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Same-sex couples find their stride on wedding day

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Fri June 1, 2012
iReporter Alex Rhinehart, center, and Tony O'Brian held their wedding ceremony in a San Francisco park in May 2011, though same-sex marriage was not legal in California at the time. The pair led their guests to the summit of a cliff for the ceremony in lieu of a traditional wedding march -- using the spot to represent their union: "a place so old and solid with such a promising view of the horizon beyond." iReporter Alex Rhinehart, center, and Tony O'Brian held their wedding ceremony in a San Francisco park in May 2011, though same-sex marriage was not legal in California at the time. The pair led their guests to the summit of a cliff for the ceremony in lieu of a traditional wedding march -- using the spot to represent their union: "a place so old and solid with such a promising view of the horizon beyond."
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Vendors court gay and lesbian couples as same-sex marriage gains wider acceptance
  • Average age of couples dips as same-sex weddings become more common, planner says
  • Same-sex nuptials demand unique touches, from outfits and invitation to family involvement
  • Planner: "Couples feel that they have permission to throw away rituals that don't resonate"

(CNN) -- Kathryn Hamm and her fiancée had no blueprint to follow when they were planning their wedding in 1999. Same-sex marriage wasn't legal anywhere in the country, and "commitment ceremonies" were mostly small affairs that didn't get a lot of coverage in bridal magazines or newspaper wedding announcements.

Instead, they were able to pick and choose from familiar traditions and create their own. They invited 92 friends and relatives to join them on Maryland's Eastern Shore for a weekend of celebration. When Hamm's family minister declined to officiate, a friend helped the couple arrange the ceremony and performed it for them. The brides' siblings walked each of them down the aisle. They recited original vows and shared a kiss before kicking off a reception that ended with a midnight swim.

It was the kind of wedding that moved everyone to tears, including Hamm's grandmother, who'd struggled to accept the relationship. The experience even inspired Hamm's mother, Gretchen, to launch a same-sex wedding planning service so couples wouldn't have to scan every corner of the world to find a gay-friendly venue or cake toppers featuring two men or two women.

Same-sex couples today still face many of the same questions when planning a wedding, whether it's legally binding ceremony or a "commitment ceremony" in a state where same-sex unions are not legal. What should we wear? Who buys the rings? Who walks whom down the aisle? Do we invite disapproving relatives?

iReporters share stories, images from same-sex weddings

Straight couples with mixed religious leanings or unconventional family dynamics might experience similar dilemmas. But Kathryn Hamm says same-sex couples are at the forefront of the DIY wedding movement because they're often forced to find alternatives when a church won't host them or a caterer declines to work with them. Such considerations extend to the customary language of the vows, which may need tweaking; wording of the invitations; and decisions about who to include in the bridal party, if there is one.

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"Because there isn't a script and parents don't necessarily know what to do or aren't playing the same role, couples feel that they have permission to throw away rituals that don't resonate and bring in parts those that do," Hamm said.

Still, much in this country has changed since Hamm's wedding and the launch of her mother's sites, TwoBrides.com and TwoGrooms.com in 2000. Six states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (Maryland and Washington state passed legislation this year to allow same-sex marriages, but those laws have not taken effect.) Nine other states allow nearly all the same spousal rights to same-sex couples. In New York, a gift shop at the Office of the City Clerk's Marriage Bureau offers same-sex wedding magnets and mugs.

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The latest Pew Research Center survey found that 47% to 43% of respondents supported same-sex marriage compared with 29% in 2004 and 39% in 2008, the polling center's president said recently in The New York Times. After North Carolina voted in favor of a constitutional ban on same-sex unions, President Barack Obama came out in support of gay couples' right to marry.

Perhaps the best evidence of acceptance comes from looking at the extent to which society has embraced same-sex marriage as both a rite of passage and a mechanism for generating profits.

With nuptials season under way, ceremonies of high-profile figures such as actor Cynthia Nixon and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn are being scrutinized for every detail, from guest lists and dinner menus to what the brides wore. A growing list of vendors is courting same-sex couples through an ever-expanding selection of portals designed specifically for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The business started by Hamm's mother nearly 12 years ago is an early model.

