The wedding of Eva and Stephanie at the Interlaken Inn in Lakeville, Connecticut on July 12, 2009. Zupcuphotography.com
It was a sunny day in February 2004 when New Paltz Mayor Jason West resided over the marriages of 25 same-sex couples. Though the unions were not recognized by the state, the stance Mayor West and each participant took toward equal rights for all couples made a resounding statement that echoed across the country. And when same-sex marriage was legalized in New York last June, local residents and the national media alike recalled that momentous day; in less than a decade, a daring dream had become reality.
When the legislation passed there was an initial rush of weddings, and service providers—from florists to officiants—suddenly had the opportunity to set the standard for new traditions.
“It’s a whole new world of weddings and we’re so thrilled to be wandering through it,” says Laurie Beckmann, owner of the Appel Inn and wedding planning business A Gracious Event in Altamont. “One of the most exciting parts is that it’s not just your typical white wedding anymore. We did a wedding for a female couple—both dads wanted to walk their daughters down the aisle so we did a double aisle and had them enter side by side. There are no more set rules.”
While A Gracious Event is only a year old, Beckmann’s been hosting weddings at the inn since 1983. She offers full-service wedding guidance, including outfitting, invitations, directing the ceremony, booking honeymoons, and suggesting other professionals to suit the couple. She’s also planned a new office for A Gracious Event that will feature a wedding library, packed with numerous inspirational books to help all couples plan their weddings.
Since there isn’t currently a large market that caters to same-sex weddings, Beckmann says a big concern with female couples has been deciding what to wear. “With women it’s sometimes a bit of a struggle because there aren’t many options right now,” she says. “The problem is usually that some dresses are too feminine and most suits are too severe for the couple’s tastes. We got lucky though and found a fabulous long, brocaded jacket and tailored slacks for one woman who wanted a suit. There are options, but they’re harder to find right now.”
Though the times are changing, traditional wedding choices haven’t been entirely thrown out the window. Green Cottage, a florist in Stone Ridge, provided arrangements for four same-sex weddings last year. Dennis Nutley, who co-owns the shop with his partner David Urso, says seasonal colors are the most popular floral themes.
Nutley says the couples he’s worked with end up choosing what they feel represents themselves, more than what’s expected of a gender. “With the women we’ve worked with, there’s been a traditional-looking bride with a bouquet and one woman in a suit with a boutonniere; not two women with bouquets,” he says. “For guys, white’s been thrown out the window. They want color. Except pink—they tend to have a strong aversion to pink.”
Nutley says he also noticed that some of the couples didn’t know where to begin. “It was kind of surprising at first to see them floundering a bit when it came to making a decision; we’re used to working directly with a bride who’s been dreaming of her wedding since she was a little girl and has everything she wants already scripted in her mind,” he says. “But some of the guys were at a total loss because they never thought they’d be able to get married. So we just sat down and played. Everyone I worked with had really good taste, so I told them to think about it as though they were throwing a really nice party at their home.”
Marriages Built to Last And this is another common trend among same-sex couples planning their wedding: they’re making all of their decisions together. This is sometimes because many have been together so long that they’re used to making decisions as a pair. “I’m finding that most same-sex couples have been together much longer than the heterosexual couples I perform ceremonies for,” says Puja Thomson, an ordained minister of natural healing through the Healing Light Center Church, and owner of Roots & Wings, a wellness organization. “It doesn’t seem as though they’re just getting married at the blush of love. But all couples have the same issues—the same love that brings us together, or the same fears of commitment. Communication and trust are just as important no matter who you are.”
When Rev. Thomson meets with couples, she has them fill out a form that tells how they met, what they appreciate in each other, their shared values, what vows they want to make, and other thought-provoking questions to see how each person looks at life, love, and his or her relationship. Although she’s done about five same-sex wedding ceremonies since it became legal, in the past she’s performed many more civil ceremonies of love and commitment. One couple in particular loved their civil ceremony so much they called her the night legislation went through. “I picked up the phone and said ‘I know why you’re calling,’” Thomson says. “And they said they wanted to do a legal ceremony. For couples that have had a civil ceremony but want to make it legal, we look at the previous ceremony, then decide what they would like to carry forward. It’s kind of a renewal of vows—while making it legal on paper.”
A Monk, a Priest, a Rabbi, and a Pirate Walk into a Bar
The Rev. Stuart Chernoff, better known as entertainer and musician Studio Stu, also has experience with performing civil ceremonies, but from a slightly different approach. “I do very modern wedding ceremonies,” he says. “I am ordained, but my background is in entertainment, so I try to give a theatrical ceremony. When I come up with a ceremony, I start from scratch and give the couple what they want; I’ll speak in another language for foreign family members, or get dressed up—I’ve been a monk, a priest, a rabbi, a pirate.”
