By Steven Petrow
Originally published on Advocate.com July 22 2011 9:00 AM ET
The rush to city hall is on, as thousands of gay and lesbian couples finalize plans to legally marry in the state of New York starting on Sunday. Whether you’re marrying, or a guest, at one of Central Park’s pop-up chapels, the Niagara Falls wed-in on Monday, or at any city hall in the sixth state to legalize same-sex nuptials, you’re looking at a lot of questions and very few established traditions.
And for some, not a lot of time. In a sign of pent-up demand, 823 couples in New York City alone applied for a lottery instituted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the “fairest way” to distribute licenses so everyone gets their turn without overwhelming city employees. Luckily, the city announced it could accommodate all of the couples. But that leaves only 48 hours to get to “I do!”
To help settle wedding nerves, here’s our etiquette guide to what you should expect at a gay wedding.
Uh oh, who pays for the rings?
If there’s one prevailing custom today, it’s that most lesbian and gay couples shop for their rings together and pay for them jointly. This scenario usually results from a conversation where one of you, after waiting years for New York to legalize same-sex weddings, says, “Hey, want to get married?” However, if you’re planning to surprise your sweetheart with an engagement ring, then you’ll be footing the bill.
As for where to wear them (if, in fact, you choose to have rings), nothing says “married” quite like a gold band on your left ring finger. But this is a straight wedding tradition that gay couples have been known to play around with, in this case by wearing our commitment rings on our right hands to symbolize (and protest) the fact that we couldn’t legally get married.
Not surprisingly, some long-term couples plan to move their rings from right to left when they officially tie the knot. Actor Neil Patrick Harris, who has been engaged to his partner for five years, once joked that his right hand had become calloused during the long wait. "It'd be nice to move the ring over here someday," he said, indicating his left hand. Evan Wolfson, author of Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry and the founder and executive director of the organization Freedom to Marry, has also said he plans to move his band from right to left when he gets legally wed.
How do we announce our engagement?
First of all, yes, gay couples do get engaged, and how we make the news known depends on the date of your ceremony. If you’re among this first wave, you’ll have little choice but to take to social media -- post, share, or update your relationship status in seconds. You can even do what MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts did: he announced his engagement to his long-term partner via Twitter. For those with a little more time on your hands, first tell those who have been most supportive of your relationship (not always your family as is usually the case among straight folks). By the way, if you’re one of the many gay couples with kids, start at home.
When is it acceptable to use email for our wedding invitations?
Certainly this weekend, although Emily Post might roll over in her grave. In general, email is frowned upon for most wedding-related communications because it’s considered too casual a medium, even though younger, digital gays are embracing it for such celebrations and everything else. For now, consider these guidelines:
• Save-the-date notices: Email and even video announcements are fine.
• RSVPs: If you want to give your guests the option of replying by email, do so. Personal wedding sites can do this, too.
• Last-minute invitations: If you win the New York license lottery, there’s no better way to get folks to your event.
• Detailed logistics: Information about an entire weekend’s worth of events is often too bulky to fit in an envelope. These communications can be much more effective if emailed or posted online.
What do I call the members of my wedding party?
There’s a lot of gender-bending these days. At a gay or lesbian wedding, the roles of maid (or matron) of honor and best man often overlap and are best described as “generals-in-charge.” And with weddings taking place in unconventional settings, be ready for anything: two grooms with best “men” who are women or two brides with their teenagers standing up for them. If the ceremony is at all formal, couples are opting for the catch-all phrase “honor attendants” to refer to all of these helpers who should be available to you in advance and on the day itself to help with a laundry list of possible to-do’s, such as acting as ushers, carrying a fix-it kit with sewing accessories or makeup, standing up with you during the ceremony, and letting the butterflies fly free when you’re pronounced “wife and wife.”
How do we refer to each other after we marry?
