Legalities Aside, Gays Still Stand on Ceremony


While last week's circuit court ruling in Hawaii has many fretting about the prospect of legalized same-sex marriages, there are no wedding bell blues in the gay community. Gay unions or commitment ceremonies, once an underground ritual, have blossomed in the past few years, with a whole industry--from caterers to travel agents--rising to help out.

And many in the gay community expect this trend to accelerate, even though the court ruling was stayed pending appeal and a federal law has been adopted to allow states to disregard gay marriages performed in other states; undoubtedly more litigation will follow.

Christ Chapel, the Metropolitan Community Church in Santa Ana, has been conducting "holy union" ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples since the church opened 25 years ago.

The Rev. Patricia Leffler conducted about 20 ceremonies this year.

"There has always been a definite interest in it by those couples that wanted long-term relationship commitments," says Leffler, who believes the ruling in Hawaii may result in more couples requesting the ceremony.

But couples don't enter into holy unions lightly, she says.

"Before I do a holy union for a couple, they are required to come in for several pastoral counselings, and we discuss what commitment is really all about," she says. "I probably have at least 50% of the people who come in who do not go through with it because I think a commitment ceremony is a very serious step and they should be certain what they want to do."

As they opt for high-profile celebrations, with admittedly special problems (How do they distinguish between the groom's side and the groom's side?), couples find themselves dealing with the complexities, the beauties and the occasional insanity of any wedding.

"There aren't any numbers because no one keeps track," said Tess Ayers, co-author of "The Essential Guide to Lesbian and Gay Weddings" (HarperCollins, 1994). She wrote it because she and partner Jane Anderson wanted a ceremony that "wasn't a '60s kind of hippie thing" and couldn't find a guide. "As we began to research it, I was stunned at the number of ceremonies and how many different variations were available."


Indeed, some in Hawaii are estimating that gay weddings there could be a $2-billion-a-year tourist industry. Andrew Rakos, a Los Angeles businessman and artist who designed a "band of infinity" ring used in same-sex ceremonies, is one of many entrepreneurs who sees a lively market in what he considers social progress. "The wedding ceremony is something you share with family and friends, florists, caterers, hotels and honeymoon vacations," he said. "The whole economy of communities are changed by it."

Kim Miller, who oversees promotions for 80 Macy's West stores, said they have so many same-sex couples they are redoing their registry form to get rid of the labels "bride and groom."

At Geary's in Beverly Hills, the largest wedding gift registry in the area, gay couples are excellent customers. "We had our first gay couple about five years ago and it was almost matter-of-fact even then," store president Bruce Meyer said.

"In the past two years I've been to any number of lesbian commitment ceremonies--the last one in October probably cost $75,000 and was breathtakingly beautiful," said Ann Bradley, media director for the ACLU of Southern California. "For a lot of women, and lesbians are women, the dream of wearing a beautiful white dress and walking down the aisle is very important." Even more important is the public declaration of the commitment, she said.

For Gabriel Reyes, a publicist, and Bruce Pitzer, a screenwriter, getting hitched this past summer was a matter of pride and love. "It was a symbol of our commitment to each other," Reyes said about the ceremony in which 60 other couples were united on Gay Pride Day in June. They stood on Astroturf, facing a chaplain and were serenaded by the West Hollywood Gay Men's Chorus.

Reyes and Pitzer, who have been together for 17 years, are planning a Hawaiian trip and hope to make it legal. "I want us to take formal vows on a mountaintop or by the ocean, someplace where we can commune with nature, where God would be our witness," Reyes said.


Increasingly, church can be an option. While Roman Catholic and fundamentalist Christian churches remain off limits, most faiths by now have found a way to accommodate ceremonies, said Paul Brown, co-author with Ayers of "The Essential Guide." Most welcoming are any of the gay churches such as the Metropolitan Community Church, or Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish congregations, Unitarian Universalist, Episcopalians and the Church of Religious Science.

As with heterosexual weddings, many traditions that now seem sexist have been altered to fit modern times. In Jewish ceremonies where bridegrooms were to stomp on a wine glass, sometimes the couple smashes the glass together, Brown said.

The lack of a formalized liturgy can lead to creative ceremonies. In August, La Tina Jackson and Valencia McKinley, staffers at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, will say their "I do's" with the addition of simple wedding bands to their engagement rings.

The ceremony will take place at a center on the grounds of Temescal Canyon where the two had their first date, hiking in the pouring rain two years ago. The cake will have a crystal topper, either dolphins or hummingbirds because both women are "very connected to the Earth and animals," Jackson said.

Jackson will don a black tux; McKinley is deciding between a wedding gown or a tuxedo jacket teamed with a skirt, and her 11-year-old daughter, Ber Rhondi, will give her away. They've also decided on wearing African masks representing their culture and taking them off as a "coming out experience for us."

Said Jackson: "The only sad thing is I don't really have family support" behind the wedding. A sister who has a wedding consultant business hasn't offered to help.

Still, Jackson isn't letting anything block her wedding day plans next summer.

"This is something that we've always wanted for ourselves: to meet someone and settle down. It was just a matter of finding that person to marry. Ultimately this is about my family and how I define my family, and how much I love my family."

* Times staff writers Lynn Smith and Dennis McLellan contributed to this story.

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