Every marriage needs a celebrant: J.M. Sorrell has officiated 800-plus weddings and counting

  • J.M. Sorrell hugs a bride at a pre-pandemic wedding, one of the 800-plus wedding ceremonies she has officiated since 2004. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • J.M. Sorrell officiates the wedding of Jennifer Smedes her husband, David Daley. The couple opted for an unconventional reading to signal their new phase of life as a couple. With Daley a big fan of the rock band REM, he asked his friend, movie star Molly Ringwald (of “Sixteen Candles” fame,) to read the lyrics to the song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • J.M. Sorrell, right, officiated the wedding of Lesléa Newman, middle, and her spouse Mary Vazquez on Sept. 10, 2004, 15 years to the day after they were married by a rabbinical student on Sept. 10, 1989, long before Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • J.M. Sorrell officiated the marriage of Janexie Cordero, left, and Nicole Pagnani, on Oct. 1, 2016, at Berkshire East Mountain Resort. With Cordero is her mom as best woman. CONTRIBUTED/MICHAEL ZIDE

  • J.M. Sorrell officiates at the Aug. 21 wedding of Blue Rockett, right, and Clay Rhee, at Mount Wachusett. The couple contacted Sorrell after deciding to get married in just about a week’s time. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Monday, January 31, 2022

She calls herself JM the JP.
As a justice of the peace since 2004, J.M. Sorrell recently officiated her 800th wedding. Her roster of couples includes same-sex, opposite-sex, and transgender; secular, spiritual, and mixed religious faith; all races and ethnicities; old and young; rich and poor.

“It’s hands down the most profound vocation I’ve had as an adult,” Sorrell says. “How could I not be moved by being part of such wonderful, transcendent days? I’d have to be an automaton or something.”

Ceremonies have taken her to mountaintops, sandy beaches, lighthouses, and the trenches of our political divide. Over the years, she has seen bitter opposition to same-sex marriage give way to general acceptance.

“Now it’s the oddity,” she says about family opposition to same-sex marriage. “The social norms shifted pretty quickly.”

Sorrell, 61, was born in Pittsburgh, and grew up in a family that moved around a lot because of her dad’s job with General Motors. “I figured out to how to make friends,” she says. “Getting to know people quickly is an asset as a wedding officiant.”

At the age of 14, she took a career interest test and came out a priest or psychologist. Little did she know then that being a JP would combine aspects of both professions.

After coming out as a lesbian, she moved to Northampton in 1982, finding a vibrant feminist community working at the old Womansfyre bookstore. From there, she moved into a variety of positions in health and human services, all the while playing an active role in community arts and social justice organizations.

A defining moment

On Nov. 18, 2003, Sorrell witnessed history being made. In the case of Goodridge v. the De partment of Public Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Sorrell joined the celebratory crowd outside of Northampton’s City Hall.

“I’m going to be a justice of the peace,” she told someone standing next to her. Although the words came out of her mouth unprompted, the impetus for them resulted from hearing about judges’ reluctance to perform civil unions in Vermont. The thought of same-sex couples encountering “hostile energy” on their special day catapulted Sorrell to action.

Once her JP application was approved by the state, she went with a seamstress friend to Osgood’s in West Springfield to choose fabric for her robe. She decided on black gaberdine (cooler in the summer than polyester) with plum trim for the yoke and sleeves. Like a costume in a play, the garment helped transform her for her new role.

On May 17, 2004, she donned her robe to signal her readiness to marry couples on the first day the Goodridge decision took effect. The crowd in Northampton got welcome news when Probate Judge Gail L. Perlman waived the usual three-day waiting period. The couples, the judge said, had waited long enough. Sorrell married five couples that day.

It was a time of celebration, complete with deliveries of 1,000 roses from a group of gay men in San Francisco as well as milk and cookies in probate court. Still, a cloud hung over the festivities. No one knew whether marriage equality would stand the test of time.

As a result, many of the couples Sorrell married inserted language from the Goodridge decision and/or the words “legally married” into their ceremonies. Many were already unofficially married.

For instance, writer Lesléa Newman and her spouse Mary Vazquez, a deejay for women’s dances, got married by a rabbinical student on Sept. 10, 1989, long before Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage. The couple arranged for Sorrell to make their union legal on Sept. 10, 2004.

“J.M. arrived fully present, with an open heart, and a lot of joy,” Newman recalled. She and Vazquez wrote their own vows, which they renewed five years later, then in 2015 with the federal approval of same-sex marriage, and again in 2019 for their 30th anniversary.

