How Do I Have a Gay Wedding that Doesn’t Seem … Straight?

Notes on nuptials.
June 13 2013 8:26 AM

I’m a Gay Man Who Wants to Get Married

But how do I have a wedding that’s not so … straight?

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Blair Late and Jeff Pederson Wedding from Bravo's Newlyweds: The First Year.

Photo by: Donna Von Bruening/Bravo

The other night on Bravo’s reality show Newlyweds: The First Year, the gay couple finally had their wedding. It was an elaborate, highly coiffed affair (what an older gay friend of mine would call “high fag”) that had been planned over the course of many episodes: Fancy cake samples had been tasted; atrocious dance-pop love songs had been specially written, recorded, and choreographed; and Savannah, Ga., venues had been chosen once deemed sufficiently Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. As a fellow gay, I should have been happy to watch two of my kin do that thing for which we’re all supposed to be fighting, but instead, I experienced a familiar feeling of repulsion mixed with guilt topped off with self-righteous superiority. Confession: There are few things I find more skin-crawly than the pairing of the words “gay” and “wedding.”

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

I know, I know—I’m not supposed to say something like that. Sometime in the early 1990s, a committee (probably chaired by Andrew Sullivan) decided that “marriage equality” was going to be the gay rights issue of the coming decades, with military service a close second. In order to be “good gays,” all we queens were supposed to get in line, preferably with HRC logos tattooed on our foreheads. I could go on, but let’s just say that the LGBT movement’s rush to assimilate into society’s most conservative institutions at the expense of demanding civil recognition of different ways of loving and being rubs me the wrong way.  

Still, as much as I resent the oppressiveness of the “good gay” ethos, I’m actually not radical enough in my personal life to reject the big gay marriage plot wholeheartedly; in fact, my beef really only extends as far as aesthetics. If we’re all going to get “married,” do we have to do it in the matching seersucker J. Crew suits that seem to be de rigueur? Can’t we gays (you know, the ones who saved Western civilization with our inventiveness) come up with something better than a bland wedding and a milquetoast reception to mark our sad, gradual sink into the mainstream?  

This is not just an abstract question. My partner Cam and I have been together for over four years (decades in gay time), and we are gingerly circling the marriage question. We are as committed to one another as I imagine two people can be, and, given that we live in a society that weirdly rewards certain kinds of adult relationships more than others, the pragmatist in me can’t imagine not getting married in the legal sense. Assuming the eventual fall of DOMA, you’d better believe we want in on all of the legal and financial swag that the state hooks you up with for saying “I do.”

What I have trouble getting into, though, is the wedding part itself. This hang-up, I should mention, has caused some amount of friction in my relationship. Though Cam is also wary of the gay-marriage compulsion and sympathetic to my reservations, he is of the opinion that a wedding is simply a big party at which your family and friends have the privilege of showering you with love and, hopefully, some cash as well. Sometimes, after I’ve had a glass of wine and watched a romantic movie, I can see the faint outlines of his point of view—a nice party is really all it needs to be, and I do like the idea of having a table-scape budget. But then I start imagining what the event would actually look like: how we’d have to say something charming and funny, but also deeply meaningful about ourselves up in front of a bunch of people; how we’d, in the end, essentially have to perform the POWER OF OUR LOVE to outsiders, and I get goose bumps (not the good ones). That doesn’t sound like Cam and me; it sounds so—straight.

To be clear, by “straight” I don’t just mean that weddings are lame or awkward or boring. After all, on that point many straight couples agree with me, which is why we have wacky Halloween-themed productions and elopements and people who pop by City Hall on the way to work. Rather, I’m using straight as a sort of nongendered aesthetic. No matter how unique or quirky a couple is in real life and no matter how relaxed or innovative the ceremony, weddings have the tendency to cast a pall of earnestness over everything. There’s a part of me that can’t help but balk at the straightness of that imperative, a part that wants to say: “You cannot possibly hope to understand what Cam and I have. You are incredibly presumptuous to demand to have it paraded before you, and you should now leave this place—without your party favor, please.” I realize, of course, that such a response is a little petulant, but there it is. I resent you, Ms. Strawman, for wanting to come to my wedding.

