state of New York and one of the reasons for that is our dedication to the mission of community journalism; the role of chronicler is central to that mission.

Sometimes we fall short, like failing to get a photographer to the Cutchogue Fire Department's 50th annual chicken barbecue. And we get our comeuppance when we make our missteps, by outraged readers like Denise Lademann who wrote in last week to complain that The Suffolk Times didn't cover the fire department barbecue. They are insulted by the apparent snub. (Ms. Lademann, it was not intentional, and I am sincerely sorry that we messed up.) They are passionate in their outrage, and that's good. Because that means The Suffolk Times is their paper. They expect us to be there alongside them, and they should. It's what we do and have been doing for 149 years.

There's certainly room for improvement in how we do what we do, especially when it comes to covering minority communities on the North Fork. But we never intentionally exclude anyone from coverage because they're in the minority. Among those minority communities is the lesbian and gay community that has lived and thrived here for decades. They are our friends, our neighbors, our family, our coworkers. They are our readers. The pages of this newspaper should — and will — reflect their presence, and chronicle the milestones of their lives, including ceremonies celebrating their love and commitment to their life partners — whether or not the state of New York recognizes their right to marry.

As for children reading our newspaper, that's a good thing. Reading a newspaper promotes literacy, improves academic performance and increases participation in community and civic affairs in adulthood. We're confident that a lesbian wedding announcement in The Suffolk Times won't harm the youth of our town. Other media are full of graphic and disturbing images, particularly the potent images of death and destruction in the Middle East that are printed in the daily press and beamed into our living rooms via satellite every day. I've seen how those images have affected my own daughters. As a mother, I find it much more difficult to explain murder and mayhem by religious fundamentalists in the name of God, or torture of prisoners by the United States military, than the love for one another of two people of the same sex.

To Ms. Henderson and Judge Hepner, congratulations on your marriage. Forgive me for making the announcement of your vows the topic of this column. I don't know if you realized you were blazing a new trail at The Suffolk Times with your wedding announcement, but thank you for your courage. May yours be a lifetime of love, peace and happiness together.

Copyright 2006 Times/Review Newspapers