Pride and Progress: A Look at LGBTQ+ Weddings in the United States
Though the pursuit of inclusivity and progress requires enduring commitment all year long, it's helpful to pause regularly and take stock of the world we live in, and how couples, wedding guests and pros alike can work to create a more equitable wedding industry. Especially during the month of June when Pride Month honors the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York, a pivotal moment in the fight for equality for the LGBTQ+ community, reflection on how far we've come and what is left to do to support the LGBTQ+ community is key.
We tapped some of our favorite industry experts and wedding planners to get their take on the state of pride and progress—Brian A. M. Green of By BrianGreen, Chanda Daniels of Chanda Daniels Planning and Design, Kirsten Palladino of Equally Wed, Jason Rhee of Rheefined Company and Jove Meyer of Jove Meyer Events open up below. Plus, Asia Sullivan, an accomplished medical professional and member of The Knot's Most Influential Weddings crew, weighs in with her thoughts as a newlywed.
In this story:
The Definition of Inclusivity
Before understanding how far we've come, and where we hope to be in the future, it's paramount that we have a clear picture of the rubric against which progress can be measured. In short: What does, or should, inclusivity look like? According to Palladino, "inclusivity means I feel welcomed, affirmed, celebrated and intentionally included." Along the same lines, Meyer shares that "inclusivity means that all are welcome, included and celebrated equally despite their differences. Differences should be celebrated, not hated, especially as the differences we have are not choices, options or fads, they are part of who people are. Our differences are what make the world so beautiful and exciting!"
Green goes on to emphasize that diversity, equity and inclusion are not synonymous. However, in order to succeed in each arena, all three need to work together in a complementary way. "For me, inclusivity is just one piece of the pie," he explains. "Inclusivity without diversity and equity is like cooking a meal without all the spices and seasonings. Diversity is opening the space to different faces—inclusion is opening the space to different voices. Having a voice is vital to making changes in the world but we don't get to hear those voices without having diverse people present in the first place.
The History of Marriage Equality in the United States
While inclusivity is a beautiful concept that many continue to effortlessly fight for, it hasn't always been a reality in the United States. For startling context, Instagram was invented five years before marriage equality was a legal reality in this country. In short, we've come a long way, despite having further to go.
The 1969 Stonewall Uprising
The world owes a great debt to the activism work undertaken by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in 1969. The activism work undertaken by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in 1969 was a major catalyst for the gay rights movement. The Stonewall uprising was a series of demonstrations that took place in response to a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City—these protests are widely considered the watershed event that transformed the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States.
Green shares that, "when you think that just over 50 years ago two trans women of color stood up in New York City and said 'enough' to brutality and started the Stonewall riots—to today in 2022 where we have marriage equality that allowed me to marry my husband—it's amazing. We now have a landscape of LGBTQ+ characters in movies, media, in the highest places in business, politics, and government, serving in the military out and proud."
Progress Toward Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage
While the Stonewall uprising started a movement of progress, it was many years before broad legislative protections were made available to members of the LGBTQ+ community.
"It's incredible to think back about the progress made in our lifetime," shares Palladino. "I was just graduating high school when Bill Clinton passed DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. To go from that horror to just eight years later witnessing Massachusetts becoming the first state in the country to offer marriage equality was outstanding. But progress isn't fast. When my wife and I launched our online LGBTQ+ wedding magazine, Equally Wed, in 2010, there were only six states with full marriage equality. For the following five years, we reported on the fight for marriage equality in every other state until the sweet victory of marriage equality at a federal level on June 26, 2015. And then for the past seven years, we've enjoyed publishing real wedding photos, engagements and other wedding ideas with a new layer of joy of having our community's relationships validated and valued by the court of law."
2015 Marriage Equality Ruling: Obergefell vs. Hodges
As Palladino alluded to, June 26, 2015, was the date that the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644. Though many states had already passed measures to support LGBTQ+ weddings on their own, it wasn't until 2015 when the Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court case that all states were required to guarantee marriage licenses for all couples.
Obergefell vs. Hodges was a landmark civil rights case wherein the Supreme Court held, in their June 26, 2015 ruling, that the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to marry to same-sex couples through the protections of the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause.
Looking back on that 2015 ruling, Daniels shares that "this was a monumental time in history because President Obama was in office, and the way he truly tried to create a space for us, I remember him saying 'if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.'"