A little more needs to be said about relationship aesthetics. In what has quickly become my Bible of Gayness, David Halperin’s How To Be Gay, the good professor offers an argument about gay relationships that struck me as a stretch at first, but that has grown to seem increasingly insightful over the months since I first read the book. Simply put, Halperin suggests that long-term gay male couples are most successful when they treat their relationships as campy melodramas that “combine passion with irony.” This does not mean that the couple’s love is somehow false or put-on or even unserious; rather, it merely demonstrates that gay couples, having been spared the psychological naturalization of wedded bliss for so long, cannot (or at least, should not) ignore the inherent theatricality of the institution. The entire arrangement, like the initial ceremony itself, is a massive collage of rituals, tropes, traditions, and assumptions that is really just Too. Much. to take seriously.

And, indeed, one of the reasons Cam and I work is that we intuitively lived this model before Halperin wrote it down. When I insist on buying the flowers myself and fuss over the stove while Cam pours the drinks for our guests at a dinner party, we are both on some level aware of how we are parodying the conventions of straight marriage, just as when we have quotidian arguments, we execute them in a catty, War of the Roses-like gender-bending competitive insult contest—and usually end up falling in love again over the other’s devastating verbal skill. Given that this playfulness, this campy meta-performance of conjugal life, is the truth of our relationship, how in the world could we hope to take something as “straight” as a wedding seriously? To watch a gay couple soberly deliberate over whether hors d'oeuvres will be light or heavy, to earnestly worry about having bridesmaids or groomsmen, to struggle with writing their own vows vs. using a standard liturgy is for me like watching Mickey Rooney do yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 2013. It’s cringe-funny because the lack of self-awareness is literally incredible. I doubt we’d be able to make it through the invocation before dissolving into giggles over how some relative’s makeup evokes Goldie Hawn at the end of Death Becomes Her.

But maybe that’s just how it will have to go down. As much as I’d like to think that Cam and I will be able to come up with something as thrilling as how an Australian newspaper described a spate of secret gay weddings in 1932—“ghastly, horrifying spectacles of painted men and primping lads united in a sacrilegious blasphemy that they call the ‘bonds of matrimony’ ”—I have a resigned feeling that we will end up having the nice party that he wants and that I don’t really mind all that much, I guess. No, it will probably not accurately convey, as Augusten Burroughs put it in his recent column about his own gay wedding issues, the “slightly miraculous and always exciting” campy aesthetic of our relationship, but it will be lovely all the same.

And then we will go home, and Cam will make fun of me for crying during the banal speeches and for making such a fuss about all this to begin with, and I will be irritated but also smile because I will remember that he is the only one who, miraculously, gets it—or needs to—anyway.

Stop the Scourge of Wedding Presents: They’re outdated, inefficient, unfair, and unnecessary,” by Matthew Yglesias. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

The Long Walk to the Altar: Prudie offers wedding advice on family estrangement, inappropriate toasts, and an extravagant bride, just in time for summer,” by Emily Yoffe. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

My Big Fat Disney Wedding: I’m a tomboy, not a princess. Here’s why getting married at a huge theme park was a delightfully practical decision,” by Rachael Larimore. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

This Is the Last Time I Will Ever See You: After every wedding, there is a dear friend who will immediately disappear from your life. And that’s OK,” by David Plotz. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

Click Here to RSVP: Online invites are now far better than paper. And yes, you should even use them for your wedding,” by Farhad Manjoo. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

How to Be a Better Best Man: Flirt with the mother of the bride, but don’t grind with her,” by Troy Patterson. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

The Guest List Is Full: Seventeen years ago we didn’t want to invite our parents’ friends to our wedding. Now I regret it,” by John Dickerson. Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013.

Calling Dear Prudence: Emily Yoffe answers your wedding questions on our call-in show,” by Emily Yoffe. Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013.

I’m a Gay Man Who Wants to Get Married: But how do I have a wedding that’s not so…. straight?”  by J. Bryan Lowder. Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013.