Same Sex Wedding Tips for All Couples

*This post has been adapted from Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s book, Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional Twenty-First Century Weddings.

Marriage equality is flourishing across the United States, yielding more same-sex weddings than ever before. But unlike “traditional” straight couples, same-sex couples have no templates or roadmaps to fall back on when planning their nuptials. Here I share a few ideas – some from my own experience – for navigating the unknown terrain of same-sex weddings, all of which will help any couple (gay or straight) who want to celebrate individuality over tradition.

Your Wedding Challenges are Opportunities
With no GPS to lead the way, you and your fiancé are forced to ask yourselves three important questions:
1. What are we doing?
2. Why are we doing it?
3. How do we make it happen?

Same-sex couples have always been forced to be awake at the wheel of their relationships and marriages. I feel it’s because they have had to fight for recognition in the face of adversity. So – along with straight couples who deviate from the norm – think of your wedding-planning challenges as opportunities to create meaningful celebrations on your own terms.

Incorporate Guests Into Your Story, Not the Other Way Around
Assemble a menagerie of faces that make you feel like you. And choose not to invite anyone who might compromise your event with what I call ‘Overtly Toxic Prejudice’: a reflexive, pernicious need to induce shame in those they do not understand. Anyone down with OTP does not have a place at your wedding.

By taking charge of your guest list, you also empower yourself to bring people into your world, on your terms. For instance, when family members slip up and call your event a “party,” just remind them how important the day is for you, how important the word “wedding” is, and how meaningful it will be for you to share it with them.

Remember, you are inviting them into your story as a couple, not contorting yourself to fit into theirs.

Personalize, Rewrite, or Create New Rituals
You get to think about which wedding rituals you like, which you do not, and which are rooted in the tradition of brides as property (which are many of them). You then get to decide which of those rituals, if any, tell your story. If none do, you can always create your own, and then celebrate them in your own way.

Here are some examples:

The Proposal. You can reenact a “traditional” proposal where one proposes to the other on bended knee. But you can also invent a refreshing proposal of your own. And you can cast yourself in the role of proposer, proposed to, or both.

For example, my husband and I invented Proposal Week: a mini-vacation during which we agreed to psyche each other out with almost-proposals at various dinners and excursions until it spontaneously happened for real. Instead of exchanging rings, we created a symbolic video featuring the people in our tribes and emailed it to them. It served as both our engagement announcement and our save the date.

Parties. Have a shower, a bachelor(ette) party, or any other pre-wedding bash if you want. Whatever you end up doing (i.e., cake decorating classes, wine tasting, bar hopping, or bungy jumping) just make sure you actually have fun and that the party symbolizes who you are, independent of your spouse-to-be.

The Wedding Party. And speaking of parties, you get to decide who you want to represent you on the big day, without the gender binary getting in the way. That means that unlike many brides and grooms in the past, you get to choose bridesmen, groomsgals, or any other attendant in your wedding ensemble without the oppressive rule of “boys on this side of the aisle, girls on that side.”

What is also trending is not settling on any specific color theme for attire; don’t feel the pressure to have everyone in the wedding party match ensembles. For example, for our New England fall wedding, my husband and I chose to wear non-matching brown suits and asked our parties to wear any fall leaf color of their choosing. It was wonderful to watch the autumnal ensemble flurry their way down the aisle.

The Ceremony. Don’t feel as though you have to abandon tradition altogether. There may be aspects of sectarian customs that inspire you. For example, my husband and I both grew up going to Christian churches, and though we are not religious now, we liked some of the aesthetics of the services. We chose classic texts that reflected stories like ours – drawn from Gilgamesh and Plato – as well as church-like music selections that felt personal, from Philip Glass and Sinead O’Connor. Our spiritual guests not only got to reflect on our love, but also had no idea the service wasn’t taken from the Bible.

The Reception. Do you need to smash cake in each other’s faces? No. So if you don’t want to, don’t. If you want a first dance, do it: fast or slow, just the two of you, or with everyone as a big group. And if you want to dance with parents, why not go ahead and dance with your same-sex counterpart?

Your Wedding is a Performance
Don’t be afraid to embrace the limelight. It’s your day, so you should enjoy it.

That being said, you’ll want to prepare for show time the way actors do for a play. Allow yourself to daydream about each stage of the wedding ahead of time. Fantasize about the attention you will receive each step of the way, and how nice it will be to take that in. The more you are prepared to enjoy the attention, the better time you’ll have and the better time your guests will have. Trust me.

Also, don’t be thrown by relatives who may cringe at the sight of you kissing your beloved at the altar, your PDA in photographs or on the dance floor, your choice of outfit, or any other way in which you choose to enjoy the spotlight. These “traditional” or conservative relatives might induce inhibiting shame in you. Don’t let them. They are not the arbiters of appropriate. They simply suffer from what I call ‘Spotlight Ambivalence’: mixed feelings about exposing truth when it challenges the norm, causing folks to object when you take center stage. It’s about them, not about you.

But you might be able to actually glean tips from these same relatives. Ask them about their weddings and conflicts they had with their relatives when planning them. You might disarm them and find connections in unexpected places.

What You Take In Is More Important Than What You Put Out
Whether we’re straight or gay, we all face the exact same wedding dilemma: How to celebrate who we are and who we love, and how to take our crucial people along with us for the ride. The ensemble you assemble will nourish you – if you mentally prepare to take them in.

Don’t Just Ask Bruce Jenner for Answers, Ask Yourself

*This post first appeared on Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly.

Last week Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman on the ABC news program 20/20, satisfying many inquiring minds. But more enlightening to me than the answers in that interview were the questions — questions we should be directing more at ourselves than at Jenner.

