Standing Up For Marriage Equality

Rev Starlene Joyner BurnsMy favorite thing about being on the road and speaking with wedding professionals about LGBTQ couples is to hear their personal experiences about working with gay and lesbian couples and dialoging with them about best practices.

Recently, I met up with Rev. Starlene Joyner Burns, who owns The DC Marriage Knot and The Chapel of Love Ceremonies and marries couples in the Washington DC area (or the “DMV” as many locals refer to it). We had a fascinating conversation about her experience as a marriage equality ally and I invited her to share her experience with a wider audience.

It all began, she says, back in 2004 when she first decided to perform same-sex ceremonies. She was in seminary and one of her instructors asked her graduating class who would perform same-sex ceremonies. “My hand,” she said, “was the only one that went up out of a class of 12 students.”

When you ‘came out’ as an ally, how did your clientele respond?

I have always been open about my position on same sex weddings. But same sex marriages are not the same as a commitment ceremony. This is not something that I can document or track, I can only look at the numbers. From 2004 – 2010, my clients in my home area (Prince George’s County, MD) were predominantly African-American and their ceremonies took place in PG County or the Baltimore area.

When marriage equality came to DC, I did a lot of same sex ceremonies for out-of-towners, but I was not overwhelmed. There was a great divide between religious Black clergy and gay and lesbian people.

After my public outing in 2012, that changed even more. The healing between same-sex couples and Black clergy was still an issue. My popularity in PG County plummeted with heterosexual couples. And I was still not heavily sought out by same-gender loving couples either. I went from serving 98% African American to about 28%.

Tell me a bit more about the push back and support you received.

Unlike Christians that got support from like-minded people for upholding the anti-gay agenda, or clergy who officiated a same-sex marriage and got fired, the only support I received was words of encouragement from couples whose ceremonies I had performed. They were the only ones who knew what my ministry was going through because I used my Facebook page to vent my frustrations.

How would you characterize attitudes/beliefs about same-sex marriage in the Black community here in the DMV? Nationwide?

In my opinion, African-Americans attitudes towards same-sex marriages are no different than any other racial group. Americans are Americans, and they are divided in two groups. Those who are for same-sex marriage and those who are against it. We need to step away from the racial divide on this issue.

How would you characterize the way that the larger national wedding market (and its brands) embrace diversity?

I think many vendors in the wedding industry feel obligated to serve all couples. Some of them will privately say that they will not serve same sex couples, as if it’s ok. So I will never refer a couple to a vendor that will deny them.

What is the greatest struggle that LGBT couples who are also African-American face today?

I don’t think this is a racial thing. Many LGBT couples face the same obstacles, acceptance from family is the first. I have spoken with couples from many ethnic backgrounds that struggle with family acceptance. If the family embraces the relationship, it does not matter who else does not. Family acceptance equates to personal acceptance.

Would you say that there have been shifts in anti-gay / pro-gay marriage sentiments in the past few years? What has contributed to that change?

Yes, there has been a shift in anti-gay marriage sentiments. People are seeing that same sex marriage is no ones business but the couple whether or not they agree. And pro-gay marriage sentiments have shifted greatly, because now people are feeling free to be who they are and recognized as a married couple. Dreams are coming true and prayers are being answered. When laws change, people change. We all need to be thankful to organizations, politicians, and clergy who worked hard to bring marriage equality to fruition.

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