Newman said that, for each ceremony, they wrote new vows, which reflected their growing love. As she put it: “We got married early and often.”

Sorrell quickly compiled templates to help couples plan their ceremonies. Some newlyweds in the making wanted gender-neutral language such as “partners for life” or “spouses.” One heterosexual couple changed the traditional “husband and wife” to “wife and husband,” giving the ceremony a feminist spin.

Each wedding was different. Sorrell married one partner close to death in a hospital room. Another client breastfed her baby during the ceremony. Yet another arranged for a sci-fi themed wedding on Halloween.

Sorrell found the double wedding of two gay couples particularly poignant. One of the younger partners had been kicked out of his family home in the Bronx at the age of 15 and taken in by a gay couple in Greenwich Village. Thanks to their help, the young man thrived, becoming an architect and finding a life partner. The four men have become family.

Because she has performed so many weddings, some couples assume that Sorrell is married, but she’s not.

“The irony is that I have a partner who, for personal reasons, doesn’t feel the need to get married,” she said. “I don’t think everyone should be married. I’m not pro-marriage; I’m pro-choice.”

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage for the nation. As a result, the balance of Sorrell’s JP work shifted from 70% same-sex and 30% heterosexual weddings to more of a 50-50 split.

She began hearing from heterosexual couples who chose her because of her commitment to social justice. “I have to pinch myself,” she said. “It’s such a lovely thing to hear.”

Like a priest or psychologist, she counsels clients. One bride-to-be told her that her dad and stepfather were fighting over who should walk her down the aisle. Another said her parents wouldn’t be coming, but her sister would. Still others needed help choosing vows, so she’d send them a variety of possibilities. Among them: “To find wonder in each other, seek new experiences together, and play and grow together”; and “To commit to the journey even when you don’t know the way.”

Sorrell also provides options for the general flow of the ceremony from the processional, to the announcement (“from the power vested in me from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts …”) to the recessional. Couples choose whichever features suit them best.

Unconventional ceremonies

Jennifer Smedes, a fundraiser at Smith College, and her husband, David Daley, a writer, of Haydenville, opted for an unconventional reading to signal their new phase of life as a couple in keeping with their own tad nontraditional personalities. With Daley a big fan of the rock band REM, he asked his friend, movie star Molly Ringwald (of “Sixteen Candles” fame,) to read the lyrics to the song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic struck, signaling the end of the way Sorrell performed weddings as she knew it. A self-professed hugger and handshaker, she began refraining from physical contact in an effort to keep everyone safe.

Weddings grew smaller, though couples continued to call. Blue Rockett, a 31-year-old art director, and Clay Rhee, a 36-year-old researcher, of Medford, contacted Sorrell after deciding to get married in just about a week’s time so Rhee could go on Rockett’s health insurance plan.

Describing themselves as “frantic brides-to-be,” they appreciated Sorrell’s calm and organized manner. She and they emailed back and forth to gather anecdotes for the introductory speech, help them choose a scenic spot for the wedding, and write their own vows. On their big day, Aug. 21, 2021, the couple arrived at Mount Wachusett, only to find the entrance roped off for a hurricane expected the next day. Sorrell came to the rescue.

“The robe has a little clout,” she said. After convincing the park ranger to let the festivities proceed, she described how the two women’s favorite color — teal — showed how they complimented each other. Rockett called it “greenish blue,” Rhee, “bluish green.” After the ceremony, they celebrated with champagne and their favorite meringue cookies.

Such happy stories, however, exist alongside continued challenges for LGBTQ rights. Lesléa Newman’s trailblazing children’s picture book “Heather has Two Mommies” is being banned in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and some couples have lost their jobs after announcing their weddings on social media.

Still, the future for J.M. the JP looks bright. Her calling has been more spiritually and emotionally gratifying than she ever expected. Putting on the robe helped her tap into a more compassionate side of herself.

Whereas the political activist in her might view someone as “homophobic,” the JP in the robe sees more complexity. “I learned that family members who may have been hesitant to attend or not sure of marriage equality are trying their best by simply showing up,” she said.

From presiding over more than 800 weddings, Sorrell knows the effects of marriage radiate above and beyond the couples themselves. “The most important celebration in life is love,” she said. “We celebrate the end of bigotry. The possibility of universal love.”