Same-sex in the city

At this wedding expo, the bride and the bride are beautiful, and so are the groom and the groom.

Published May 27, 2003 10:59PM (EDT)

In a massive room festooned with pink paper garlands, a violinist plays Ravel softly, right next to a sign that boasts, "I played at Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones' wedding." The tables are laid out with china patterns and Kitchen-Aid mixers from Bloomingdales, freshly cut white calla lilies, frilly silk garter belts and brochures advertising lavish honeymoon packages. The couples, all radiant and in the throes of premarital bliss, haggle over stem height, compare butter cream frosting to bitter orange, and passionately argue the relative merits of bubbles vs. confetti.

Meanwhile, on the club's stage, a lanky drag queen named Sybil Bruncheon, appropriately bridal fabulous in a white satin bias cut 1920s-style gown, white gloves and white summer straw hat, tosses a bundle of peonies up in the air, and a dozen young men jostle to catch the bouquet and the prize it promises, not a future nuptial, but a gym membership.

Welcome to the third annual same-sex wedding expo.

The event, sponsored by Marriage Equality New York and the Wedding Party, two nonprofits devoted to promoting access to legal civil marriages for same-sex couples, is being held at the aging gay club Roxy in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. The expo has attracted a largely professional crowd of around 700, evenly split between gay and lesbian couples, most leaning toward cable-knit sweaters, button-down shirts and pointy-toed heels.

As homosexual weddings, or commitment ceremonies, become more public and more prevalent, wedding professionals are rushing to accommodate gay couples' particular needs. Numbers of commitment ceremonies are hard to come by, but the 2000 census counted 46,490 same-sex partner households in New York state, up more than threefold from the 13,748 such households in 1990. Around half of the 50 vendors at the Expo cater specifically to, or are part of, the gay and lesbian community, including gay and lesbian ministers, a company that exclusively specializes in planning gay weddings in Italy, and a wedding videographer. One company, Two Bride Weddings, makes stuffed teddy bears, disposable cameras, and garter belts, all with a small silver image of two women facing each other in silhouette. The owners, Michelle Simons and Xiomara Sotolongo, from Surfside, Fla., describe their company as "a little mom-and-mom shop." They've been together for 12 years and were inspired to build the business when they had their own commitment ceremony and couldnt find a bridal store where they felt comfortable.

Money is green, even when it's pink. Among the gay-friendly businesses, there are plenty of traditional vendors more than willing to support nuptial consumerism of all flavors. There are tables for the Bloomingdales registry, for Citibank, for Met Life. The Knot, a popular Internet wedding site, also has a table. The Knot has included commitment ceremonies on the site since its founding in 1996. In fact, in 1999, a same-sex couple who called themselves "the Two Kimmies" won the Couple of the Millennium contest that the site sponsored after they rallied the gay community to cast their votes. "Certain parts of our audience were outraged, and some advertisers were outraged," says Carley Roney, the Knot's co-founder and editor in chief. "But in our mind, what better sign of the new millennium?"

Gerard Monaghan, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants, which has 2,600 members in 27 countries and all 50 states, also sees the climate for same-sex celebrations changing. Though few of his members specifically target the same-sex community, almost all happily accommodate them, which has raised a host of new issues. "How do you handle guys coming into bridal shops to try on wedding dresses?" Monaghan asks. "You can't say no, because that is sex discrimination, but you have to maintain the comfort level for the brides who are normally in the shop." In response to the demand, he notes, some shops have set aside an invitation-only evening once a month for men to try on wedding dresses.

If wedding dress parties for men aren't a sign of a cultural shift, the August 2002 decision by the New York Times to include same-sex couples in its wedding section certainly is. Nearly every attendee at the expo cites the venerable Gray Lady's decision as a watershed moment. Lisa Padilla, a lawyer with Marriage Equality calles it "the icing on the cake for the legitimacy of same sex couples." Anita Visser, co-chair of the Same Sex Wedding Expo, adds "There is no question that the NYT announcements had a huge effect in the business world which the expo thrived on," she says. "For same-sex couples to finally see themselves side by side with nongay couples gave them a sense of empowerment and entitlement to celebrate their unions in a way they never felt before."

