In the premiere episode of Pride & Groom, airing today on Here TV, newlyweds Paul Neenos, a teacher, and Mitchell Cook, a graduate student at Boston's MIT, take viewers along as they prepare to walk down the aisle in holy matrimony. The episode chronicles the ups and downs the couple faces, and discusses the historic significance that Neenos and Cook can get married in their home state of New York — a legislative victory secured just last year. The Advocate caught up with the newlyweds to see if they still find themselves in a state of wedded bliss.
The Advocate: In the episode, you both talk a little about Mitch’s parents, and their resistance to accepting their gay son. But ultimately, we see Mitch dancing with his mother, so it seems that at least some of your family members were able to put aside their prejudice and celebrate with you. Has your family grown any more accepting of your relationship since the wedding?
Mitchell Cook: I hope this is not what people think when watching Pride & Groom! There was never resistance to accepting me on the part of my parents. In fact, when coming out to them at a very adult age, they both told me they would always love me. My dad, in the meaningful, if inelegant, language of middle-class baby boomer fathers responded: "You do what you have to do, and I will always do what I can to help."
I think what the experience of my parents indicates is that it is often not a quick process for many families to make the transition, even though life has changed quite dramatically for the person coming out. For my parents, and for many other parents, the wedding was just another step along the way for them. Raising us in a conservative evangelical church in a small town in Arkansas, it's not as if they had any reliable reference point.
So, like many, it was a very new thing for them and worrying about this was one of the few things that would keep me up at night before the wedding. But they both handled it with grace, and it meant a lot to us that they were there, and I know in the end it meant a lot to them too.
Paul Neenos: This is something I hope is not misunderstood. Mitch's family is loving, devoted, and kind. We both come from very different backgrounds, so it's more than understandable that Mitch's family is still adjusting to how different Mitch's life is from where he grew up. I'm looking forward to seeing them soon at his sister's wedding.
Do you feel that by appearing in Pride & Groom, your wedding has become a de-facto guideline for other LGBT weddings?
Cook: I don't think we feel that way. There's too much diversity in this country, not to mention that "unconventional" has become the new conventional. Weddings reflect cultural and stylistic norms that evolve over time.… What I do think is great about Pride & Groom is that it shows what it's like for a young gay couple to do this. We don't already have our lives figured out, we're planning this thing while living in separate cities because of career and educational decisions that date back to before we started dating, and we don't have all that many assets to our name. (I'm going to nerd out here, but its true: materially speaking, my collection of books is worth more than anything else I brought into the marriage.) I might get in trouble for saying this, but I often feel like society's reference point for gay marriage is some couple in their late 40s or early 50s, who have been together for 10 or 15 years, or more, have a mortgage or two, and who have for the longest time just wanted the equal marriage rights they deserved. That reference point is not at all negative, it's just not our reality and it's not the reality of a lot of couples who are getting married. So in that sense, while we may not feel like we're providing a guideline, we are aware that we're contributing to another reference point that is really needed.
What advice would you have for other gay or lesbian couples planning their wedding?
Cook: Try not to get too frustrated. It's possible you'll get forwarded a standardized contract from a vendor that was written for a straight marriage — this annoyed me to no end. Take advantage that you've been granted an opportunity to imbue major rituals with new or different meaning. This summer, around the time of Pride, Paul and I saw a gay wedding magazine that had a piece offering a timeline for wedding planning and without an alternative suggested that by four months out you needed to have decided who would walk down the aisle to whom. What nonsense! Paul and I were waiting in the front with our officiant as people we're invited to take their seats for the ceremony. A guest told us she was struck by that and that to her it suggested we see each other as equals. This is precisely the message we wanted to send to our guests.
Neenos: Elope. Just kidding. Go all out! I know people always say this about weddings but really, make it yours. Mitch and I took ownership over every last detail and really made it our own. We owe much of this to our officiant. He continuously brought all of it back to the promise we were making not only to each other, but to ourselves individually. While much of the ceremony is not in the documentary, it was my favorite part of the day. Oh, you'd be surprised how much people want to dance to something other than the standard wedding reception playlist. So throw in a little Sister Act and Whitney and I guarantee they'll thank you for it.
What’s the best part about being legally wed?
Cook: For me, it's the sense of possibility. I would do anything for Paul and I know he would do anything for me. I think some pretty amazing things come out of compromise. More importantly, we legally get to go through all this together and that is incredibly reassuring. And Paul's now on the hook for my student debt!
Neenos: I think the best part is summed up by what a friend told us before the wedding. He said something like, "marriage means that no matter what, you're not just going to pack a bag when you get into a bad argument." In some way, I think we've been living in a time when marriage has lost its promise. It's amazing that I really do feel different now that I'm married. It may sound silly and be difficult to put in words, but I now have a much stronger understanding of what it means to really love someone.
What’s the most difficult part about being a married couple?
Cook: You can't turn back the clock and arrange things to make it easier in the present. So we're spending our first year of marriage apart, going back and forth on the weekends between New York and Boston. I used to love Sundays and they used to be relaxing. Now I just dread them.
Neenos: I think the most difficult thing is to remember that you're not equally responsible, you're wholly responsible. My grandparents discuss in the documentary that it's not a 50-50 thing, but that you each have to give 100% and I really agree with this. If you're only giving for 50% in the hope of meeting halfway, you'll just end up focusing on how much your partner is contributing and not on the bigger picture. Life never moves in a straight, uninterrupted line so it's insane to think that two people would. However, if you both give it your all, all of the time, then even when there's a bump, you'll both be there to support each other.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Neenos: While planning a wedding is many things, stressful being one of them, I have to say I think we grew as a result of having our focus for nearly a year on marriage and what that means to us. This not only includes the planning, but also the excitement of taking this huge step with Mitch. It was exactly what we needed to distract us from spending nine months before the wedding living in two different cities with only weekends and holidays together. In an almost weird way, I have a lot of respect for the process, because you not only legally join yourself with another person, but also give your word that no matter what, through thick and thin and anywhere in between, you're in it for good. I truly cannot imagine Mitch not being by my side and would never want to.