Make Gay Guests Welcome at Your Wedding
May 12, 2003
Busy grooms- and brides-to-be probably think they've considered every possible detail to make their wedding day perfect. There's one thing they may have overlooked.
"Weddings are often uncomfortable occasions for gay and lesbian friends and family. They know their relationships will never be celebrated in the same way, and it hurts," said Ramona Oswald, an expert in family studies at the University of Illinois.
Oswald's research on this topic was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. As a result of her study, she has added a few rules to traditional wedding etiquette to help brides and grooms make all their wedding guests feel welcome.
Invitations. First of all, invite gay and lesbian family members. It hurts to be excluded from an important family event. And don't make your invitation conditional. Some gay family members in Oswald's study were told, "Come but don't act gay."
If your gay relative has a partner, put both names on the invitation. Add "and guest" when addressing invitations to all single friends and family members, gay or straight.
The wedding party. It's an honor to be included in the wedding party, but it can be a mixed blessing for gay people. Bridesmaids and groomsmen are usually paired off with a member of the opposite sex, sometimes for the entire wedding, including dining and dancing at the reception. If it's possible, organize things so that your gay relative can be with his partner or date.
Family photographs. Make sure your gay and lesbian relatives are included in family portraits. If your relative has a partner, include that person as well. How would you feel if your husband or wife was left out of the family albums?
And let the photographer know that your relative and her partner should be paired together. At one wedding in Oswald's study, the photographer kept trying to separate a lesbian couple until the bride yelled out, "They're together!"
Catching the bouquet and garter. Gay people who have partners are especially sensitive about this part of the wedding. Don't ask or pressure your gay friends to participate in this ritual. One guest remembered this event at a wedding he attended: "Even though I was there with my partner, people kept pushing, get up there, you're single!"
The ceremony, including vows and readings. At some weddings, guests in Oswald's study listened uncomfortably to such injunctions as "You must be subject to your husband," or "Be fruitful and multiply." Other ceremonies were not as blatant in their promotion of heterosexual marriage, but gay guests still heard "The Lord this, the Lord that," and personalized it to mean, "You don't belong here, the Lord doesn't bless your relationship."
Dancing. Dancing was one of the most difficult parts of the wedding for the guests in Oswald's study. There was a lot of pressure to dance in opposite-sex pairings, and many guests sought out safe partners, such as cousins or siblings. Or they said, "Slow dance, time for a bathroom break again."
Organize group dances so everyone can be on the floor without being in pairs. If same-sex couples do have the courage to dance, relax. They're just having fun like everyone else, said Oswald.
Clothing. Allow people to wear clothes that fit their personalities and values. Gay and lesbian guests often agonized over what to wear to the occasion, said Oswald. One woman said, "It took four weddings to figure out I could wear a vest, slacks, and loafers."
And keep the comfort of all members of the wedding party in mind when selecting such apparel as bridesmaid's dresses.
Socializing. Conversation at weddings often turns to people's personal lives. Don't change the subject or give a gay friend the silent treatment if he begins to talk honestly about his life. And don't expect them to pretend they're straight in casual conversation with other guests.
If you know that other gay friends will be at your wedding, seat them together so they'll have some support. And if you know someone at your wedding who hates or fears gay people, let him know you won't tolerate any behavior that doesn't respect all your guests.
Don't ask a single person, "So are you next?" or "When are you going to get married?" Those questions are hard enough for straight people to answer. They're downright uncomfortable for gay or lesbian people, who must deal with the question as if the asker thinks they're straight or explain that same-sex marriages aren't legal.
Weddings are expensive. There's usually a lot of talk about money at weddings, from catty remarks about how much the reception cost to comments about the huge number of gifts pouring in. This emphasis on money can be insulting to gay or lesbian couples who didn't receive comparable help in setting up their own households.
Processing the experience. One guest said, "I had a lot of jealousy because I'm never going to be able to share that experience with my family in the way my brother did."
Oswald noted that many gay and lesbian couples leave a wedding with the feeling, "You're not as legitimate as a heterosexual person, your relationships are not as valuable, and you will never have this." Try to create an atmosphere in which these people will feel valued for who they are.
Return the favor. Your gay and lesbian friends attended your wedding because they are loyal to you and want you to be happy. If a gay couple invites you to their commitment ceremony, attend and offer your best wishes.