Similarly, Sullivan and her now-wife Tierra Andrews recall the personal liberation they felt upon the passing of marriage equality. "We remember June 26, 2015, very distinctly—we were both students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and cheers rang out across campus. Professors and students alike literally dropped what they were doing and ran to local courthouses to get married immediately. It was a powerful and joyful moment that brought us all so much hope." Sullivan goes on to share that she remembers "looking at Tierra in a different way that day, actually considering marriage and a wedding with her. Prior to that day, I didn't bother thinking much about it because it wasn't an option for us.
The Supreme Court's ruling, and subsequent ramifications, were so powerful that Sullivan and Andrews chose to include words from the court's opinion in their own wedding ceremony program. "When we think of inclusivity, especially as it relates to marriage, a specific quote comes to mind," they share. "Our officiant included this quote from Justice Anthony Kennedy during the welcome part of our ceremony and it was very powerful. 'No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.'"
However, due in large part to the current political climate and worries that Roe vs. Wade, another significant landmark ruling, could be overturned, many emphasize the urgent need to continue to take action toward ensuring enduring legislative protections for the LGBTQ+ community. "While I am grateful for progress for LGBTQ+ people, I am also very nervous about the future of marriage equality and our general equal rights," confesses Meyer. "With the Supreme Court leaning very conservative, they seem poised to undue crucial laws created to protect women's rights and equality for queer people, so now is not the time to celebrate marriage equality, it is the time to speak up, stand up and keep fighting for full equal rights for LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized people."
Meyer goes on to emphasize that "today couples can still be denied services because they are part of the LGBTQ+ community. There are cases now from couples who have been denied wedding venues, wedding cakes and even wedding stationery because they are part of the LGBTQ+ community. So while it is exciting that marriage equality has passed and is part of our society, we have a long way to go to ensure LGBTQ+ couples getting married do not continue to face discrimination while planning their weddings. In addition to the discrimination LGBTQ+ people face while planning to say 'I do,' we also face obstacles after the big day when trying to create a family—we are denied by many adoption agencies, based on freedom of religion, despite them being federally funded, and we still cannot donate blood unless we are celibate for six months. There is much work to be done toward full equality for LGBTQ+ people—marriage equality was the first step, but we have many more to take!"
2020 Employment Non-Discrimination: Bostock v. Clayton County
"After marriage equality passed the Supreme Court in 2015, the next big victory was the ruling that prohibited employment discrimination against gay and transgender employees in 2020," explains Meyer. "Before 2020, LGBTQ+ people could be fired for being queer, and it was legal."
Meyer is referring to Bostock v. Clayton County, a landmark civil rights case that was decided on June 15, 2020. In this ruling, the Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
While this ruling protects employment and Obergefell vs. Hodges protects the right to marry, many other civil rights protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community are splintered as opposed to sweeping, leaving lots of room for further action to be taken.
Inclusivity in the Wedding Industry
Even in an industry whose entire business is love, the road to progress has involved many steps. As Green shares, "when I first started working in wedding planning and design, it was not legal for me to get married. It was so strange working to plan a person's wedding day—from wedding ceremony to wedding reception—when I could not access the same ritual and legal benefits myself. I am excited that marriage is now available to LGBTQ+ couples in love, it is a right that is long overdue and the Supreme Court's decision validated LGBTQ+ weddings and love in a major way. Now that marriage equality has been the law for years, children can see queer love from a young age, so they know what is possible and legal for them to have their own special day. Marriage equality helps normalize our love, it helps us feel like equal citizens in the place we live, work and love."
Many of the wedding professionals we chatted with were heartened by the shifts they've seen in the industry and among engaged couples toward an emphasis on showcasing all kinds of love and also a renewed eagerness to support diverse vendors—from florists and cake bakers to wedding dress and attire designers and beyond. Along those lines, Daniels shares that a key element of inclusion is "having those diverse voices at the table and listening to them to take their perspectives into account when making those important decisions."
LGBTQ+ Weddings in the Media
As Green explains, media representation of the LGBTQ+ community matters. "I just watched an incredible series on Netflix called 'Heartstopper' which is the sweetest, kindest LGBTQ+-show filled with inclusion and joy. That wouldn't have happened before. Having wedding publications feature LGBTQ+ couples in their stories is incredible. All of that is progress."
Supporting Inclusive Wedding Vendors
While media plays a role in what people see, another important component of inclusivity is the wedding industry is who couples are supporting with their wallets. Searching for vendors who align with your values is a great way to make your support of the LGBTQ+ community actionable.
Rhee is especially excited by the social changes he's witnessed when it comes to business. "More LGBTQIA+ stories are being told in all media, and more talent is being discovered, appreciated, and elevated from diverse communities. Most importantly, it's no longer acceptable or profitable to be inequitable and future generations are demanding it."
