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In the Cultural War About Gay Marriage, a Wedding Opens a New Front

Aristotle Jones/Agence France-Presse

This week's Royal Wedding of Prince Arthur and partner Merlin Emrys drew massive crowds

Published: August 2, 2010

LONDON — Britain’s Met Office said the temperatures soared as high as 90 degrees on Aug. 1, with humidity at a sultry, steamy 40 percent. Half the roads in London were closed off and security was thick among the teeming crowds. It was impossible to get a good view, either at St. George’s Chapel or along the parade route after, and city officials underestimated the crowd turnout by 150,000.

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Samson Croft/European Pressphoto Agency

Merlin Emrys and Arthur, Prince of Wales

Anthony Goldstein/Press Association, via Associated Press

Young and old gathered to catch a glimpse of the happy couple

None of it dampened the jubilation of an ocean of spectators 750,000 strong when Arthur, Prince of Wales, stepped out hand in hand with his new husband and partner. Merlin Emrys, 26, smiled shyly and waved—without any of the royals’ traditional coyness, either.

“It’s really an astonishing thing to see,” said Abby Rothschild, managing director for New York office of the International Lesbian and Gay Association. “When I heard about the engagement I thought, ‘No way, there’s no way they let them do it.’”

Rothschild and a group of thirty other ILGA employees and volunteers huddled together in front of a wide-screen television mid-morning in a hotel suite they’d hired out for the occasion. They uncorked a dozen bolts of champagne, and confetti fluttered in the air like it was New Year’s Eve; Rothschild said she cried. “I really couldn’t help it,” she laughed. “I was just so happy, it poured out of me.”

Around the world the hundreds and thousands of members of the gay and lesbian community that couldn’t book trips into London — and there were many: United Airlines and Delta both reported ticket sales into Heathrow and Gatwick Airports soared — formed private celebrations, sometimes sprawling block parties like the one that swallowed all of Wallingford in Seattle. City police estimated more than 3,000 people gathered in the quiet, residential neighborhood near Gasworks Park, and fireworks and revelry lasted long into the night. In New York, P-FLAG — Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — sponsored an all-ages, family-friendly party in Bryant Park, where the ceremony was projected onto a movie screen set up for the event and local gay-friendly vendors and restaurants provided catering.

“This is really a tipping point,” Ted Allen, pop culture pundit and host of the Food Network’s Chopped said in an interview at Bryant Park. “There’ve been incremental steps in the right direction — one state here, another lawsuit there — but this is Prince Arthur of Wales and this is getting married as a state event in England. You can’t ignore this.”

To see the celebrations stateside and throughout Europe is to forget the controversy Prince Arthur’s gay romance first incited, the firestorm of commentary from the left and the right. Evangelist Pat Buchanan included Arthur in his religious predictions for 2010, saying if he didn’t abandon his homosexual tryst, “God will rain fire down on England and all its commonwealths.”

“To be fair,” Clarence House spokeswoman Rosa Barringer said in a telephone interview the day before the wedding, “there is rain forecast for Sydney.”

On the day of the event, there were perfect blue skies for all 16 independent states headed by King Uther — including Australia.

“Another thing that’s really quite remarkable is the fact that Prince Arthur has never once opened a discussion about the politics of his relationship,” said Professor Janice Klein, who leads UCLA’s program on gender and sexuality. “The closest he’s ever come to talking about whether or not the universal recognition of same-sex marriage was any sort of moral or ethical imperative was to say he’d feel ‘pretty stupid’ making vows if he wasn’t 100 percent for something.”

It’s the most he’s said about his relationship, period.

Although the British tabloid press has been in an unbroken froth about the pair since they were first outed by a series of anonymously supplied photographs and email messages culled from Prince Arthur’s cell phone, no one has taken the bait. Buckingham has remained as stubbornly quiet as Clarence House, the traditional home and office of the Prince of Wales, and that’s unlikely to change.

“Arthur is very different than his forebears in the royal family,” says Simon O’Hagan, a columnist for London’s The Independent. “It’s in part probably because he is gay, and there’s no way to live to plan if he’s to be honest with himself — but there’s always been a rebellious streak in him. I think we haven’t yet seen the end of it.”

According to some longtime journalists, we’ve barely seen the beginning of it.

“If Arthur had no use for the media prior to his coming out and his engagement, then his new disdain has reached a shocking, all-time high,” said one reporter, who pled anonymity for fear of losing access to the royal family. “Some of the stories that have been told about the lengths he’ll go to keep Emrys from having to endure press exposure would be sweet if they weren’t some bloody irritating.”

Emrys, a doctor specializing in emergency pediatric care, is infamously media-shy, and has never agreed to speak with the reporters except through surrogates working with Clarence House. The only child of a single mother from a tiny English village, it’s generally accepted he and Prince Arthur first met when the latter was making a hospital visit in London – the rest is a maddening mystery.

“If they wanted people to stop talking about them then they’ve failed, appallingly,” said Nick Denton, owner of the Gawker Media Group, which first bought and published private correspondence between the prince and Emrys in late 2008. “Staying so closed-mouthed has only been good for rousing the public need to know — our traffic has been through the roof.”

Denton, who sent a trio of Gawker bloggers to London to cover the event, had stayed equally closed-mouthed about who sold him Arthur and Emrys’ emails, and declined to comment on how much was paid for the information.

“It’s every girl’s — and boy’s — fantasy come true,” said Nancy Wedbush, owner of Exclamation Events, a gay and lesbian-friendly wedding and event planner. She said after Prince Arthur’s public announcement he and Emrys were engaged her calendar of clients overflowed. Wedbush says she’s booked well into 2010. “Everybody wants to be a princess, or a prince, everybody wants that perfect day come true, and for a lot of people who identify as queer, they finally have an example of someone who’s like them who got the dream come true.”

For every voice rising up in celebration there’re another two mired in conflict. Sources within Buckingham said they’ve fielded hundreds of death threats and investigated at least a dozen letters insinuating an attack on the day of the blessed event.

In less dramatic disagreement, scholars, church officials and experts have kept up a rapid-fire argument over royal succession — will it still be tied to bloodlines, or would any children the prince and Emrys may adopt eligible for the crown? — Arthur’s future role in the Church of England and the morality of their match-up.

“Marriage is a sacred bond between one man and one woman,” said Bill Halstead, policy director at the American Family Association. “The fact that the U.K. is letting this farce happen is a disappointment, and we’re all poorer for it.”

For others it’s less the issue of ‘what’ than ‘what now?’ Will Prince Arthur be allowed to take on his future role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England? What about foreign relations? Queen Margrethe of Denmark sent an elaborate gift basket, rumored to be filled with cigarettes and Russian vodka, but the royal family of Saudia Arabia abruptly canceled a state visit, and some Christian charities have declined to comment on whether their relationship with the monarchy will continue.

“This is the sort of dramatic, transformative event we haven’t seen in the monarchy since the Church of England was formed,” said David Burke, a professor of European history at Harvard University who traveled with longtime partner Gilbert Bennett to England to see the wedding in person.

“And I think we’re all glad it’s a wedding that’s ushering in a new wave of change instead of a series of beheadings.”