In June 2008, a mutual friend introduced Brad Murray and Phil Blackman. To this day, they’re not sure why he thought they’d be compatible. But whatever his reasons, he was right. Their connection, Murray says, “was pretty instant.”
About five years later, talk turned to marriage. But it was still a year and a half before North Carolina would recognize their union. Their nearest option in March 2013 was Washington, D.C., which had legalized same-sex marriage three years earlier. So that’s where they went.
“We were in love and we got married when we wanted to get married,” Murray says.
But they also wanted a ceremony and reception in North Carolina. They wanted their mothers to walk them down the aisle (to acoustic renditions of Lady Gaga) and for six of their closest male and female friends to stand alongside them as they said “I do.” They wanted to make traditions work for them.
But when they sent the women in the group out with a color palette (light gray) and a mission to find a dress, a conundrum quickly presented itself: the paperwork for ordering their dresses asked for the name of the bride, but there was no bride in the wedding, nor were there bridesmaids. (“I think once we jokingly called them groomsmaids,” Murray says.)
All told, it was a minor hiccup in the planning of their North Carolina-themed celebration, complete with fried chicken biscuits and a fireworks show courtesy of the state fair. But the episode goes to show the many ways in which the idea of a marriage being between one man and one woman is ingrained in the institution itself, codified in the vocabulary of the industry.
And nearly two years after same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, it remains that way.
From 1996 until 2014, North Carolina explicitly denied gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. Amendment 1, which was approved by 61 percent of voters in 2012, added to the state’s constitution that North Carolina would only recognize marriages between one man and one woman, doubling down on existing state law.
In October 2014, a federal judge ruled these laws unconstitutional. Since the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, state-level marriage bans had been falling like dominoes. By the time the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015, maintaining that marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution, only thirteen states had same-sex marriage bans intact.
After Obergefell, analysts estimated that the additional weddings would add another $2.5 billion annually to what is already a $51 billion wedding industry. Of that, North Carolina was expected to see an additional $66 million in revenue, including direct wedding spending and increased tourism revenues from out-of-town guests, according to NerdWallet. The financial advice site predicted that the economic impact of marriage equality would only grow as same-sex marriage became more accepted.
When same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina, the local wedding industry was “abuzz,” says Jenna Parks, copublisher and director of sales of the Triangle-based Southern Bride & Groom magazine. “From my experience, I have seen that the vast majority of the local wedding industry for the most part was thrilled that same-sex couples were finally given the rights that they deserved.”
For the planners, venues, photographers, caterers, and djs that make up North Carolina’s $1.7 billion wedding industry, few functional changes were required to accommodate same-sex marriages; the wedding industry is already built around making each couple feel unique. Nontraditional weddings, swapping churches for rustic barns and refurbished factories, are no longer a niche market, and just about everythingfrom gowns to social-media-ready wedding hashtagscan be made custom.
Some traditions, says the Reverend Bonnie J. Berger, a gay interfaith wedding officiant who has performed about seven hundred marriages since she was ordained in 2006, including Murray and Blackman’s D.C. nuptials, don’t exactly translate to same-sex weddings. For instance, couples she’s worked with have chosen all kinds of variations on the standard “I now pronounce you man and wife.”
“A lot of them make things up, and I think that’s sort of the beauty of it,” Berger says. “A lot of folks want to stay traditional, but a lot of folks want to break out of that.”
Berger, who officiated the first same-sex marriage in Washington, D.C. and now lives in Chapel Hill, has also helped couples tailor customs when their relatives don’t want to participate in their wedding. “For many couples, unfortunately, the immediate family doesn’t approve of the couple getting married, which is very sad,” Berger says. “But I’ve seen it a lot, and I think here in North Carolina, I’m going to see it more because folks have grown up in a more religious, traditional background.”
When same-sex marriage first became legal in North Carolina, Parks says, “there was a lot of initial talk of is this going to be its own marketing avenue.” Southern Bride & Groom, which was already featuring same-sex weddings in its pages and online, created a dedicated section of its website. “In tracking that page and through speaking with the local wedding community members who directly serve couples, we have not noticed a very large interest in separate marketing on the topic. When it comes down to it, same-sex wedding traditions are the same as heterosexual weddings, so their planning process is the same.”
Cindy Sproul, cofounder of the Weaverville-based Rainbow Wedding Network, which puts on about twenty-five LGBTQ wedding expos in thirty-three states each year, says she hasn’t really seen any new products or services come about because of marriage equality. (Same-sex cake toppers are still woefully hard to find, she says.) Attendance at the expos, however, is up, as is the number of vendors participating.
Since the election of President Trump, Sproul says, attendance is up about 30 percent. She says five thousand people have come through the doors at the ten events the company has held so far this year. Couples are concerned about their rights being taken away; they’re also worried about being rejected by vendors and venues. At an LGBTQ-centered expo, they don’t have to wonder how they’ll be received.
And they’re spending more money tooas much as $15,000 more than couples did in 2015.
Immediately after Obergefell, the events saw an influx of longtime couples who had been waiting to make their union official. “Now we’re getting couples that are recently engaged,” Sproul says, “but after the election, in the first part of this year, we’ve had a lot of couples say, ‘We were going to get married in 2018, but we’re going to push it up.’”
