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End of An Era

aisle imageIn the early days, it was a scrappy attempt and heartfelt appeal to get wedding professionals, wholesalers, and the mainstream industry to hear our message. “Gay and lesbian couples need help, too,” said my straight mom and company founder, Gretchen Hamm.

It was 1999 and most same-sex couples were having small, intimate ceremonies and scrambling for resources to help them plan their unions. Oh, and none of those ceremonies were legally recognized. Same-sex couples were having ceremonies because they chose to, not because they felt pressured to do so or because they received any legal benefits as part of the ritual.

But, my, how times have changed!

In the early 2000s, in the first “dot com” boom, our sites at the time, TwoBrides.com and TwoGrooms.com, were bringing in 2,000 to 3,000 users a month. Couples were looking for invitations and cake tops and the like, and many gays and lesbians felt safer (or had no other choice than) accessing resources online. In fact, at the time, we made sure to let couples know that we would not mention our company name on the return mailing address when we shipped products, lest some couples feel unsafe or “outed” with the delivery.

Fifteen years later, the landscape has changed dramatically.

In the time since we re-branded ourselves as GayWeddings.com (2005), we have seen a steady expansion of just about every aspect of what we do — from site traffic to number of wedding professionals in our directory to the number of states which recognize marriage equality. In 2006, we served almost 72,000 visitors. In 2012, we served almost 300,000. In 2006, we had hundreds of “gay-friendly” wedding professionals in our new directory. Today, and thanks to our partnership with mainstream industry technology leader, WeddingWire, we have more than 60,000 “LGBTQ-friendly” wedding pros in our vendor directory. In 2006, Massachusetts was the only state to recognize marriage equality. Today, 14 states and the District of Columbia recognize marriage equality, and the recent Supreme Court rejection of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act has paved the way for the IRS to open its programs to all legally married couples, regardless of where they reside in the US.

For me personally, I was a (not legally married) newlywed who was cheering her mom on with a business venture that no one believed would last or matter. But, this year, my partner and I celebrated 20 years together and we’ll (finally) get legally married in Washington, D.C., next month with our young son serving as our best man.

And, as I reflect back on how much things have changed in the time since my mom founded our company as “mother-approved shopping sites,” and on the kinds of conversations that I’m having today with engaged couples, their families and wedding professionals, I realize that we are at the end of an era.

The same-sex wedding market niche as we have known it is changing, and changing quickly. And, because of the many new opportunities for legal recognition and family, industry, and social acceptance enjoyed by our community, I would say that it is changing for the better.

In fact, in a recent survey of newlyweds we conducted with our network partner, WeddingWire, we found that same-sex couples are planning bigger than ever for their weddings. Those intimate commitment ceremonies of the twentieth century have grown, in 2012 specifically, to include 80 guests on average (heterosexual couples average 170 guests), and a strong majority of same-sex couples list florists, venues, attire, catering and photography and videography — in other words, the wedding works — as essentials to their celebrations.

But, even so, only 46 percent of couples marry in their home states, with two-thirds of those couples citing a preference to venture to the closest marriage equality state to get legally hitched. (This is compared to 70 percent of heterosexual couples who marry within their home states.)

Much as I have embraced and done my best to play a role in ushering in a change toward full acceptance of same-sex couples and relationship recognition rights, I cannot help but to reflect on what we stand to lose as the wedding industry as a whole is now ready to hug us back. Assimilation can be a wonderful thing, but it can come with a price.

On the upside of the assimilation process, our highly personalized ceremonies (which we developed because we had no other choice) have opened up new possibilities for heterosexual couples who were looking for ways to make their wedding ceremonies more meaningful and organic. The energy and love present at our wedding celebrations have impacted deeply the wedding professionals who have worked with us and offered them a new perspective in their work with all engaged couples. The mainstream wedding industry has finally understood that, though we are a small part of a larger whole, we are nonetheless a community of engaged couples that has been underserved and needs (and deserves) services and products.

On the downside, the question is whether or not we will be able to preserve that which has made our unions so special and so transformative as we enter a new era in which our unions will be legally recognized and the mainstream industry and its representatives will want to work with us and offer its own opinions about what our weddings should look like or should represent as part of the larger mainstream whole.

Soon, the question won’t be: “Why would you have a wedding if you can’t get legally married?” It’ll be: “Why won’t you have a wedding since you can get legally married?” And, under pressure to conform with the mainstream market, our unions stand a good chance of looking more and more like the “traditional” weddings presented to us in magazines, blogs, and on television. Thus, I fear, our weddings will no longer be extraordinary; on the whole, they’ll be ordinary. Or, the horror! The horror! They’ll be downright boring.

So, as we move into this new era, where wedding professionals are ready to embrace same-sex couples (but may still not yet fully understand the “coming out” experience and the nuanced differences of our planning needs) and where the mainstream market is ready to publish our weddings alongside the other straight couples it typically features, I’ll be working to remind those with whom I speak that differences and diversity matter, and that authentic and meaningful expressions of love are what we need more of in this world, not less.

This column also ran on the Huffington Post.

 

Wedding innovator Kathryn Hamm (@madebykathryn) is co-author of The New Art of Capturing Love: The Essential Guide to Lesbian & Gay Wedding Photography (Amphoto Books, 2014), an Education Expert for WeddingWire and Publisher of GayWeddings.com