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The DJ played “Stayin’ Alive,” a chocolate fountain bubbled, and American Laser Centers distributed pamphlets on how to “body countour” away your cellulite before the big day. At last weekend’s Say I Do! wedding expo at Dupont Circle’s Palomar Hotel, vendors forked over $350 a pop to take part in that greatest of American nuptial traditions: extracting money from brides and grooms.
Or, in this case, from brides and brides.
At one table, Lollipop Chef owner Vicki Richardsonwas showing off save-the-date cards with same-sex illustrations: Couples could choose from a tux and a tux, a gown and a gown, or a gown and a fitted woman’s suit. In another booth, the Most Rev. Steven E. Delaney of the American Apostolic Church, billing himself as a close supporter of the D.C. Marriage Equality and Religious Freedom Act, came equipped with some ceremonial Mad Libs for any manner of marriage arrangement: “I, _______, take you, _______, to be my _______.”
And then there was local photographer Robert Dodge, who usually trades in landscapes and male nudes. Dodge proclaimed his intention to become “the preeminent gay wedding photographer on the East Coast.” That’s a relatively recent goal: Lacking a same-sex wedding-picture portfolio, Dodge got ahead of the competition back in January by staging a ceremony with a pair of hired male models in rented formalwear.
Since time immemorial, there’s been money to be made when smitten couples decide to make it official. But Say I Do! was aimed exclusively at would-be caterers, photographers, and cake sculptors for same-sex weddings. And although gay marriage may have been a matter of basic justice back when it was a legislative vote, the trade show’s promotional materials make it clear that weddings are also about commerce.
In fact, they even engage in a bit of stereotyping to drive the point home.
“The GLBT community is the highest spending demographic in the world!” press materials for the expo announced. “[With an] average GLBT household income well above the nation’s median average, it makes perfect business sense to target the group that spends the most!” Two dozen retailers, from vegan-cupcake bakers to laser hair removal specialists, signed up to test that proposition.
It’s a start. When same-sex marriage became law in March, D.C. Councilmembers hoped the change would drum up $5 million in tax revenue and 700 jobs for the District. A 2009 report from UCLA’s Williams Institute, which studies sexual-orientation law, predicted that the legalization would inspire more than 14,000 such marriages in three years, and that the price tags for those weddings—on everything from flowers to court fees—would boost the economy to the tune of $52.2 million in that time alone.
It’s too early to say whether the Williams Institute’s financial predictions will prove accurate. But since March 3, when the first post-legalization marriage license applications began rolling in—151 on that day, most of them gay—D.C.’s newest newlyweds have been more frugal than fabulous when it comes to tying the freshly legal knot.
Even before March, the Williams Institute report estimated that the average District same-sex couple would dispense with $9,545 on its way to the altar, just a fourth of the cost of D.C.’s average heterosexual affair. The pursuit of even that relatively modest prize has created a strange tension among D.C.’s newest wedding planners: Do you cash in on the excitement over gay marriage’s political victory, or do you try to normalize the institution by treating it like any other union?
It’s not always an easy choice. At the Palomar’s trade show, “ballooncrafter” Perry Stroy of Balloons D.C. made his first bid for some gay-wedding business. Stroy’s booth was framed by his display of champagne-colored helium-and-rubber creations. He’d gotten few serious inquiries. “Some people just don’t like balloons. Some people prefer flowers,” said Stroy of his non-traditional offering.
“One guy came over and said, ‘Balloons are gay,’” added friend Lisa Tatem, who was helping out at Stroy’s booth. “I guess he thought balloons were too gay to be at his wedding.”
What’s so gay about a gay wedding? The question has confronted would-be couples—and the folks who plan their ceremonies—since well before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004.
One way of looking at it: Marriage equality ought to mean that same-sex couples get the same right as heterosexual lovebirds when it comes to overpaying for flowers, stressing out about hors d’oeuvres, and second-guessing the DJ’s choice of music.
