The New Etiquette of Same-Sex Weddings

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli

Who proposes?
Traditionally men proposed to women. Those rules have changed somewhat over the years. In gay marriages there’s even more flexibility. Sometimes both people do it. “In gay weddings, there are often two of everything: two dresses, two rings—and two proposals,” says Bernadette Coveney Smith, of the event-planning firm 14 Stories, which specializes in gay weddings. “If one partner is surprised initially, then the other partner often gets their surprise a little further down the road.” Jessica Mullan, 31, proposed to her girlfriend, Heather Sarver, using an antique Tiffany & Co. ring purchased with help from her parents. Sarver later proposed, with a ring that had once belonged to her great-aunt. Sometimes one person just goes for it. “Maybe it’s arrogance, but I wanted to initiate it,” says Brian Healy, 32, who proposed to his boyfriend. Sometimes there’s no proposal at all. For couples who have been together longer—those who’ve long considered themselves “practically married”—a legal marriage seems to be surprise enough. Bill White and Bryan Eure, together for a decade, watched on television in June 2011 as New York State lawmakers legalized gay marriage. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Do you want to have a party?’ ” says White. They were married four months later.

Do I need to ask the family for permission first?
According to Jennifer Gilbert, author of the event-planning memoir, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, this question has more to do with the age of the couple and less to do with their sexual orientation. As with straight couples, “Younger couples may ask for permission, but it’s not expected,” says Gilbert. Healy felt strongly that he make his intentions clear with his beloved’s parents out of respect. “It wasn’t so much asking for permission,” Healy says, “as it was running it by them.” When his boyfriend’s parents came to town, he seized the opportunity during a rare private moment at Gramercy Tavern. “Apparently they had a profound conversation in the 90 seconds when I took a leak,” says his fiancé, Dan Hantman, 31. However, when New York State Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell married his partner, John Banta, in January 2012, asking for permission hadn’t occurred to O’Donnell. “We’d been living together for 31 years!” he says.

Uncle Joe never supported our relationship. Must we invite him?
The short answer is no. “If you don’t want to hug every person there, don’t invite them,” says Gilbert. However, family pressure may win out. “This was the most difficult thing,” says Michael Messer, 40. He decided to err on the side of inclusion for his upcoming wedding to Greg Scordato, 40. “I should have enough respect for them as individuals to give them the option,” says Messer. As Debra Morris, founder of the event-planning firm Eventsful Inc., explains, “If they have a problem with it, they won’t attend.”

Do we need a pre-nup?
Probably. While it typically benefits the wealthier spouse, a pre-nup can help navigate tax waters in case of a divorce. “You’ve only got a state marriage,” says Jennifer Hatch of Christopher Street Financial, a firm that advises members of the LGBT community on fiscal and investment issues. The federal government doesn’t recognize gay marriage, so gay couples should take steps to avoid transfer taxes, should they split up. Peter Zupcofska, a lawyer at Burns & Levinson, suggests the more well-off spouse make annual gifts to his or her partner (tax free up to $13,500), and decide now who gets the country house, and then put the deed in his or her name.

Should we expect our families to contribute financially?
Since Biblical times, the bride’s family has traditionally picked up the tab. But like most modern celebrations (hetero or otherwise), footing the bill often comes down to who can afford it. All the more so with gay weddings where there’s less tradition to contend with. Healy and Hantman plan to wed in April, and both they and their families will contribute to the affair’s cost. Coveney Smith, of 14 Stories, cites a survey of 500 same-sex couples by the Gay Wedding Institute in partnership with her firm: “Two-thirds of same-sex couples are paying for the wedding themselves.” For some, however, a parent’s contribution is a tacit seal of approval, not to mention a welcome financial assist.

Can we incorporate religion into our ceremony?
Some faiths welcome gay marriage (the United Church of Christ, reform Judaism, some Quakers), while others, obviously, don’t (Catholics, Baptists, Methodists). Father Anthony Adams, a former Roman Catholic priest who performs same-sex weddings in New York, suggests God-loving couples be creative. “There’s a freedom to reinvent the symbolic words and gestures according to your own spirituality,” he says. For example, you might find an officiant from a different faith altogether (like a Unitarian Universalist) and write your own vows with a religious slant. Amy Hausman, an ordained minister, uses a fairly standard text. “I talk about what the covenant means,” she says. “I’m just not saying ‘man and wife.’ ” Morris, of Eventsful, says she’s tweaked Jewish customs for couples. “We’ve had two glasses for two Jewish women,” she says. “If they’re wearing open-toed shoes, we use a hammer to break the glass.”

Should the brides get dressed together?
Terry deRoy Gruber, of NYC’s Gruber Photographers, says brides dressing separately is rare at same-sex weddings. But at least some younger couples who came of age with some hope for civil unions—if not legal weddings—feel differently. “Having grown up with these traditional images of what weddings are like in the movies, you want to have that iconic day,” says Mullan. She and her wife shopped separately for their dresses and had only seen small camera-phone photographs of the garments before the big day. It wasn’t about spoiling the surprise, but about “making sure the dresses were comparable,” says Mullan, lest one show up as the white swan and the other in a dressed-down sheath.

How many dads—and best men, maids of honor—should get time on the mic?
While speaking parts in traditional weddings are often limited to the best man and father of the bride, it’s not as clear cut for same-sex couples. The most important point is limiting the number of speeches—preferably to four. “We’ve seen parents of both grooms or brides speak,” says Gilbert, who also suggests calling the attendants by the more inclusive shorthand: the “wedding party.” “The terms groomsmen and bridesmaids aren’t really used anymore,” she says.

Are ex-lovers invited?
As many couples—both hetero and same-sex—are getting married later in life, the hatchet with most exes has been buried long ago. Some take the “more the merrier” stance when assembling their guest list. But undue attention needn’t be called to an ex’s attendance. Gilbert recalls a particularly awkward affair where one member of the wedding party at a gay wedding had too much to drink and proceeded to map out the sexual conquests in the room. “I was cringing,” says Gilbert. “Let’s get off the fact that he was a slut!”

Who walks down the aisle last?
This question plagued Sarver. “I didn’t want to go first,” she says. “I felt it was some implication that I’m the groom.” (Her partner didn’t share the same concerns and was happy to walk first.) According to the Gay Wedding Institute, 30 percent of lesbian couples walk down two aisles or from different directions, while 81 percent of gay grooms walk together down one central aisle holding hands. O’Donnell and his partner entered at the same time from separate entrances and exited together down a central aisle. But O’Donnell sympathizes with Mullan. “When you get married,” he says, “all of a sudden things you never thought about seem to matter.”

The New Etiquette of Same-Sex Weddings