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(Still) The Essential Guide To Same-Sex Weddings

The love note I penned to my partner inside the first edition copy of "The Essential Guide to Gay and Lesbian Weddings" in December of 1995 was inspired by our engagement, and reveals that I had finally found a source for knowledgeable answers to our questions.
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In 1995, my partner and I had begun to talk more seriously about having a commitment ceremony. We didn't yet know what that would look like or how we would ever pull it off, but we had begun to embrace the idea that we would exchange vows in front of our friends and family. And, in those days, a decision like this wasn't as commonplace or widely embraced as it is today. We certainly had the support of our friends and most of our family members, but we had no idea where to begin.

For starters, the Internet was in its infancy. Google had not yet been launched (it was "brought to life" in 1998), and our most senior online wedding planning resources, like and, hadn't launched. So we couldn't exactly hop onto the web to find the wedding planning information (albeit straight-biased) that we needed. Further, though you could find wedding planning magazines and books in bookstores, you certainly couldn't find much tailored to planning for gay or lesbian commitment ceremonies (the common term for our wedding celebrations back then).

In those days, when I needed my lesbian literature fix or a queer-themed resource, I always headed over to Washington D.C.'s Lammas (a bookstore for women, open from 1974-2000) or Lambda Rising (a gay bookstore, open from 1975-2010) in hopes of finding something. And that's exactly where I started my search to answer the question: "Where do we begin?"

The love note I penned to my partner inside the first edition copy of "The Essential Guide to Gay and Lesbian Weddings" in December of 1995 was inspired by our engagement, and reveals that I had finally found a source for knowledgeable answers to our questions. In fact, I remember finding "The Guide" at Lambda Rising on a crisp, winter day, and I remember my delight and feeling of incredible good fortune as I crouched in the aisle flipping through the book

This was it! This was what we needed to get started on our lesbian wedding planning journey.

Then, as now, "The Essential Guide" offers a comprehensive look at all of the critical details required in planning a same-sex wedding, and authors Tess Ayers and Paul Brown open with the question opposite-sex couples so rarely ask themselves: "Why Bother?"

The "Why Bother?" chapter subheading in the updated edition says everything you need to know about how the commitment context and the content in "The Essential Guide" have changed in the past 18 years. In 1994, engaged couples were asked to consider the question: "Why Bother (If it's Not Legal)?" But with this year's third edition release, engaged couples must ask themselves: "Why Bother (Especially Where It's Not Legal)?"

Oh, the times, they are a-changin'!

Though Tess and Paul, our pioneering scribes, are able to explore the heavier questions about the legal implications of same-sex marriage and the importance of creating a celebration for a union to last a lifetime, they are equally effective when digging into topics like the minutiae of invitation wording, choosing a band and changing your name -- all with humor and a well-organized approach.

And, let's be honest, a good sense of humor and strong organizational skills are prerequisites for any couple embarking on its wedding planning journey!

Not surprisingly, "The Essential Guide" has always been a popular product in my boutique and I was thrilled to hear that the book had been slated for an updated release. Though same-sex couples now have many great resources to choose from when it comes to finding planning advice and inspiration -- both in print and online -- there is something to be said about the one which, at its core, has always been there for us.

But don't take my word for it. Listen in on my chat with Tess Ayers and Paul Brown and decide for yourself:

The gay wedding landscape has changed dramatically since you published the first edition of "The Essential Guide to Gay and Lesbian Weddings" in 1994 -- the very first wedding planning guide of its kind, I might add! Are you surprised that gay marriage is now legal is so many states (and the District of Columbia)?

Paul: Honestly? I never thought I would see such an unfazed attitude towards gay folk. I grew up believing that gay culture had its own sense of humor and particular style. It amazes me that our style and humor have become so mainstream, like John Waters of "Pink Flamingos" fame directing Hollywood movies, or the popularity of "Will & Grace." So as gays and lesbians became perceived as less different our social norms changed. We became more socially mature and to many that means stability, commitment and marriage.

Tess: When I had my totally non-legal wedding ceremony in 1992, I never envisioned same-sex marriage equality happening in my lifetime. People were really curious about same-sex weddings because they were so rare. But here we are, in the middle of a national conversation about it. My 17-year-old son watched his two mothers legally marry two years ago -- amazing!

