How Is A Same-Sex Wedding Different Than A Gay or Lesbian Marriage?

When my partner and I got “married” back in 1999, we began by calling our event a “union.” And, we would occasionally refer to it as a “commitment ceremony.” These were the terms the GLBT community had for its partnership rituals back in the 20th century. (Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?)

But, once we entered the wedding vortex in full swing, the natural short-hand we used for our event was “wedding.” And, anecdotally speaking, this is what I’ve found to be true for many same sex couples who begin their event planning using other terminology. By the time they’ve spoken with caterers, searched for photographers, gone to a cake tasting, stressed over their outfits, and had to explain to their parents what they’re doing, “wedding” is the primary word being used. It’s universal and requires only two syllables.

Even then, however, my partner and I found ourselves in conversations with guests at our own wedding reception about how, though we had just had a wedding ceremony, we weren’t actually married. Not legally anyway. This confused them.

Remember: this was back in 1999 and same sex marriage wasn’t legal anyway (not to mention that it wasn’t even a twinkle in the GLBT eye). But, still our community of straight friends was surprised to learn that our wedding wasn’t a marriage (in the legal sense of the term); just as surprised as people are to learn today that I — one of the gay and lesbian wedding pioneers — am still not legally married.

But, I’m hoping that will change soon. I’m getting tired of filing as “single” with the IRS. It feels like I’m being dishonest every time I check that box.

So, here we are on the verge of 2011 and same sex marriage is now legal in five (5) states (Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Connecticut) and the District of Columbia, and out-of-state marriages are recognized in Maryland and New York. Even more remarkably, a ballot initiative in California (known as Prop 8) has been overturned by a federal judge and the appeal is working its way up to its inevitable finale at the Supreme Court level.

Meanwhile, according to a recent nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, economic issues are seen as the most pressing matters in the court of public opinion, and same-sex marriage comes in dead last on the list of thirteen (13) issues tested amongst Democratic¬† AND Republican voters — even with Judge Walker’s recent ruling that Proposition 8 (banning same sex marriage in California) is unconstitutional.

So, where does this leave us?

We begin by holding our breath as we watch the Prop 8 appeals process and wonder if same sex marriage will defy the Pew results and become a wedge issue or remain a shoulder shrug in the 2010 midterm elections .

And, then, for the next few years, many gay and lesbian couples will, as I do, consider themselves “married” in the eyes of their friends and family even though they’ve “only” had a wedding. Or, they’ll go to the states which do allow legal marriage.

And it goes without saying that many other couples will continue to hold meaningful weddings and fabulous receptions in their own home states, even without legal marriage recognition.

For increasing numbers of gays and lesbians and their straight allies (and even those out there who don’t spend any time thinking about this issue), there’s not much difference between a same sex wedding and a same sex marriage.

But, we must remember that, in the eyes of the law, there is a big difference — both in dignity and benefits.¬†

To borrow loosely from Prop 8 proponents, marriage does matter in our society and gays and lesbians are ready to accept the responsibility that goes along with marriage, but we want the rights, too.


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