How same-sex couples will celebrate their commitments

Rod Stark and Howard Austin already wear wedding bands, but on August 6 will get the marriage to match
Rod Stark and Howard Austin already wear wedding bands, but on August 6 will get the marriage to match
Benjamin Carter Grimes

On May 13, 2013, about five minutes after the Minnesota Senate voted to pass the same-sex marriage bill, Denise Moreland and Deb Pearson decided that they would get married — again.

"It was like, 'Wow, we really could get married!'" Moreland says. "Why would we wait?"

They had already waited for decades. The two women met in 1981, exchanged rings in 1989, and held a religious ceremony in 1991. Now they would finally get the civil ceremony to match.

"Third time's the charm," Pearson laughs. "Most people do all three on one day. It took us 32 years."

The bill passed on a Monday, and by Tuesday, the two were calling venues to host the nuptials. Over their years together, they had compiled a list of all the beautiful places they had been, places where they dreamed of someday having a wedding.

But Moreland and Pearson wanted to get married as soon as the new law took effect, in August. Most of their top choices were booked.

After visiting three or four locations, the couple stumbled upon a small golf course in St. Paul. "We walked in and we looked at each other and we said, 'This is where we are going to get married,'" Moreland says. "It was clear."

They had a destination, a date, and a new state law. Now they had to start the hard part: planning the wedding.

"It just hasn't been part of our culture," Moreland says. "We've always watched weddings from a distance, because we just assumed we took a different path. We don't know how to do wedding planning."

In the 2010 U.S. Census, 10,207 Minnesota couples described themselves as in a same-sex relationship. Hennepin County is home to more than half of them, and Ramsey County counts another 1,619. Together, that's 68 percent of the state's GLBT couples who live in the Twin Cities.

And a lot of them will want to get legally hitched now that it's an option. A recent analysis from the Williams Institute at the UCLA Law School predicts that more than 30 percent of those couples will tie the knot in the law's first year. That works out to 3,165 new marriage licenses.

That's a lot of Minnesotans figuring out what this law means to them, how it fits in with their existing commitment, and how they want to celebrate it.

Those celebrations will make an impact of their own on the state. Another statistic from the Williams Institute study says that wedding-related spending could add as much as $27 million to the state economy in the law's first year, plus an additional $2 million in tax revenue.

But the money won't necessarily be going to traditional white dress, layer cake, and church affairs.

Since May, nontraditional wedding venues throughout the Twin Cities have seen surges in interest from same-sex couples. Karen Scher, who handles party planning at the Guthrie Theater, went to the Capitol at 4:30 p.m. on May 13 to watch the bill pass. By the time she got back to her desk 90 minutes later, she had six inquiries from same-sex couples.

"The first ones, I somewhat naively said, 'When are you thinking?' and I got, 'August,'" Scher recalls.

When couples have come to check out the space in person, their questions and excitement have been "pretty much the same" as that of straight couples, Scher says.

"The only thing I've noticed," she says, "is that heterosexual couples usually have come with a parent or sibling, and same-sex couples usually come alone."

At the Walker Art Center, two same-sex couples have already booked weddings for the fall, and about 15 more have explored the venue.

"The couples so far, what they have in common is just a general excitement of, 'Wow!'" says Rachel Joyce, a publicist for the museum. "Of, 'We finally get to make these calls and these plans, and we get to have our cake samples.'"

For same-sex couples, a question like where to get the cake isn't as simple as who makes the best buttercream. When Moreland and Pearson had their first ceremony back in 1991, planning the wedding was a minefield.

"We went to Wuollet Bakery on Grand Avenue, because we figured it was the most progressive neighborhood around, but we were scared," Pearson remembers. "Being lesbian, it's like you have to figure out first, are they for us? Will they be kind?"

More than 20 years later, Moreland and Pearson are having an easier time finding gay-friendly vendors, but they still face reminders that they're not the average marrying couple. When the DJ they hired for their August wedding handed them a contract, he asked them to go through and replace "bride and groom" with the appropriate language.

"I thought, okay, but why wasn't he already doing this?" Pearson recalls.

Julie Lyford, who runs the wedding planning business Fabulous Functions, has seen couples run into unsupportive vendors — as well as vendors who are still figuring out how they feel, or how to adjust their business in order to serve the gay community.

"The owners of a catering company might be totally fine with it, but are their staff?" Lyford asks. "Usually I get a blank stare when I ask that, because they're like, 'I don't know; I assume they are.' But the owner's not usually the one interacting with the couple and their guests that day, and you don't want someone who's uncomfortable to be the person handing that married couple their food."

Phil Oxman and Harvey Zuckman got around the problem by hiring people they already knew. The couple are planning to get married at Minneapolis City Hall on August 1, and to follow it up with a full wedding at the end of next May.

They've already had a rehearsal of sorts: Eight years ago, they decided to throw a big party for their 30th anniversary. They booked St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church, overlooking Lake Calhoun, as well as a gay caterer and a band they'd heard at a Human Rights Campaign dinner.

"We had quite a large celebration, thinking we would never have a wedding," Oxman says. "Little did we know that eight years later, we would do it again."

Their May wedding will also be at St. Mary's, and the same caterer will feed their guests. More nerve-wracking are questions about the ceremony itself: Who do they want close to them? Who will hold the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy?

"We have a whole list of things that we need to decide that we just never thought we would have to think about," Zuckman says. "We can put on a party, but a ceremony's another story."

To answer some of those questions, they've enlisted their rabbi, Michael Latz of the Shir Tikvah synagogue. Latz, who married his husband last year in Canada, is working with three same-sex couples on upcoming ceremonies.

"They are doing everything that every couple who's ever gotten married has to do, and that's call their rabbi, pick a date, figure out who to invite," he explains. "I think the difference is, the couples I'm working with are in their 50s and 60s, and never believed that this would be possible in their life."

Latz usually meets with couples for five sessions of premarital counseling, but with his same-sex couples, he declared that step optional.

"I said, 'You know, you've been together for all these years, you really don't have to do it,'" Latz says. "But I had one couple who said, 'No, we want to do it. We want to do everything how everybody else gets to.'"

On a recent Tuesday night, Rod Stark and Howard Austin are picking out their wedding invitations.

"When the bill was introduced, right then I started planning my wedding in my head," Stark says as he flips through fonts and ribbon designs. "I was dreaming of the regular wedding that all little girls dream of having, but my version of that."

Stark and Austin, like other gay couples, had already defined commitment for themselves. They wear matching black crystal wedding bands; Austin is on Stark's insurance through his company's domestic partners program. But their August 6 wedding will still change things.

"I knew that there would be emotions tied to planning the wedding, but I didn't think that they would be as strong as they are," Stark says.

In addition to all of the protections that being legally married will grant them, the wedding celebration will also offer something else: acceptance. The chance to gather his whole extended family together, the way he has seen at all of their weddings over the years, will be validating, Stark says.

For Moreland and Pearson, being married is something they're practicing.

"We always called each other partners, and we're trying it out now, calling each other wife," Pearson says. "When I drop her off at the bus in the morning, I say, 'Goodbye, wife.' And it's like, 'Wife? What the heck is that?'"

"I don't know how it's going to feel," Pearson continues. "What happens on August 18 when we wake up and we're married? I have no idea."

Liza Dungo and Mackenzie Labine
Photo illustration by Emily Utne

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