This is the number 1 question I get from both gay couples and their straight friends. For married straight folks, it’s so de rigueur: husband and wife. Of course, once you gay-marry, it’s wonderful to call each other “husband” or “wife” if that’s comfortable for you. Some gay couples are still getting used to these new labels and may find it awkward to introduce “my new wife” at an office function. You may prefer to stay with “partner” or to refer to each other one way among your gay friends and another way out in the world. But we’ve worked hard to gain the right to legally marry, so I’m an advocate of letting the world know that someone has officially pronounced us “husband and husband” or “wife and wife.”
Do we change our names?
You certainly don’t have to, but more and more couples are hyphenating their names (Frank and Mark Roberts-Stasio), using both their names (Frank Roberts Stasio and Mark Roberts Stasio), choosing one partner’s family name (Frank and Mark Roberts, aka “the Robertses”), or creating a new name (how about “the Robios”?). Still, if you’re like most gay couples you’ll stick with your original surnames. The downside of that approach is that it doesn’t give you the instant family identity that a shared surname confers. Regardless of which option you choose, your wedding announcement should make clear how you’d like to be referred to as a couple. For instance, a recent New York Times wedding announcement noted prominently “The couple is using the surname Epstein.”Where do I seat guests at the ceremony?
Traditionally, the bride’s family sits on one side of the room, and the groom’s family sits on the other; but most gay couples are feeling the love from friends, their community, and their families, and they’re mixing it up accordingly. When it comes to seating, don’t stand—or sit—on ceremony!
How do we add a gay twist to our wedding?
While the tone this first week will be one rivaling any Pride festivity, you can definitely personalize a ceremony in a number of ways: the choice of readings, the wording of your vows, how you involve your loved ones, and even what you choose to wear can all be tailored to reflect your unique values and personality. While many gay couples follow well-established religious or straight traditions, others of us choose to be less formal, more activist, or even somewhat whimsical. Here are some great ways to gay up your ceremony:
• In your vows, talk not only about your love and commitment but also about our struggle for the right to marry in every state.
• Ask your officiant to speak to some of these issues, too, during his or her part of the ceremony.
• In lieu of gifts (how many blenders do you need?), suggest donations to an LGBT advocacy group.
• Choose readings with a political dimension, such as “We Two Boys Together” by Walt Whitman, “If Thou Must Love Me” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or any of the poems in Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets.
• As to your attire, there’s plenty of leeway, ranging from traditional taffeta and tuxes to leather, western wear, an androgynous outfit, or one that amps the masculine or feminine up even more. Just make sure you both look as though you’re attending the same ceremony! (And pay attention to the record-breaking heat.)
Do we invite unsupportive family?
This is a dilemma that some gay couples face as they plan to tie the knot. Because weddings are about new beginnings, they can be an occasion to make peace with your most difficult relations. Try talking directly with family members about your love for each other and why marriage matters; then, depending on how they respond, decide whether to extend an invitation. Family members don’t have to hoist a rainbow flag or donate to LGBT causes to be at your wedding; they just need to support and love you as a couple. If they don’t, they don’t belong there.
If I’m the mother of a gay bride or groom, what will my role be?
You’ll probably be playing a supporting role at a gay wedding, with close friends of the brides or grooms taking center stage. On the one hand, this is good news, because you’re probably off the hook for picking up the tab. But, this also means you may not be included in the inner planning circle. You get to be an honored guest. Show up, love them, and make a toast.
Should the parents offer to pay, even if the couple is financially comfortable?
If it’s within your means to buy the flowers or pay for the rehearsal dinner, go ahead and offer that to the grooms or brides. Or you can make a cash gift. Or find another way to help out. Bottom line: Treat them as you would your straight kids, but if you haven’t saved for this wedding, don’t sweat it.
At a lesbian wedding, there will usually be two mothers of the brides. Who picks her dress first?
Ah yes, traditional manners dictates that the mother of the bride choose her outfit before her counterpart. In the new world order, the two mothers-in-law to be are just going to have to talk to each other and coordinate. Remember, it’s the brides’ day. Don’t do anything to overshadow them.
Do we walk down the aisle with them?
No, most of the gay couples who are about to marry are older, and there’s no pretense of them being “given away.” But they may ask you to join them at the altar.
Steven Petrow is the author of Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at www.gaymanners.com.