Question of Where to Get Married Means More Than a Venue Decision To Same-Sex Couples

Stark Bellamy PhotographyThose of us who support marriage equality tend to describe 2013 as nothing less than a banner year. Though we have enjoyed significant milestones over the course of the past fifteen years, this past year surpassed them all with a giant leap.

Those of you following the headlines know that the biggest gains came courtesy of two dramatic decisions made by the Supreme Court: marriage equality was returned to California and the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” was struck down, allowing same-sex couples to receive federal recognition and benefits, even if they live in non-marriage equality states. With the recent surprise additions of New Mexico, Utah* and Oklahoma*, seventeen states and the District of Columbia offer marriage equality, with marriage equality briefly recognized, but now on hold in Utah and Oklahoma, pending appeal.

 But what does all of this mean for wedding professionals?

Well, that depends on what you do and where you do it. I’ll be talking more specifically about this question in depth in future posts, webinars and conferences, but wanted to make sure that you get a basic start as we embrace 2014 in earnest.

Regionally speaking:

If you work with couples in a marriage equality state, you need to take your services beyond gay-friendly if you want to be competitive. This is especially true in markets where marriage equality has been around for a fair share of years. It is essential that you update the language on your website, marketing materials, vendor listings, and contracts to be inclusive of all brides and grooms. Now, more than ever, same-sex couples have choice so you need to showcase your industry skillset and gay wedding competence.

If you work with couples in the southeast, chances are marriage equality and other partnership rights are not recognized. Even so, if you are in a market like Atlanta or in parts of Florida, you can find a strong community of couples who need your help. Many may be looking to access federal marriage equality and will pursue a legal elopement, but are likely to have a reception and/or spiritual ceremony at home. You have an opportunity to adjust your language, contracts, packages and marketing materials to let them know that you are available to provide services to same-sex couples, while also setting yourself up to be prepared for the eventuality of marriage equality (HRC has set a goal of full marriage equality in the US by 2018).

If you work with couples in the midwest, chances are your couples are choosing legal elopements and are finding their way to states like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota or perhaps picking destinations like New York City, Washington DC or San Francisco. Updating your marketing & contract materials, while also developing a fluency in what’s involved for a couple who will make a trip (by car or plane) for a marriage license and then to return home to celebrate will serve you well.

Did you know? A recent WeddingWire/GayWeddings.com Survey of same-sex couples who got hitched in 2012 revealed that only 46% of couples married in their home states. The majority crossed state lines to marry in the nearest marriage equality state.

If you work with couples in the southwest, chances are you’ll have couples traveling to New Mexico or Southern California or otherwise keeping a close eye on Utah and Nevada as possible future marriage destinations for legal elopements. My advice for wedding professionals based in the southeast and midwest applies for you as well.

And one more word on Utah…I would be remiss not to talk about why the advancement of marriage equality in Utah is so important. Many of us who watch the ebbs & flows of the marriage equality movement at the local and state level can see the change coming as it winds its way through legislative, electoral or judicial process. Of the many states on the list of ‘states to watch’ (like NV, OH, WV, NM, VA, etc), Utah, seen largely as a conservative state, was a sleeper but may, in the end, be the case that sparks marriage equality as the law of the land.

In late December, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that the Utah ban on marriage equality was unconstitutional. For more than two weeks, same-sex couples streamed to the courthouse to get legally married. In the course of that brief time, approximately 1,300 couples married in Utah. To put that license-rush in perspective: almost as many same-sex couples married in Utah as married in the first year of marriage recognition in Maine (1530 couples or 16% of all licenses). From a market perspective, this certainly means that there will be a strong spike in demand for legal elopements in an area isolated from other marriage equality opportunities (yes, Texas, Georgia and Florida, I’m looking at you) for same-sex couples.

The Governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, eventually declared that that state should not recognize those unions and Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor issued a stay on further marriages while the case winds its way through the appeals process. Even so (see 2013 was a banner year above!), US Attorney General Eric Holder stepped forward to say that the federal government will recognize the marriages of the 1,300 couples.

 It was 2008 when California won the right to marriage equality before a ballot initiative stripped same-sex couples of the right to marry. But, this proved to be only a temporary setback. It was a delay that lasted 5 years as the case wound its way through the California Supreme Court, the US Circuit Court of Appeals court, and, eventually, was resolved last year at the Supreme Court.

 At that time, the justices were not willing to make a ruling on the question of whether or not banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional beyond the borders of California. But, this certainly begs the question of Utah. In light of the imbalance of recognition for same-sex couples (living in Utah and other non-marriage equality states) at the state and federal level, something’s gotta give. And, perhaps it will be Utah — the beehive state — that will be the tipping point for full marriage recognition.

Photo credit: Stark Bellamy Photography

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