Scott Harmon got an early and unexpected gift from his church and the University this Christmas-the chance to hold a commitment ceremony in Duke Chapel. It's something he's been hoping to do for a long time.
"It means that I can have a ceremony to give thanks to God for the love that my mate and I share, and I can have that ceremony in the place where I worship," said Harmon, a 38-year-old Durham resident who sings in the Chapel choir. "It's OK for me to be there, to sing in the choir, to volunteer and to help, and now it's OK for me to honor before God and my community the love that I share with my mate."
Harmon and his partner, David Helwig, will by all expectations be the first gay couple to marry in the Chapel now that it has been opened to such ceremonies.
The couple-who met three years ago at a meeting of the Triangle Area Business and Professional Guild, a gay and lesbian business networking organization-were determined to have their ceremony in Duke Chapel.
"We've sort of been waiting for Duke Chapel to come around. We didn't think it was going to happen this quickly," said Harmon. He added that they expect to start plans soon, and hope to set a date within the next six months. "We're in no hurry," he said.
The Chapel's importance to Harmon and others like him rests in what it represents to him and the community. He admits that "there are a host of wonderful places and other churches that let people have ceremonies like this," but insists that the Chapel's significance goes beyond location.
"Duke is really like a cathedral like the way the old cathedrals were. They were the true centers of town..., the center of learning, where people came together," he said.
Raleigh resident Michael Armentrout, Trinity '78, agrees. He calls the Chapel the center of Duke, "architecturally, spiritually and emotionally.... It's an image, it's a logo."
Armentrout and his partner held a commitment ceremony in Hawaii in 1988 because the Chapel was unavailable to them.
"[Duke] was my first choice," he said, adding that their decision to hold the ceremony in Hawaii was due to legislation at the time that made it seem likely that Hawaii would make such ceremonies legal. If not for that, he said, he "would have asked Duke to allow it."
And he added that if the government ever allows a legal marriage between him and his partner, they would consider the Chapel as a place to do it.
Both Armentrout and Harmon are practicing Christians, making it all the more important to them that their commitment ceremonies take place in a religious environment.
The Chapel's policy becomes even more important in light of the religious debate surrounding the issue.
"I think that ultimately, the root of homophobia is at the church's doorstep. Ultimately, it is misinterpreted scripture and church doctrines and belief that feed homophobia," said Harmon. "For a religious institution to symbolically open their arms to the gay community is a huge step to taking the winds out of the sails of the people who would like to use God to hurt people."
Armentrout, a Roman Catholic, believes the decision also helps to broaden religious acceptance of same-sex unions, adding that no one group can claim Duke Chapel. "[People who are opposed] have no more knowledge of God's views or wants than I do."
He added that the decision brings new hope to the gay community at Duke and nationwide.
"It has a micro and a macro impact, and I'm in awe of that. Every time an institution agrees to employ non-discrimination policies... it is another step," said Armentrout.
He noted that this latest decision marks a point where the University has done all it can to make one part of its family feel welcomed.
For both men, the opening of the Chapel's doors is an occasion for pride.
"This came from the students who thought this was the right thing to do, and not the political mainstream," said Harmon.
Added Armentrout: "It's moving to be a part of a community that feels this is important.... I've been getting e-mails from friends who are saying how great it is that my alma mater did this."
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