That’s more or less the business model local jewelry chain Mervis Diamond Importers embraced. Mervis has been in the business of selling that quintessential symbol of heterosexual unions—the ring—since 1935. This year, the firm debuted something called the “gay wedding ring.” Jonathan Mervis, the company’s digital strategist, says that designing the specialty collection of six male bands “took considerable time but not a huge amount of money.” (No disrespect to lesbians, but Mervis says the importer already has a surplus of ring designs for women.)
“How gay are they?” asks Mervis, 27. “They actually look a lot like regular wedding bands, which was kind of intentional,” he says. “There are no overtly gay symbols on them. They’re made of platinum and gold, with no diamonds. Really, the line was just a statement that we’re open and supporting of gay marriage.” And once the gesture gets gay grooms through the door—Mervis is seeing same-sex couples walk in about every other day now—“we never steer them toward the gay line,” he says. “They’ll pick out whichever band they like.”
It’s an interesting tactic: Emphasize that the store wants gays to come in and buy special gay rings that are, essentially, what all the straight grooms are buying. To commemorate the launch, the company staged a “coming-out party” for itself at its K Street NW store. The press release was refreshingly honest about the chain’s intentions: “It’s not often we have the opportunity to tap into an emerging market, but that’s exactly what gay marriage will create for this city,” Mervis announced.
For plenty of other vendors, though, the issue’s polarizing legislative history—and the very real discrimination that continues in most of the country—means politics is central to the same-sex-wedding business. Oddly, that makes gay-friendly D.C. a less ideal spot for gay-wedding entrepreneurs like Cindy Sproul and her wife, Marianne Puechl. The North Carolina couple held the first same-sex-wedding trade show in D.C., beating Say I Do! by just over a month. But their nationally touring fair, Same Love, Same Rights, tends to do better in the less cosmopolitan stops.
“In places that don’t have legal recognition, couples are a little more ambivalent to pick up the local white pages and cold-call wedding providers,” says Sproul, 43. “Their communities are usually a little more conservative. They’re still getting discriminated against every day. They’re the ones who are looking for that expo to come to town to show them all the LGBT-friendly vendors.”
The most impressive Same Love, Same Rights turnout to date was in St. Petersburg, on Florida’s conservative west coast. That expo drew 450 attendees. The show in San Francisco, on the other hand, was one of the company’s worst. “Everything’s gay in San Francisco,” explains Sproul.
In more conservative locales, proving your gay-friendliness can be accomplished simply by showing up: “Vendors tend to vet themselves,” says Sproul, who adds that most of her exhibitors are straight. But in D.C., where the Yellow Pages teem with businesses well versed in the spending habits of gays and lesbians, the bar is a bit higher.
Back in March, Don Gillin of D.C.’s Gay Wedding Planners told the Washington Post that he vets local businesses based on their past commitment to the LGBT community. “I tried to make a distinction between vendors who are just trying to jump on this bandwagon…and those who previously had an interest in the gay community,” he said. “I wanted people who understood how important it was for our clients.” (Gillin did not return calls for comment.)
Wedding planner Tara Davisof Legally Wed D.C. has several criteria for selecting vendors, listed on her website: They must be either owned by gays, employ gays, have a history of performing commitment ceremonies, or have undergone a training session with Bernadette Coveney Smith, a Boston-based same-sex wedding planner. Smith says she has trained 225 potential vendors on, as her website reads, “the unique concerns of the gay and lesbian couple” to help them master “terminology, laws, gay wedding traditions, how to use inclusive language and some very critical Dos and Don’ts.” A session with Smith will run a vendor $250 an hour.
In D.C., vendors wishing to help celebrate gay weddings can also lure customers by boasting that they helped achieve legalization in the first place. Gillin’s wedding-planning tag line? “We’ve planned marches on Washington. We’ve planned demonstrations against inequality. Now let’s plan our weddings.”
For the height of politically tinged same-sex wedding experience, try Dan Furmansky. Furmansky, 35, built his career fighting for marriage equality, first with the Human Rights Campaign, then as executive director of Equality Maryland. In 2006, Furmansky began reaping the benefits of that fight through a sideline business officiating those same events. He calls the firm A Meaningful Day.