Many mainstream vendors at the Expo are eager to break into something that they see as a potential growth market, particularly in a tough economy. The bridal industry is worth $72 billion a year, according to the Knot, and though same-sex couples represent a tiny portion of that, they are still an attractive niche market that is steadily growing. Most vendors note that the same-sex community is economically viable and has the same wedding needs as its heterosexual counterparts. "A wedding is a wedding" C.J. Kitsos-Holm, owner of Be Holm Catering says, while dishing out samples of mini-quiche and chilled gazpacho.

Besides being good for business, vendors say gay clients are simply more fun. "Same-sex couples are less stressful than heterosexual couples," said Jeanne Griffiths, owner of Tastefully Done Catering, based in New York City "There usually aren't two families butting in." Roger Kachel, a baker with Ron Ben Israel Cakes, says that gay couples can be more daring and expressive in their choices. He described a Junior League wedding show he attended a few weeks before where he only displayed cakes in white or cream. But here at the Same Sex Expo, the most popular cake was a colorful burnt orange and chocolate brown cake with a cascade of autumn-colored flowers. The cake "would have flopped with the Junior League," he says. Also popular with gay couples at the expo was a multitiered, white, almost opalescent cake festooned with perfect white sugar flowers appliquis, inspired by a Bagdley Mischka dress.

James Knopf, a partner in Bill Kocis Innovative Flowers, also thinks his gay clients are more imaginative, less bound by tradition. At his table he displays bouquets of short-stemmed roses densely packed into special containers filled with something called Swell Jell, a shiny, squishy, colorful polymer crystal that supports and nourishes the flowers. "Same-sex couples are willing to try something new," he said. "They have never had access to weddings, they are truly committed to doing this and they want to make the most of their night."

Outside of New York, the bridal industry isn't always as unrelentingly supportive. A query about same-sex weddings to the National Association of Bridal Retailers, based in Las Vegas, was met with a quick "We have no one here who will comment on that subject." Frank Andonoplas, a gay wedding planner based in Chicago, recently had an extravagant vow renewal ceremony with his partner of 10 years at an upscale hotel that had never before hosted a same-sex wedding. His own ceremony aside, he still sees very few in Chicago. "Maybe New York is a little ahead of us, but my clientele is not same-sex in any way, shape or form," he says. "I probably do one same-sex wedding every few years. But most gay couples are unfortunately still doing it very low-key."

Others say that in recent years same-sex weddings are veering toward more lavish, traditional affairs than discreet dinner parties or casual beach gatherings. The Knot's Carley Roney explains: "Same-sex couples are having more all-out glamorous, 200-people events instead of commitment ceremonies with a couple of their nearest and dearest. The party is turned up a little bit. It has that sense of saying, 'Ha! We can do this.' They are just so excited to have the wedding so they take great pleasure in the planning process."

Here at the Expo, couples are planning ceremonies that run the gamut from fairly traditional to downright out there. Jackie and Teresa, from Newark, N.J., say that they're going for a Cinderella-themed reception with tiaras on every table, one bride in a fairy-tale ball gown in their wedding colors of white and lavender, and the other bride in a white suit with a matching lavender cravat. Sarah and Hannah from New York City, on the other hand, have opted for an intimate affair at the Central Park Boathouse, where they will update traditional vows and wear white silk pants, with matching silk tunics. And John and Matthew, also from New York City, are getting married in October in a ceremony they described as "very nontraditional, sarcastic, and tongue-in-cheek." Their Halloween-themed wedding will include Edward Gorey invitations, black roses and a red velvet cake.

Yet for all its fantasy and romance, the celebratory nature of the expo is still bittersweet: Every couple there notes that while they can purchase their dream wedding, they cannot have the legal substance the ceremony confers on heterosexual couples. Jim and Charlie, 41 and 51 respectively, feel the frustration: "We can never be legally, financially connected; it will never be airtight," said Jim. "A heterosexual can just buy a Russian bride and she gets citizenship and inheritance, but we can't get anything."

But the bride and the bride will look marvelous. And so will the groom and the groom.

By Elana Berkowitz

Elana Berkowitz is a writer based in New York.

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