VALIDATED Mack and Joe pose for Gruppuso.
When the Massachusetts Supreme Court approved gay marriage, I covered one of the first gay weddings there as a reporter in 2004. What sticks in my mind is not the fairy tale two-groom wedding itself, but going to probate court with the couple beforehand to get the regular marriage license waiting period waived so they could wed that very day. Probate court is mainly wills and divorce — lots of divorce. The clerks in this usually gloomy court were giddy for once to be part of this joyous, historic, and still controversial occasion. It felt like the climactic lead-up to a happily ever after.
Since 2007, New York photographer Natalie Gruppuso has been photographing same-sex couples from Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts who have married in Massachusetts. The ever afters recorded in "Love and Equality" series at Yellow Peril Gallery (60 Valley Street, Providence, through July 15) appear to be happily calm and comfortable. One couple tells Gruppuso that after attending many friends' weddings but being unable to legally marry themselves, winning the right to marry "means having the love I have for a person validated and no different from anyone else's love." It's about seeking acceptance and the right to just be ordinary.
Gruppuso photographs two women standing in a yard embracing, smiling into each other's eyes. Other images show two women squeezed into a chair together and a pair of tweedy guys holding hands — note the wedding rings — in front of a fireplace mantle decorated with family photos. Gruppuso's tactic is familiar, anthropologically sampling a certain slice of contemporary society. Her shots are adequate; she's not great at drawing out people's personalities. But note the many smiles, which are for most intents and purposes forbidden in fine art photography these days. The grins read as happiness, contentment, pride.
The attraction of the show is ultimately not so much the photos themselves but the issue at hand. "Marriage has been the most powerful tool for advancing gay and lesbian rights since coming out," one photographed man responds to Gruppuso's questionnaire. In Rhode Island, where Governor Lincoln Chafee last month signed an executive order recognizing same-sex marriages from out of state, but where gay couples can still only obtain civil unions versus full marriage, each same-sex marriage reads as a political act, a reminder that there are still miles to go before we live up to our ideal that all are created equal.
In a video about Gruppuso's project, one couple — a pair of gray-haired ladies holding hands in twin rocking chairs — talks about becoming friends by playing tennis together. But it was some time before they took the dicey step of coming out to each other. "It wasn't love at first sight," one of the women admits, "because I didn't think that she was gay."
Opponents of gay rights remain strong, and the victories never come fast enough, but we've come a long way, baby, and it's thrilling to witness the arc of history bending, slowly and steadily, toward justice.
After a nomadic year organizing pop-up exhibits in an old mill, at Brown University, and other romantic locations around town, the excellent curatorial duo Tabitha Piseno and Sam Keller of R.K. Projects put down roots in a roomy second-floor gallery at 204 Westminster Street in April. The group show "Crush" is on view there through July 20.