"Vendors used to say I'd like to help, but I don't want to advertise as gay-friendly on my website, because I don't want to lose business," Hamm said. "Now, vendors are much more willing to embrace same-sex couples and be out as gay-friendly. This is particularly significant in the Midwest and in the South, where there are constitutional bans against gay marriage."

Hamm became a full partner in her mother's business in 2005, the year they acquired GayWeddings.com. In 2011, GayWeddings.com joined WeddingWire, an online network of resources for couples, wedding planners and vendors, in a partnership that Hamm considers both socially symbolic and a testament to the industry's appetite. In its first year, WeddingWire saw a 21.9% increase in vendors offering wedding services to same-sex couples, amounting to more than 40,000 vendors across 20 service categories. Since January, the site has seen a 5.2% increase in vendors offering services to same-sex couples.

Growing support for same-sex marriage is good for business and society, the Hamms and others in the wedding industry agree. And, in states such as Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, some wedding planners say its normalization is changing the look and feel of individual ceremonies.

The single biggest change has been a dip in the average age of couples, same-sex-wedding planner Bernadette Coveney Smith said. Just as people who have been together for decades are finally deciding to get hitched, so are "millennials" and Gen-Xers who came out as teens and have lived most of their lives in the open about their sexuality.

"The longer same-sex marriage is legal, we'll start to see more people who view it as something attainable in their lifetime," said Coveney Smith, president of wedding planner service 14 Stories. "It's becoming part of their dream growing up as opposed to something out of reach and unaccepted by society."

As family support (emotional and financial) also becomes more common, the size and scale of same-sex weddings are growing, she said. Where small and intimate used to be the norm, now fathers are walking both brides down the aisle, and three-tiered cakes are being served to parents' friends, neighbors and co-workers. That kind of guest list isn't usual at the wedding of a couple in their 40s, she said.

"One of the things that make weddings more traditional is when parents are involved," she said. "As parents are more involved, especially in paying for the event, they tend to pressure their children to have a more typical wedding like the one they had."

As more vendors jump on the bandwagon, Hamm suspects that same-sex couples might fall into the same patterns as straight couples planning their weddings.

"With more recognition and inclusion and support you're going to encounter more prescribed formulas," she said. "It's not a bad thing, but things change. More integration and assimilation changes the flavor of any minority community."

In a piece for The New York Times, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut said that much of the growing support for same-sex marriage since the 2008 election is generational. The millennial generation, which has consistently supported same-sex relationships, was a small share of the electorate in 2004, he wrote. Now, they're older and more influential. In the same period, support for same-sex marriage increased from 30% to 40% among baby boomers, though 56% of this generation remains opposed, he said.

Sandis, left, and Brent Wright had their two daughters join them on their wedding day in February in Boston.
Sandis, left, and Brent Wright had their two daughters join them on their wedding day in February in Boston.

Even so, perspectives are also changing among gay and lesbian couples for whom marriage was once out of reach. When Brent and Sandis Wright met 20 years ago, marriage was not the priority. Like many of their friends at the time (and some today), they scoffed at the idea as a convention of heterosexual relationships, Sandis Wright said.

"When you're young, you're probably a little bit more naive to the inequities and injustices that really do exist in the world and why they matter," said Wright, who lives in Boston." Over the years, our views evolved, and we realized how important it is to us to be able to get married and make sure that, as a couple, we are viewed as equals to everyone else and not second-class citizens."

They used to joke that, if anything, they'd get married as an excuse to throw a party, he said. But after they started building a life and family together, they decided to marry to set an example for their adopted daughters.

"It was really important for us to demonstrate to our children that our family is just as valid and equally recognized as every other family," he said.

Two weeks after bringing home their second daughter, the couple married on Valentine's Day at the Omni Parker Hotel in downtown Boston. They wore gray suits and ties with colors that matched their 3-year-old daughter's dress. The three walked down the aisle to an officiate, who incorporated references to their favorite songs into the ceremony script.

Afterward, the celebration continued into the hotel dining room and up to their suite for more champagne and conversation.