As newlyweds themselves, Sullivan and Andrews share that, especially when it comes to researching and booking vendors, "inclusivity is often in the small details. We often ran into contracts or got boilerplate email responses from potential vendors that would address us as 'the bride and groom' or 'husband and wife.' When companies used inclusive language in paperwork like 'spouse 1' and 'spouse 2' and included photos of same-sex couples on their social media we would instantly feel more comfortable and included—and much more likely to want to work with them."
The Knot's Commitment to Inclusivity
At The Knot, we are committed to helping all couples plan and celebrate a wedding that is uniquely their own. As part of that, we are committed to championing inclusivity surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. From the content we create to the tools we produce, at the core we believe that love is love, and all couples deserve a wedding that authentically honors their relationship.
Looking Ahead to Continued Progress
While there are many hardfought progress milestones to honor, Meyer confesses that "slowly we are moving towards full equality, but it also feels like one step forward, two steps back." For example, Sullivan shares that she hopes for a world where people "no longer have to 'come out.'" She and Andrews "would like for cisgender-heterosexuality to no longer be the default setting in which queer folks 'stray from' when coming out. Of course, we would love to see all traces of homophobia and transphobia extinguished from the Earth but that may be too tall an order for 5 years! We hope to be moving in that direction each day that passes!"
A specific area where many see the need for continued progress is the realm of transgender inclusivity and equal rights for trans individuals. Palladino stresses that "trans people are in danger in schools, athletics, places of work and worship, and on the streets. Five years from now, my hope is that more people in society make the choice to be inclusive because it's the right thing to do but also because they feel it in their hearts, not just in their wallets."
As Sullivan and Andrews experienced first-hand when they received standardized emails that addressed them "bride" and "groom," it's paramount that everyday vocabulary shift away from gendered assumptions.
Green emphasizes that "the words you use matter. Asking and correctly using someone's pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show respect for their gender identity. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, and invalidated in their humanity."
The Power of Legislation
"The Supreme Court is now debating a woman's right to bodily autonomy, and it's a reminder that these victories are stepping stones," says Rhee. "We must always acknowledge intersectionality and stand up for the rights of not just LGBTQIA+ but also those of our black, brown, and indigenous communities."
As Daniels points out, "there are still harmful laws being created to cause mental harm to the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. For instance the 'Don't Say Gay' bill. We are showing children that it's not okay or safe to be gay, that you can't even say it in school. When we create foundations where children aren't safe to be themselves, that continues the cycle wherein as adults people still don't feel safe to be who they truly are."
Green goes on call attention to that plethora of other pieces of legislation that also endanger the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. "We have seen cases against vendors who refuse to work with LGBTQ+ couples and they win because private businesses have that protection. The annual number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed has skyrocketed over the past several years. Based on the data I've read, the numbers have increased from 41 pieces of legislation filed in 2018 to over 240 thus far in 2022 alone and over 640 collectively since 2018. The slate of legislation includes measures that would restrict LGBTQ issues in school curriculums, permit religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, and limit trans people's ability to play sports, use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, and receive gender-affirming health care. The issues are too big to sit back and hope they get better. We, LGBTQ+ members, and our allies need to stand up and speak out. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
While some tasks need to be taken to the government, it's also paramount that each person take steps in their everyday lives to support the LGBTQ+ community through authentic allyship. Green encourages allies to "always be aware of your privilege. Most of us have some form of privilege, aware or unaware, we have it. It can be your race, gender, class, education, being cis-gendered, or being able-bodied. Understanding that privilege doesn't mean that you have not had a challenging life, it means that there are some things you won't ever have to think or worry about just because of the way you were born. Understanding your own privileges can help you empathize with marginalized communities."
In addition to acknowledging the presence of privilege, Meyer emphasizes the importance of allyship as an active effort, "not a passive one. A real ally stands up for us in all aspects of life, and especially when it may be uncomfortable or unpopular. Being an ally is not just posting a rainbow flag and saying that you have LGBTQ+ friends and or family members—it is marching with us and voting for those who are furthering equal rights. It is speaking out when hateful things are said or shared and not supporting companies that work to remove our rights. More than anything, it's about consistency in all areas of your life, be an ally at work, at home, with your family, with your friends, not just in front of us."
"The stakes are high for our rights, we need our allies now more than ever to do the right thing," reiterates Meyer. "Stand up for us, speak out for us and vote for us. Spend money in places that support us and be consistent in your efforts to support. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it! I think Desmond Tutu said it best: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."