Gay marriage is a gift for Southern California wedding industry


Lisa Phillian has been a one-stop shop for hundreds of gay couples who wanted to tie the knot even before gay marriage was legal in California.

Want to say “I do” on the beach? No problem — she’s a wedding planner. Need a marriage license? She’s also a notary and authorized by Los Angeles County to issue them. Want a special ceremony? She can even do that — she’s an ordained minister.

Phillian is one of scores of professionals in Southern California’s wedding industry who have been uniting gay couples even when it wasn’t legal to be married. They may be among the best positioned to tap the millions of dollars up for grabs after Proposition 8 was overturned, allowing gay marriage to resume in California.


“Everybody wants a little piece of that gay money,” said Phillian, who has offices in Rosemead and Palm Springs. “It’s going to really open up the wedding business.”

Longtime gay-friendly businesses like Phillian’s are hoping their track record will give them a competitive edge when gay couples plan their weddings.

Before gay marriage was legal, these merchants oversaw thousands of celebrations, often called commitment ceremonies. Much like weddings, they included services, dinners and honeymoons — but without the marriage license.

Quiz: How much do you know about California’s economy?

Commitment ceremonies have been held for decades in the United States. Historian Lillian Faderman, author of “Gay L.A.,” said the first public same-sex wedding between two men was performed in 1968 by the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles.

After New York and other states began legalizing gay marriage, couples in California would travel there to get a marriage license, then return and celebrate with their friends and family.

About 37,000 same-sex couples are expected to marry in California over the next three years, potentially generating $492 million in revenue for businesses, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law that studies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

The state could also get a $40-million infusion from wedding-related tax revenue over the next three years after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and denied an appeal to a ruling that struck down Proposition 8, which in 2008 banned gay marriages in California.

Gay marriages generated about $259 million the first year they were legally recognized in New York City, according to the city’s marketing and tourism office. In 2013, weddings are expected to be a $53.4-billion industry nationwide, according to the Wedding Report, a research company that tracks the number of weddings and costs. The company expects a boost from same-sex weddings but doesn’t have any estimates.

To market her services, Phillian lists herself on websites such as Equally Wed that target gay couples. Thousands of businesses, including jewelers, videographers and musicians, market themselves to same-sex couples on similar sites.

Phillian is now fielding as many as 25 calls a day from lesbian and gay couples planning to marry, compared with about three a week she used to get for commitment ceremonies.

“I’m getting calls about venues, photographers and flowers,” Phillian said. “Now we’re doing dream weddings.”

She’ll have to spend less time marketing to potential clients compared with other wedding businesses that are just now vying for gay couples’ attention.

Even in cities like West Hollywood, where about 40% of the population is gay or lesbian, hotels didn’t specifically target same-sex couples beyond hosting the occasional reception.

Now, said Andy Keown, spokesman for West Hollywood’s tourism department, local hotels are scrambling to market to gay couples who are planning wedding receptions and honeymoons.

“We knew there was going to be a decision, but nobody knew what it was going to be,” Keown said. “Now everyone is trying to play catch-up.”

The London West Hollywood hotel recently launched a “One Love” wedding package that includes a ceremony in an English garden, a three-course dinner prepared by chef Gordon Ramsay’s team and a night in one of the hotel’s suites. It starts at $25,000 for 125 people.

Not to be left out, the Chamberlain West Hollywood hotel is offering wedding receptions for up to 50 people beginning at $125 for lunch and $150 for dinner per person.

There are differences in the way that same-sex couples pay for and plan their weddings compared with straight couples, according to a nationwide survey of 1,948 people conducted by the Knot, a wedding site, and the Advocate, a gay news outlet. For instance 86% of gay couples pay for the majority of the wedding themselves, compared with 40% of straight couples.

About 37% of same-sex couples walk down the aisle together, as opposed to 74% of straight couples who walk down the aisle with family members. The survey also found that 40% of gay couples plan a more casual and less traditional wedding, versus 16% of their straight counterparts.

Being experienced with those differences can be an advantage for longtime wedding professionals who have been hired for commitment ceremonies.

Engaged lesbian and gay couples “are looking for vendors who aren’t just ‘gay friendly’ but are, as I like to say, also ‘gay wedding competent,’” said Kathryn Hamm, president of “The greatest advantage held by the wedding professionals who have been serving same-sex couples prior to marriage equality legislation is experience.”

A photographer who can show off previous shots from same-sex weddings and ceremonies will be more valuable than one who has only straight couples, she said. Likewise, a wedding planner who has alternative ideas for walking down the aisle.

“It’s not rocket science, but there is an art to it,” said Hamm, whose site lists more than 52,000 wedding professionals serving same-sex couples.

When Sonia Luna was planning her wedding to her partner of 10 years, Natalia Homyak, she sought out a planner who had worked with gay couples.

“I didn’t want someone that couldn’t appreciate this relationship,” said Luna, who plans to tie the knot in Malibu in September. “I wanted a photographer, for instance, that wouldn’t pose us the same way they might pose a straight couple — we may not be comfortable doing that.”

Through word of mouth the couple heard of Doyle Borden, a Los Angeles-based event planner who got his start as a florist. For years he built and vetted a list of gay-friendly wedding businesses to call on. Still, most of his business came from straight couples.

Back in 2008 when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California, he didn’t see a boost to his bottom line from gay couples. He’s expecting that to change.

“People weren’t doing a lot of lavish weddings,” Borden said. “Now that it’s legal, I think people are going to plan big celebrations and include their family and friends.”