"It was perfect," he recalled. "It was so personal and intimate. We actually had time to talk to everyone."

Much like with straight couples, budget and family involvement tend to play pivotal roles in wedding planning, said Kirsten Ott Palladino, founder and editor-in-chief of LGBT wedding magazine Equally Wed.

People are often surprised by how similar same-sex weddings are to those of heterosexual couples, she said. But a number of considerations remain, creating a need for the services of LGBT-friendly sites such as hers, she said. Target is in its second year of advertising with Equally Wed, which has grown to a readership of 30,000 monthly unique visitors since 2010.

Finding gay-friendly vendors is the biggest concern among readers, she said, especially outside New York and Massachusetts. But even in states that allow same-sex marriage, not every venue or caterer is going to be on board. That's one of the reasons sites such as Equally Wed and others exist, she said, to do the work of screening vendors so you don't have to deal with "coming out" to everyone you meet.

Attire is another major preoccupation for men and women, she said.

"Men shopping for suits don't necessarily want to be identical, and the same goes for women both wearing gowns," she said. "The bottom line is there are no rules, just suggestions. It's a matter of talking it over with your partner and deciding which will make you both happy."

When it comes to getting hitched, some couples want to have a wedding for the sake of showing their commitment to friends and family, regardless of whether it will be legally recognized where they live, she said. Others feel it's not a real marriage unless the state recognizes it.

To satisfy both desires, many couples end up traveling to a state that recognizes same-sex marriage and making it into a destination wedding, such as Duffy and Kathy Tucker of North Carolina, who married in Boston in June 2010.

The two met in 1990 while serving in the military in Okinawa, Japan. Duffy Tucker got off active duty from the Marines in 1993; Kathy left the Navy the following year so they could be together.

Back then, marriage seemed so far out of reach that it rarely crossed their minds, Duffy Tucker said. But, as more states legalized same-sex marriage, they decided the time was right to validate their relationship.

"When we got out, we wanted to do the typical things first, like live together, get a home, establish careers, put money in the bank. Now, we've done those things, so we had to do the marriage part backward," she said.

"We had talked about it for years and years, but without the legal recognition, it didn't have the true meaning of a marriage for us, so we never really bought into the idea. We wanted full support when we made the commitment; we wanted a certificate."

They decided to get married on their 20th anniversary in Boston, where the union would be recognized and where they could throw a proper shindig that would be worth the trip for guests. The couple wore white dress suits as a close friend led them down the aisle in a small ceremony at Boston University's Castle, a Tudor-style mansion that hosts weddings and special occasions. Before about 40 friends and relatives, they pledged their love to each other in vows they'd written with the help of the officiant.

"It was so meaningful for us at 20 years. We've got people who've been in our lives for so long and love us, so to celebrate with them validated everything."

The hardest questions tend to be about family and what to do with relatives who don't accept them, said etiquette expert Steve Petrow, author of "Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Life."

The solution, as he sees it, is to use the impending nuptials to repair the relationship. It starts with a conversation with the person who disapproves about whether they want to attend. In the end, if they can't support your union, simply don't invite them, he said.

Elizabeth Jones knew her parents didn't support her relationship for religious reasons, but she sent them an invitation to her September wedding in Philadelphia anyway. To date, she has not received a response.

In the meantime, the 30-year-old consultant is planning her wedding to her fiancée of five years without her parents. Her brother will walk her down the aisle, and her bridal party might include a close male cousin. Why not choose an unconventional lineup? she said. The two will have separate bachelorette parties with close friends, male and female. They each bought an evening gown from Saks Fifth Avenue that the other one won't see until the wedding day -- a traditional touch.

As the date approaches, everything is falling into place. "There have definitely been moments where I was a little sad that my mother wasn't there," Jones said. "Still, it has had its stressful moments and fun parts, which is pretty much what you'd expect."

Writing the actual ceremony has been the most daunting task.

"The reception is essentially just a big party; that's not the intimidating part," she said. "The ceremony is the part with all these question marks around it because it's always tied to some tradition, and just because you're gay doesn't necessarily mean you want to be nontraditional or invent something on your own.

"But we kind of have to."

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