Furmansky’s website is punctuated by photos of the officiant in action—leading vows in a purple tie under a lilac archway, pumping his fist triumphantly at the lakeside union of a lesbian couple, grinning in front of a line of tearful bridesmaids. “I certainly think some couples appreciate not only having an officiant who is extremely sensitive to what their wedding means to them, but also someone who has been a part of the frontline struggle to achieve this kind of victory in this country,” says Furmansky. And not just gay couples, either. In May, Furmansky says, a Hackensack, N.J., couple who fought for same-sex marriage “as straight allies” recruited him for their equality-themed ceremony.
Last week, Furmansky moved to Boston to start working for the Unitarian Universalist marriage-equality campaign “Standing on the Side of Love”—and to provide his ceremony services to same-sex couples in Massachusetts.
Don’t worry: He’ll travel, for a price. His officiant services run from $850 to $1350, “depending on day of the week and location of the wedding.”
The jury is still out on how much politics will dictate the local gay-wedding vendor’s income. But amid the predictions of a gay-wedding economic boom, one particular variety of politics was expected to play a big role: The ongoing prohibition against gay marriage in most states was supposed to send out-of-town couples scurrying to D.C.’s equal-opportunity altar.
The Williams Institute study predicted that more than 12,000 of the roughly 14,000 same-sex couples projected to marry in D.C. over the next three years would hail from outside the District. The largest contingent was expected to come from states like New York, which recognizes out-of-state same-sex marriages but won’t perform them. These out-of-staters were projected to drop $2,731 a couple here—a figure that relied on the rather charitable assumption that the couples would all be staying (and paying) inside District lines.
So far, though, D.C. gay-wedding vendors have plenty of competition from the District’s less-enlightened neighbors. Say I Do! was peppered with suburban exhibitors, from the Strathmore venue in North Bethesda to the Hagerstown-based DJs who provided the expo’s Bee Gees soundtrack. Maryland and Virginia needn’t legalize gay marriage within their borders to cash in on District nuptials: On June 21, Richelle Danley, 30, and Krystal Bush, 27, will travel to the District from Indianapolis to secure their wedding license here. But when it came time to find a hotel for their stay, they settled on a spot across the Potomac.
History also provides a lesson for wannabe gay-wedding moguls: The boom won’t be around forever. When same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, weddings dropped precipitously after the first year. The UCLA report predicted that the economic impact in D.C. would wane with each passing year. On the bureaucratic side, at least, the initial rush has been impressive. D.C. Superior Court—where most couples fork over a $45 marriage license fee—has processed about 2,500 marriage licenses (same-sex and otherwise) in the three months since gay marriage went into effect. In 2009, the court processed only 880 applications in the same period. That’s an increase of 1,620 happy couples—and as much as $72,900 in license fees for the District.
But the long wait for gay marriage might also explain why some of newly married couples might limit their spending to the small-potatoes sums required to file marital paperwork. Back on March 3, Richard Imirowicz, then 43, and Terrance Heath, then 41, were the 12th gay couple to arrive at D.C. Superior Court to apply for their marriage license. They were in love, and were eager enough to make it official that they braved the inevitable long lines of Day One. But as they waited in line, they weren’t planning a great big party to celebrate it all.
That’s not because they’re cheap. It’s because they’d already celebrated their union—and laid out some cash to do so—well before the government got around to giving them a green light. “We’ve built up our family and relationship on our own, and finally the rest of society is catching up,” said Heath. In the decade they’d been together, Heath and Imirowicz had already funneled wedding funds to Hawaii, where they exchanged rings in 2001, and Rosie O’Donnell, whose LGBT family cruise served as the venue for their recommitment ceremony in 2007.
And so, in the District, Imirowicz and Heath participated in a small ceremony recognizing their legal marriage at D.C.’s All Souls’ Church six days after getting their license. The affair was heavily covered by the press—and was distinctly modest. “As much as I love him, this will technically be the third time we’ve been married,” Heath said of his husband.
