Same-sex couples break from, cling to wedding traditions

Tracy Staples, left, and Bob Zuber of Black Walnut Point Inn.

On July 21, at Washington, D.C.'s Carnegie Institution, Tanya Tucker and Rose Gray each walked down separate aisles toward the building's rotunda, where they would be married.

"I walked out toward Rose, and it was like the first time seeing her," says Tanya. "I felt so lucky, blessed and excited."

Starting Tuesday, gay couples in Maryland will be able to experience the same wedded bliss. With the passage of Question 6 in November, Maryland became one of the first states, along with Maine and Washington, to pass a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage.

Soon after, engaged same-sex couples began facing such pressing issues as: When? Where? Whom to hire? Whom to invite? What to wear? How traditional (or not)?

Some couples set a date immediately, while others are just starting to plan.

"I think there's going to be a huge surge right away," predicts Wendy Braswell, who runs Full Moon Marketing & Events and with business partner Malinda Davis.

An initial bump has been seen elsewhere. In the first six months after the Netherlands legalized gay marriage, same-sex ceremonies accounted for 3.6 percent of all weddings. The number later plateaued around 3 percent.

Some Maryland couples will tie the knot as early as Tuesday, at a group ceremony at Black Walnut Point Inn on Tilghman Island. Inn owners Bob Zuber and Tracy Staples will be among the 50 or so couples getting married that day.

Many of the first weddings booked in 2013 are for couples who have been together for a long time, experts say.

Couples who have been living together for years "may almost feel silly" hosting a large wedding, says Davis, who married her wife, Lori Smyth, in Washington in 2011, on their 14th anniversary. Some data support the idea of established couples preferring smaller ceremonies. A little over a third of same-sex ceremonies went without wedding parties, according to a 2011 survey fielded by the Gay Wedding Institute, founded by 14 Stories wedding consultancy owner Bernadette Coveney Smith, based in Massachusetts.

Says inn owner Staples: "A lot of people want to do something small, with their friends. We've booked a few weddings on couples' anniversary dates. Most are already married in their minds, but they have days they celebrate together."

Many couples, like Tucker and Gray, don't feel hidebound to custom, either.

"Whenever someone said to us, 'It isn't tradition to do such and such,' we replied that we're two women getting married, so we don't have to stick to tradition!" says Tucker, laughing.

The two eschewed traditional wedding elements such as the cake — they opted for desserts instead — and not seeing each other before the ceremony.

"Many same-sex couples I work with choose to get ready together," says their wedding planner, Stacy Heit of Washington's SassEvents. "It's a great opportunity to bond that relieves some anxiety."

Nearly all same-sex couples get ready together before the wedding, according to the Gay Wedding Institute. Still, attire is one of the most complicated issues of wedding planning, especially for lesbian couples, according to 14 Stories' Smith.

"Among 58 percent of lesbian couples, one or both partners wear a suit or a tuxedo," she says. "When the time comes to shop, the options are limited. When they have the budget, they can find something custom. Otherwise, they end up having to alter a men's suit, which can be pretty unflattering."

Smith has recently launched a clothing line, 14 Style, to address the lack of choices.

"We went back and forth on attire for quite a while," says Tucker. "The decision was really based on what each of us would be most comfortable in. We also had to think about how we would complement each other but not be matchy-matchy."

After much deliberation, Tucker opted for a white pantsuit and Gray wore a cream-colored dress, both with a bit of sparkle.

Working with Heit, Tucker and Gray created a vintage travel theme for the ceremony, using old suitcases and cameras as décor, and providing vintage postcards for guests to write their advice and wishes for the couple.

A "visual merchandising" approach, instead of traditional flower décor, is a popular option, according to Candy Borales, of D.C.'s Candy+Co., who says many couples are "interested in making their wedding look like a showroom or display window."

For many, personalization is key, too, says Borales: "Everything from the printed items to their wedding attire are branded with the couple's initials or in keeping with their customized theme."

The officiant can also add to the effort to make the day special.

"When the person performing the wedding is a friend," says Heit, "it adds such a sentimental touch to the ceremony."

Though nearly all same-sex weddings are conducted in secular environments, according to the Gay Wedding Institute, some religious sites are available. The Conservative branch of American Judaism recently approved same-sex marriage.

Connecticut-based photographer Kelly Prizel has shot weddings in religious settings, including Episcopalian churches and under a Hindu mandap. In time, she says, "I expect to see more religious same-sex ceremonies."

Although couples are moving forward with same-sex weddings, some eliminate certain elements, such as the first dance or kiss, if they are concerned they may make guests uncomfortable, say wedding planners. Borales, for instance, coordinated a small, elegant wedding at Washington's Hay-Adams Hotel for two men in their late 40s. She suggested they exit the reception to a pedi-cab, waiting to whisk them on a tour of the city.

"I'll never forget the uncomfortable way one of them asked me, 'If we're in a pedi-cab, people will see us, right?' He was fearful of the perceived judgment they may incur."

Ultimately, the men skipped the pedi-cab but exited the reception through an aisle lined by cheering friends. Though their faces were beet-red, says Borales, they had "huge smiles."

For same-sex couples, vendor selection can come with additional challenges.

"Planning a wedding is super stressful anyway," says Braswell. "And when you're [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender], you have to come out to each of your vendors." She and Davis started as a way to help same-sex couples easily identify gay-friendly wedding vendors.

All vendors included on the website sign a document pledging non-discrimination and undergo an education process. Similarly, Baltimore's tourism website,, features lists of gay-friendly hotels and other venues.

The bottom line for couples planning same-sex weddings will be familiar to anyone who's suffered a Bridezilla (or Groomzilla) moment.

"Never forget what brought you to this point!" says Heit. "Planning can be stressful and getting bogged down in the details makes it easy to get into little tiffs. When that happens, take a step back and remember that you're planning the day that celebrates your love and your future together."

So you're planning a same-sex wedding

Seek out LGBT resources. Websites such as and are good places to start the vendor search.

Clearly communicate. "We made sure we were transparent in all of our initial inquiries with vendors," says Tanya Tucker. "That way there were no surprises moving forward."

Look for experience. Though early on, many Maryland vendors will not have much experience with same-sex ceremonies, ask. In addition, on websites like, vendors often list same-sex wedding experience.

Read carefully. "Look for gender-neutral language on websites and marketing materials," suggests Kelly Prizel. Same-sex photos are also a promising indicator.

Choose quality. "Just because a vendor defines themselves as LGBT-friendly does not mean they're qualified as a planner or caterer," warns Candy Borales. "Do your due diligence and choose the most qualified candidate that you feel a connection to. Don't be afraid to ask for a reference."

Keep a sense of humor. "While we found that most folks in the wedding business didn't care one bit that we were a same-sex couple, it doesn't mean that from time to time they didn't fall back into the traditional roles of bride and groom, or even over-compensate," Tucker says. "Unless something is totally disrespectful, give folks a break. They're trying."