Beth Cooper never wanted to get married.
“Marriage is just a huge deal,” she says. “In my own life, there’s just a lot of divorce around me, and it just always felt like this big thing that I stayed away from.” Then she met Sara Broderick and found herself one night over dinner saying, “You don’t know it yet, but you’re going to marry me.”
“In my relationship with Sara, the thought of it was not scary,” she says. “It was just something to me that felt very natural.”
They got married in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 2014. It was a quick ceremony with an officiant they found online and met at a Starbucks.
“As time went on, I think Sara really missed being in a space where everyone could see that we were married, so she started to talk about having a marriage celebration,” Cooper says.
They started planning for an October 2016 bash. The formality of traditions felt too stiff for them. They just wanted a good party.
They found a venuethe Stockroom in Raleigh. At first, the contract for the space asked for the name of the bride and groom. But when Cooper and Broderick returned to sign the paperwork, the staff had changed it to say bride and bride. Similarly, when Broderick, a graphic designer, started a website for the event, she had to have the template tweaked to accommodate two brides.
Sproul says the wording of vendor forms can signal a lot to a couple.
“Are they trying to tell me something, or have they just not gotten around to it?” she says. As Sproul explains, we are “conditioned” to speak about weddings in terms of bride and groom. Bridesmaids, groomsmen, bridal partyyou get the idea. “Language is a big, big part of it,” Sproul says.
Parks remembers going to seminars after Obergefell where attendees were advised not to use the terms bride and groom. It’s not lost on her that the name of her magazine includes those terms, but she hopes readers will see that it “still covers bride and bride, groom and groom.”
These conventions don’t just reflect the idea of marriage as a heterosexual institution; they also tend to reinforce gender normsa bride in a white dress, the groom in a suit.
Cooper says she was asked a few times during the planning process what the groom’s name was or what her husband does for a living. Broderick sought out a tailor after she couldn’t find a suit to fit her body shape. A florist stumbled momentarily over how to apply the traditional bouquet and boutonniere package to this particular pair.
“For a moment she looks at me and is like, ‘Are you going to have a bouquet? Are you both going to have a bouquet?” Cooper says. “I guess maybe I present more girly.”
George Alwon and Francisco Chavez had a lot on their minds as they walked into the Wake County Courthouse on July 1, 2016. Would a magistrate refuse to perform their wedding, as they are allowed to do in North Carolina if they have a “sincerely held religious objection”? Would there be comments about their forty-one-year age difference, or the fact that Alwon is American and Chavez a Mexican immigrant?
Growing up in Brooklyn, Alwon was disenchanted with over-the-top weddings. Getting married was “never on my radar,” he says. In Chavez’s native Oaxaca, the concept of a stereotypical wedding carried no negative connotations. Weddings were a community event. They started talking about marriage last winter, but it was Trump’s campaign that gave them the final push.
Chavez, thirty-one, came to North Carolina as an undocumented immigrant in 1997. He was afraid he would get deported and be separated from Alwon. Although he had been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he worried even DACA recipients wouldn’t be spared from Trump’s pledge to ramp up immigration enforcement. They had been together eleven years, but now marriage took on an urgency.
So they got in line behind the other couples at the courthouse. Each mini-ceremony was followed by applause from the group. Would they clap for Alwon and Chavez? Should they kiss?
“It was kind of awkward because when we got there, there were other couples getting married,” Alwon says. “Straight couples only, singing Bible songs.”
When they got to the front of the line, the magistrate performed their wedding just like all the others. She pronounced them married and said, “You may kiss.”
They kissed. Everyone clapped.
In North Carolina, fears surrounding the anti-LGBTQ nature of House Bill 2 have not been eradicated even though the “bathroom bill” has been replaced. Sproul says she’s often asked about it at expos in other states. Earlier this month, a handful of legislators felt emboldened enough to file a bill that would again ban same-sex marriage in North Carolina. It was dead on arrival, but its message came across nonetheless.
“We have seen the evolution of marriage equality from absolutely nothing to full-blown equality, but in a lot of ways we’re taking a step backward,” Sproul says. “And I’ve heard more this year than I’ve heard in a long time, ‘Boy, we’re being very careful on who we’re hiring.’”
Ever since their North Carolina-themed celebration, Blackman and Murray have wanted to run their own wedding venue.
“He enjoyed planning every aspect of our wedding,” Blackman says of Murray.
They searched for more than two years for the perfect spot, until they saw this headline in The News & Observer: “Want to own an 1845 church, restored to its old glory? Only $39,000.”
Last month, they bought the small chapel in rural Bertie County and are opening a wedding venue there called Chapel 1845.
Having gone through the wedding-planning process, Murray and Blackman say they’re being thoughtful about the words and images they use on the Chapel 1845 website. They want their venue to be open to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or religious belief.
Their advice for couples heading down the aisle? Don’t let traditions or what other people want dictate your wedding day. Invite people who support you. Don’t be bothered by those who don’t want to participate.
Or, as Murray puts it: “Do what you feel is right for yourself and for your relationship.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Hitched.”