Interviewer Diane Sawyer accommodated our curiosity about Jenner with her reputed preparedness and warmth. She informed us about the differences between gender and sexuality; drew our attention to the many marginalized transgender and gender non-conforming people among us; and advised us not to assume the pronouns by which any one of us prefers to be identified. (She pointed out that, for the moment, Jenner prefers he/him/his.)

But it was Sawyer’s moments of palpable perplexity that most awakened us to some truly central questions: How do gender identity, orientation and expression effect each of our own lives?

“Help everyone struggling with what this is…” says Sawyer, her eyes squinting searchingly through discomfort. Later in the interview she struggles some more, saying, “Again, it’s the confusion inside this because if you’re assigned male…” Jenner’s eyes flicker with hard-earned wisdom and good humor as he follows her question. “…and you become female…” Sawyer continues to wrestle with the conundrum, her hands rocking from side to side as Jenner nods playfully in unison. Sawyer struggles on, “But you like women…are you a het…erosexual who…” Jenner rescues Sawyer from her confusion with a clear educational answer about the difference between sexuality (“who you are attracted to”) and gender identity (“who you are”).

But the real answer is in his eyes. It is simply, “Yes.” Not “Yes, Diane. You nailed it,” but rather, Yes, this is a truth that cannot be nailed. A truth without definitive answers. A truth that forces us to rock from side to side. Not just Jenner’s truth, but our own.

Do you ever ask yourself what masculine or feminine expressions or mannerisms make you feel most safe, comfortable, authentic, free or good? Do you check in with yourself about what turns you on sexually? Do the answers to any of these questions evoke fear in you? If so, have you asked yourself why?

Bruce Jenner has wrestled with these questions for his entire life, mostly while in the public eye, and this makes him a valuable resource for those who want to better understand how gender and sexuality impact our lives. But we can’t rely on Jenner alone to enlighten us. Sure, we benefit from his story. As Sawyer says, “We think it is a story that can only be told by someone who lived it.” But we also have stories of our own. We must struggle with our own questions — the way Sawyer’s confused hands do at moments in the interview — with our own fears and discomforts, in order to better tell our own stories.

By questioning and shattering the stories that have been imposed on each of us, we allow ourselves the opportunity to reassemble the fragments — as Jenner has done — into a mosaic of our own creation. We give ourselves room to live with freedom, with authenticity and with a sense of integration.

And, at the same time, we also develop greater empathy for those, like Jenner, whose crucial need to live outside the norm is more obvious than most.

The more we understand our own relationships to gender, the less we scapegoat our marginalized sisters and brothers who are targeted, discriminated against and attacked. By better understanding the fears we harbor about gender nonconformity in our own bodies and souls, the better we can answer the question, What is more frightening, the sight of a gender nonconforming person, or getting beaten to death? 

Too many transgender people are regularly stigmatized, discriminated against, assaulted and murdered. They need our advocacy, support and protection. But fear of the unknown too often sways our thoughts toward the known instead, toward the majority of cisgender people — those who feel a match between their assigned sex and the gender they feel they are. Too many of us empathize more with the “normals” who get startled, flummoxed or bothered upon spotting transgender folks in restrooms, rather than the transgender persons themselves. (BTW, when trans people enter bathrooms, like you they most likely just want to pee).

The fear of gender nonconformity and the fear of physical attack are not the same thing. You or your child could very well be targeted in a public restroom. But should that occur–and I hope it does not–gender nonconforming clothing and/or behaviors are not likely to be the clues that tip you off to the perpetrator. In fact the opposite is far more likely to be true. (Statistics show that trans people are more likely to be victims of murder and assault than any other minority group.) Knowing the difference between your own fear of gender nonconformity and your own fear of attack will make you better able to protect yourself, your children and also your gender-variant friends and family when any of you are in danger.

An excellent new collaborative performance art project, called Gender/Power, addresses these very issues and assists in exploring them. Led by Maya Ciarrocchi and Kris Grey, the project’s goal is to not only elevate the “experience of being transgender away from medicalization and pathology,” but also to reveal “gender injustice as an insidious cultural condition in need of reformation.”

I attended a performance in March in New York City, and I found it to be revelatory, especially by the way it implicated my fellow audience members and me. As the piece opened, we were escorted into a room with several screens showing images of gender nonconforming bodies standing still. As there was no seating we all stood, squinting through discomfort like Diane Sawyer during the Bruce Jenner interview. But what was making us uncomfortable? The bodies we were watching? Not knowing which of them was female and which male? The stillness? The not knowing what would happen next? As we rocked from side to side in uncertainty, I witnessed men standing defensively with tense (strong?) arms crossed in front of their chest. I saw women fidgeting and rolling their eyes in awkwardness (girliness?). Every one of us clung for dear life to the gender expressions with which we were most familiar — a desperate grasp for control, for security, for an escape from the confusion.

The performers then entered the space and each shared narratives about their own struggles to reconcile gender with their own bodies and souls. Across the performance they seemed to swap narratives, effectively disorienting us but also disarming us, awakening us to the liberating possibilities available to each of us when the rigid walls of “normal,” of binary, of “man” and “woman,” are torn down.

As the piece came to a close, the performers stood in silence once again — this time live, as opposed to on a screen — staring at each of us, forcing us to confront our own genders, bodies and souls, emboldening us with our own questions.

We will all be more enlightened, more aware, less afraid, less on the attack and more prepared for attack, if we direct our questions about gender expression not just to the people who stand out, but also to the bodies we stand in. To ourselves.