When Kingston’s Stockade Tavern held a Wedding Day at Stockade event for anyone who wanted to get married, Chernoff performed the ceremonies and invited many same-sex couples to participate. “I’ve never understood why anyone would be opposed to any two people getting married,” Chernoff says. “What, you’re a one-armed, Hindu lesbian from Brooklyn and you wanna get married? Get married!”
And while he does try to keep it light, Chernoff doesn’t undermine what the ceremonies are about. “Even with all my jokes, the wedding is not frivolous; it’s something very spiritual and important to me,” he says. “It’s about the intent and the commitment. I want to make everyone feel welcome and uplifted.”
The humorous side of weddings appeals to wedding videographers Heidi Sjursen and her husband/business partner Jeffrey Abell; for the past five years the couple have owned I Do Movies in Woodstock, for which they produce documentary-style videos. “We decided to give my friend a wedding documentary as a gift,” Sjursen explains, “so we went to her wedding with two cameras, filmed it, cut it, gave it to her; then she showed her friends, her friends hired us, and the whole thing just snowballed into a business.”
The pair was invited to Big Gay Hudson Valley’s wedding expo last September because it was thought their unique style would appeal to the LGBTQ community. “We don’t usually do expos because they tend to be a little stuffy, but we were like ‘Hell yeah!’ to this one,” Sjursen says. “We had a good time explaining what we do, which is split up with the individual partners as they get ready, film throughout the ceremony and reception, and capture whatever’s happening—all the details. Especially the humor—there are always funny moments and we don’t want to leave them out. We feel like that represents more couples a lot better than some boring showing of ‘This is what happened,’ like other videos tend to do.”
The 4,000-square-foot Celebration Chapel is a nondenominational space for weddings in Kingston. Photo: Paul Joffe.
And that sentiment—allowing couples to show their true selves—is important to many LGBTQ pairs. The Celebration Chapel in Kingston does just that: It’s a gorgeous, spacious chapel not associated with any one religion or philosophy. As owner Paul Joffe puts it: “It’s a place to come and have celebrations.”
In 2005, Joffe was looking for a place to live in Greene County, and in his searches found a church for sale on the Rondout. He purchased the 150-year-old building, which was in shoddy shape after sitting vacant for eight years. The 200-foot-tall steeple had to be completely rebuilt, but Joffe tried to use as many original materials as possible for the rest of the building. The original bell, organ, and Tiffany windows remain intact. “When I first bought the church, it was around the time that the legalization of same-sex marriage was being discussed—it was a little after the New Paltz weddings,” he says. “So when we finished renovations last year, even though it was ready to be opened to the public much earlier, we decided that we would officially open it the day legislation went through. And since then, we’ve already done a bunch of same-sex weddings.”
Joffe says each of these ceremonies has been completely different from the others, and none have been what most would call traditional. “One couple, two men in their 90s who had been together for 41 years, set up stuff from their home—little sentiments from their life—around the chapel during their ceremony. They loved trains so much that one of them wore a conductor’s outfit,” Joffe recalls. “Another couple had a very casual wedding with just a few people in their street clothes. Each wedding has been very unique to the couple’s taste.”
Each pair is set up with the chapel’s wedding planner, JoAnn Provenzano, to help coordinate the wedding. The 4,000-square-foot chapel seats around 300 people for ceremonies, but with a full commercial kitchen downstairs, couples can choose to have their reception there, too. And Joffe says he welcomes couples from across the country. “We’re becoming known nationally as a place where everyone can get married. We opened with that in mind,” he says. “Our intention was so that everyone can feel comfortable using the place for any celebration.”
Rose Schaller Photography in Middletown aims to reach the same goal: “My style is more natural and relaxed so that everyone feels they can just be themselves,” says owner Rose Schaller. “I’ll usually meet them at home, document them doing things they enjoy—cooking, going for a hike, hanging out, the usual. Then we do formal portraits and some detail shots, with the rings and other sentiments.”
Schaller is associated with LGBTQ-friendly affiliation sites, such as Purple Unions and other companies, to let people know she’s open to working with all types of couples. “There are some national chains that will help direct same-sex couples to businesses they’re affiliated with, so the couple can be sure they found supportive professionals to work with,” Schaller says. “I can say I’m blessed to photograph any couple while they’re at their happiest—when there are no forced interactions; no matter who the couple is, they don’t have to go by other notions of who they should be, they can just be themselves. And I’m just really happy same-sex couples now have the same rights as heterosexuals to share love and plan their lives together.”