Added Imirowicz: “At this point, we don’t need a big wedding.”
When the Hyatt Regency Washington gutted its 11th-floor restaurant in 2004 to make way for the Thornton Room, a 2,982-square-foot meeting space with floor-to-ceiling windows, the hotel made a go at becoming D.C.’s top venue for commitment ceremonies, the best a same-sex couple could do in the days before legalization. The hotel promoted the room in the Washington Blade and online as a “unique smaller venue” for a “nontraditional ceremony.” Couples didn’t bite. “We really didn’t get much out of it at all, which kind of surprised me,” says Tammy Hagin, the hotel’s director of public relations and advertising.
This March, the Hyatt intensified its efforts, offering a 50 percent discount on same-sex receptions in the first week of legalization and throwing in a complimentary honeymoon suite for the newlyweds. The chance to celebrate an actual wedding may be why same-sex couples have finally started stopping by the Thornton room for site inspections and walk-throughs, Hagin says. (For the remainder of the year, same-sex celebrations still get a 10 percent price break.) “We’re definitely seeing more of a buzz,” she says. “We have received leads, and we’ve gotten a couple of bookings. It hasn’t been significant, but for us it’s just a way to say, ‘We’re here, and we support the gay community.’”
Local officiant Mike Newman’s business model has also changed in the time since legalization. For three months, Newman performed his signatory services gratis. Newman, 43, was ordained three years ago through World Christianship Ministries, an online church catering to men and women who want to “become an ordained minister almost immediately” through “legal ordination by mail.” Newman applied for the license in order to perform the wedding of some heterosexual friends. When same-sex marriage arrived, his political commitment to marriage equality spurred him to engage in some charity work.
On March 9, the first day same-sex weddings could be performed, Newman officiated eight same-sex unions. Since then, he’s performed 36 more (and one heterosexual marriage). “Most of them I’d describe as sort of guerrilla-style,” Newman says of the ceremonies, which he’s held everywhere from the U.S. Botanic Garden to his own living room. For three months, Newman earned only unsolicited tips—gift baskets, wine, a Native American drum. “Technically, all I really have to say is ‘You’re married,’ and sign my name on your license,” he says. “I’m obviously not a wedding professional.”
All the same, about five weddings ago, Newman decided that it was no longer necessary to offer strangers freebies in the name of a righteous cause. Like wedding officiants everywhere, he would now ask to be compensated for his time. He started charging a modest fee—from $50 for a simple ceremony to $200 for his most involved affair yet, a 200-person fete on the roof of the Newseum. Political victories aside, business is business.
But if Newman’s most recent ceremony is any indication, normalizing same-sex celebrations isn’t just an encouraging sign of marriage equality—it’s also a bad omen for the local wedding industry.
Sarah Rose-Jensen and Suzanne Grubb were tying the knot, and the brides were in the market for something less than a royal wedding. “I can either get married in the rain or in a Starbucks,” Rose-Jensen informed the party that had gathered on the steps of the Library of Congress: Grubb, four parents, three friends, and Newman, who’d been hired to do the honors.
It was Newman who’d suggested the coffee shop. Rose-Jensen demurred. “I don’t think I can get married in a Starbucks,” she decided.
So the group trotted across Independence Avenue SE, entered the grounds of the Capitol, and pitched an umbrella over a few pieces of paperwork. No vows were exchanged. Newman, dressed in business casual and sporting a graying ponytail, jotted his signature on the pair’s marriage license and announced, “Congratulations: You’re married.” Rose-Jensen, in yellow, squealed. Grubb, in brown, hopped for joy. They exchanged a couple of nervous pecks as cameras clicked. Newman wrapped the certificate in two plastic takeout bags and presented it to the couple. Between Metro fare, court fees, a tip for Newman, and takeout dinner afterward, Rosslyn residents Rose-Jensen, 29, and Grubb, 28, dropped only about $100.
That weekend, friends from around the world assembled for a much bigger party to celebrate the event. It was in Virginia.