Given the wider acceptance of same-sex marriage, civil unions, and commitment ceremonies today, how has the advice you offer changed in this most recent edition?

Paul: Earlier on there were more issues around dealing with homophobia as you chose a chapel or went to buy rings with your partner. We still look at all the coming-out issues, but this time we made an extra effort to give the reader the hard facts on how to spend wisely. Many same-sex couples want a wedding but don't feel that they can throw down big bucks right now. Often they have been together for a long time or, sadly, there isn't the expected family support that came when their sister Sue married Scott, so there is a lot about being a creative consumer.

Tess: When we originally wrote this, there was no Internet, so if you lived in a small town somewhere and wanted a two-groom wedding cake topper, you needed us to give you an actual "mail-order" source! Thankfully times have changed and so have attitudes, and we're able to concentrate more on the quality of the toppers or the uniqueness of certain vendors.

What inspired you two to work together and write the "Essential Guide" in the first place?

Paul: I had just moved to California with my partner Rick and met Tess and Jane and knew they were going to get married. I really thought, "how LA." The event was a life-changer for many of the guests: the honesty, the love, the passion, really the almost childlike sincerity of the ceremony, and well, the party was a blast. Tess and I were explaining the event to Charlotte Sheedy, a mutual friend, who happened to be a book agent. And so it began.

How would you compare the response you received to the announcement of your book release in the late 90's to the response you are receiving today?

Paul: My friends thought it would be a great satire, like the "Preppy Handbook." It wasn't easy to find couples to interview who had gone through it, and most of the interviews with caterers, photographers and bands were more about how they would feel if a same-sex couple wanted them to do their wedding. Look, the whole world wasn't online. I sent out about a hundred letters to gay and lesbian centers around the country looking for people to talk with. Letters. With stamps!

Tess: We knew that the book would be carried by gay bookstores like A Different Light, and that people could order it through the mail, but we were just kind of hoping that mainstream bookstores would carry it. Most of them did end up stocking it, and mostly it was in the "Gay Studies" section or "Alternative Lifestyles" (ugh!) But now it's filed right there alongside Martha Stewart's wedding books.

What makes the "Essential Guide" different from the new books that couples can find on the shelves or the planning sites that couples can find online?

Paul: It takes a lot of information and makes it easy to understand. I mean both the mechanics, like figuring out how much ice you need per person, and the big questions like, "Have you considered seeing some sort of therapist or counselor before you do this?"

Tess: When we started writing it, we were only planning on dealing with the parts of a wedding that had to do with being a same-sex couple. But the more we researched, the more we realized that it should cover everything that a traditional wedding planner does, because why should you have to buy two different books? So we steeped ourselves in weddings, and in gay and lesbian variations, and "The Essential Guide" is, we feel, still the most thorough reference on the market. Plus, it's really entertaining -- along with great information, we help you keep everything in perspective.

What do you think are the three most important things a gay or lesbian couple needs to keep in mind when beginning the planning process?

  • Remember, you're a grown-up. Don't do this on a whim.
  • Work on having your wedding, not your sister's, not some designer's from Home Decorating TV, and above all not your mother's. Unless of course you want that, and some people do.
  • Write it down and be organized, or find someone who is organized to help you keep the details and expenses together.

Tess: All of those, plus: whether or not it's legal where you live, treat it as though it were.

Are you currently working in the wedding industry or doing any wedding planning?

Tess: We get called on by friends to advise or help out, but we both have so many other responsibilities in our lives that wedding planning is just not on the agenda.

Are you married?

Paul: I had been partnered for 18 years but we never officially had a wedding.

Tess: Jane and I have been together for almost 30 years. As Paul said, we had a non-legal wedding 20 years ago. Then two years ago, in that small window of time when same-sex marriage was legal in California, we got legally hitched. It was, if possible, even more powerful than the first ceremony.

When it comes to same-sex marriage, what inspires you?

Paul: When you meet a couple who have been together for a long time and are holding each others' hands and looking at pictures of their kids, their first home, and of course their wedding, and they say things about each other like, "We had a wonderful 50 years together" or "This person is my whole life." The elderly couple sitting on a porch in matching rocking chairs, that's what does it for me.

Tess: What inspires me is how far we've come in so short a time. We're not quite there yet, but I really believe that soon we'll be explaining to a younger generation about the time when two women couldn't get married, and they'll be looking at us like we're nuts. Just as it should be.

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