What straight couples can learn from gay weddings
Being excluded from the legal and commercial marriage institution freed us to make our weddings our own.
By Kathryn Hamm
Kathryn Hamm is the president of GayWeddings.com, an education expert for WeddingWire and co-author of “The New Art of Capturing Love: The Essential Guide to Lesbian & Gay Wedding Photography.”
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
My 1999 wedding, which featured two brides, was one of the first gay weddings that most of my gay and lesbian friends had ever attended. Most people in attendance, including me and my spouse, had no idea what to expect. We asked a friend to officiate. We asked our siblings to escort us down the aisle. And we asked my dad to sing. The affair was short on legal rights, but long on spiritual significance.
It’s a stretch to say that our past years as a largely hidden LGBTQ subculture, driven underground by inequality and discrimination, is a good thing, but our adaptations and survival tactics have introduced new perspectives and trends to the mainstream culture. As same-sex couples, we stumbled into the good fortune of having the opportunity to develop our own highly personalized rituals and traditions as work-arounds — in response to family members who rejected us and an institution that historically didn’t include us. Our exclusion from the wedding industry — its services, its products, its expectations — ended up giving us an unexpected advantage over straight couples.
To suit our relationships and personal expression, we scrambled the rules of who wears what, who sits where and who stands with whom, while straight couples are often stuck in the narrow, normative roles assigned to them. We can serve as role models to heterosexual couples who wish to develop individually meaningful expressions of wedding ritual rather than something that fell out of a wedding playbook from years past or is this season’s most popular Pin.
In the past decade, as we planned our weddings, we started first with the question about whether or not our union would be legally recognized, and then asked ourselves what kind of relationship ritual and celebration we wanted to have for ourselves. Because we often didn’t have the blessings of our parents or religious communities, we planned outside of their agendas, which meant that we designed our unions from the heart first and appearances or tradition second, if at all.
As a wedding expert, I have not found this to be the case with most of the straight couples with whom I’ve spoken. Instead, I hear stories of feeling pressured by friends and family to design their weddings with an emphasis on the appearances, expectations and traditions. My parents want us to have the wedding in their church… I don’t really want a big wedding party, but I have six close friends hinting at how they expect to participate… Every time my fiancée and I meet with a wedding professional, they only talk to her; no one asks me what I think because I’m a guy… I feel like we have to have an open bar to make this a fun party; that’s what people expect… I want to wear a blue dress, but everyone is freaking out about that…My parents are insisting on inviting all of their brothers and sisters — and their kids, too!
When I have these conversations with straight couples, they reveal that no one has taken the time to ask them what they want or what it means to them. The stereotype is that the straight bride is the “go-to” girl with no other goal in front of her except to design a bloggably perfect wedding day. And the groom will quietly hit his marks, following her lead since it’s “her” day.
Same-sex couples have had no choice but to start at a place of invention. We have planned outside of the agenda of laws, parents, friends and the industry, and this has enriched our experience and our rituals. If it doesn’t feel right to have one person enter the ceremony space as the focus while the other waits, we don’t do it. If we want to enter the ceremony space together while our attendants throw glitter, we do it. If a bride choose to have a Man of Honor instead of a Maid of Honor, we do it. If the grooms want to organize a flash mob dance to exit the ceremony space, we do it. If we want to have a soccer game to help us pick a last name, we do it. It all stems from the simple place of us asking ourselves first: What is meaningful to us as a couple, and how do we want to design our ritual and celebration?
After our conversations, straight couples often tell me they would have preferred to work with a planner who specializes in same-sex weddings because the process and end result would have been a more peaceful representation of them as a couple rather than a result of an industry’s autopilot.
Here’s another difference in how we approach our wedding planning: I have yet to meet an opposite-sex couple who talks excitedly about a trip to city hall to apply for a marriage license. For them, it’s a step that is often taken for granted. Not long ago, I was getting to know a heterosexual woman who mentioned that she was married but didn’t have a wedding. What? I said. How is that possible? Did you go to City Hall and get a license? Yes, she said. But that was nothing. We just got the license.
Perspective is everything. For same-sex couples, that nothing is everything, and, as of this writing, thousands of couples still don’t have access to that kind of wedding in 13 states. This experience has shaped how we plan our weddings, advocate for legal relationship recognition and celebrate our milestones.
And it’s one that the gay community needs to hold to. As our unions become more accepted, our small, intimate, highly personalized and largely private ceremonies are at risk of extinction. With the advent of the blogosphere, the acceptance of the wedding industry, and our freedom to live more open lives as “out” LGBT people, assimilation has begun to take hold. Our weddings have started to follow the arc and narrative of the many weddings we see around us. Ten years ago, few same-sex couples were booking engagement sessions with a photographer or hosting weddings with large wedding parties. These days, more than ever, this is the norm.
My response to this is that we must recognize the pull of assimilation while also asking the wedding industry to take note. With more heterosexual couples following our lead and rejecting ill-fitting traditions and threadbare, overly gendered routines and roles in favor of more personalized rituals, we all have an opportunity to rework the ways in which we think about wedding celebrations and marriage rituals for modern couples.
I believe that the wedding planning process for all couples — same-sex or otherwise — should be a living embodiment of the two people who are promising a life of love, commitment and support. Mutual is, after all, as mutual does.