Rabbi Susan Talve’s favorite word is chutzpah: shameless audacity. This surprises no one who knows her. The spiritual leader of St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation has spent the last three decades defying norms. She founded an LGBTQ-welcoming synagogue during the 1980s AIDS crisis; made headlines by offering her synagogue for the ordination ceremony of two Catholic Womenpriests (a move that horrified both the Jewish and Christian communities); and has performed hundreds of illegal same-sex wedding ceremonies in the state with the country’s oldest constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Now, Talve has done something bolder. After both conservative Utah and nearby Indiana toppled their same-sex marriage bans last month, she helped officiate the first four legal same-sex weddings in Missouri. The four marriages, which took place in the offices of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, represent a direct challenge to the state ban. As in many other states, the case will now begin moving up to the state’s Supreme Court, which will weigh the violation of the Missouri constitution against the Law of the Land. The hope, Talve says, is that the court will rule the state to be in violation of the 14th Amendment, and overturn the ban. Talve talked to Moment about why she can’t wait for change.—Rachel E. Gross
How long have you been solemnizing same-sex weddings?
I got here 33 years ago and I’ve been doing them ever since. I’ve done hundreds of weddings. But they’re all illegal. Every time I do a wedding here I’m breaking the law. To solemnize a same sex wedding is a misdemeanor. So I’m just waiting to get arrested. I remember the first (same-sex) wedding I did, in 1981. It was two men. We snuck into a park and had to hide behind a tree. We did the wedding there because in the early ‘80s it was a very difficult time for the gay community. But by the 90s, I was doing big weddings.
What was the importance of last week’s marriages?
It was a political statement for all of them. These couples had been together for so long and had done so much for St. Louis as citizens, it was insulting that they couldn’t get married in their own city. So here was an opportunity for these four couples to be legally married.
It was all planned. The recorder of deeds, Sharon Quigley Carpenter, issued four marriage licenses. Then the mayor called the Attorney General, Chris Koster, who had to file a lawsuit, and the recorder of deeds said we will agree not to issue any more licenses until this is settled in the court. The hope of course is that what happened in other states will happen here—which is that the law of the land will overturn the misguided laws of the state of Missouri.
If Utah is going to have gay marriage, we’re going to have gay marriage.
Why is this an important issue for a rabbi to take on?
My job is to relieve suffering, and to work for justice wherever I see injustice. The Torah is all about leveling the playing field and making sure that when we work for the common good, there is still a way for everyone’s dreams to come true. When you know people who love each other and who want to make that commitment, and you believe that strong families help make a stronger community, you have to do what you can to give those families the toolbox they need to be secure.
What’s an example of backlash you’ve gotten?
Years ago, in the late 90s, we were fundraising for a building celebrating 30 years. I remember one guy gave us a lot of money, and then he found out that I was doing gay marriages and he told me he either wanted me to stop or he wanted his money back. I very happily gave him his money back.
Is it your goal to perform as many same-sex weddings as possible?
No. I take marriage very seriously. I only want to marry couples who are going to be married forever. The thing that was bittersweet on Wednesday night is that when you do a wedding, if you really believe in weddings and the ritual of marriage, it’s not just about getting that piece of paper. Every time you do a ceremony and a ritual, that’s going to help that couple in the future. You want to celebrate with your friends and family, and you want the blessing of your faith and tradition. When you do these political marriages, you have to do them quickly, with no one there. We did it because it will change things, but that’s not the ideal.