Elizabeth entering our wedding ceremony. Photo by Heather Waraksa.
I chatted with veteran Master Life-Cycle Celebrant® and Interfaith Minister Elizabeth Phaire about performing same-sex wedding ceremonies. Sam and I worked with Elizabeth to craft our unique wedding ceremony, which included personalized readings, a Celtic hand-fasting, and a candle-lighting in memory of Sam’s mother, so she could be present in spirit.
How long have you been a Celebrant?
I’ve been a Life-Cycle Celebrant and Interfaith Minister for 9 years. 5 years after receiving my initial certifications, I entered the Master-Life-Cycle Celebrant® program through the Celebrant Foundation and Institute, and was one of the first three persons to graduate from the program in the U.S.
About many wedding ceremonies have you performed? Approximately 400
Of these, how many were same-sex ceremonies? Approximately 20
Can you recall the first time you performed a lesbian wedding ceremony?
I performed commitment ceremonies for couples in the years before The Marriage Equality Act was passed in NY in June 2011. A couple had contracted my services in 2010 to perform a commitment ceremony in April of 2011. The plan was for them to legally marry in CT, where the law had already passed, and have a symbolic ceremony and celebration in NY with family and friends. A few months later they changed the commitment ceremony date to July ‘11. Meanwhile, the Marriage Equality Act continued to take shape in NY, but it was uncertain when or if it would pass. Then in 2011 the process sped up and the law was being voted on. We were excited and hopeful that it would pass before their ceremony date, so that it would be a legal wedding. Fortunately it passed in June and came into effect in July, just in time! I remember texting with them as they left the courthouse with their marriage license, on the first day that same-sex licenses were being issued. They were already overjoyed to have a ceremony to honor their commitment to be partners for life, making it legal was icing on the cake. I was honored to be their officiant, it was an amazing journey to witness and be a part of!
Are you noticing younger lesbian brides having large or traditional weddings more frequently?
Yes many younger lesbian brides are planning big weddings with the same trimmings of a “traditional” wedding.
What is the average age of your lesbian bride?
The average age is late 20’s/early 30’s
Do you create a same-sex ceremony any differently than you do other ceremonies? I provide the same highly personalized service for same-sex couples as I do for heterosexual couples. The process is the same as far as how I work with all couples, craft and officiate the ceremony. Same-sex couples also have unique needs and concerns which I am sensitive to and help them navigate. We have a candid discussion, in a warm and welcoming atmosphere, which helps ease any worry and makes the planning enjoyable.
Are there any elements that you find couples are more focused on?
They really love my sharing their love story with family and friends in the ceremony. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate their journey, which may have been difficult, and it also validates the relationship that wasn’t accepted as deserving equal rights by the government (and still isn’t in some states and countries).
Those couples who have close relationships with family and friends really want to honor those relationships and express their gratitude, by including them in the ceremony in special ways. Couples also really enjoy coming up with creative unity rituals that capture the spirit of their partnership.
Any elements you find same-sex couples prefer leave out?
Yes, most of them want to leave out or sparingly use the word “partner”, because they are tired of it being one of the few words they could use to describe their commitment for so long.
Were you ever surprised to learn something from a same-sex ceremony?
Very early in my career, I was working with a couple at their rehearsal and discussed how and where we would stand for the ceremony. An option was the traditional configuration: one of the ladies would stand to my right and the other to my left. The lady who would stand to my left panicked, and asked if that meant she was the Groom. She got very upset. I assured her that it didn’t mean that, and there were other options for where we stand. Her reaction highlighted to me how sensitive these details are for same-sex couples, and how confusing it all can be. There is the constant question of how to differentiate from the gender roles of a hetero wedding, while at the same time keep some traditions they may want.
I wouldn’t say it’s surprising, but rather affirming that in many ways same-sex are the same as hetero weddings: it’s the love, the connection to family, the cherished friendships, and the strengthening of these bonds that can happen at a rite of passage such as this.
There are key differences to consider. In a lesbian wedding, one in the couple might choose to wear a suit and the other a gown, but that doesn’t mean they are the equivalent of the “Bride and Groom.” Though one may have a male or gender-neutral name, they may prefer the pronouns “her” and “she.” The couple may or may not want to be referred to as Brides. There are no existing, alternate titles such as these for same-sex couples, and each couple is different as far as how they view themselves and their roles in the partnership. All of these details need to be discussed in the context of the ceremony language. There needs to be openness, flexibility and creativity in imagining and reimagining the ceremony elements. The goal is, on the day of their wedding, for the couple to feel authentic and comfortable with their ceremony.
How do you generally present a lesbian couple at the completion of the ceremony? (May I present Mrs. & Mrs, I now pronounce you wife & wife, etc.)
I offer a variety of options, and what the couple chooses depends on whether they plan to call each other wife in their marriage, or if one plans to take the other’s surname or combine surnames. It may be “Mrs. and Mrs.”, “wife and wife”, “happily and legally married”, “the newlyweds”, etc.
Have you seen a shift in same-sex ceremonies in the past few years, specifically as marriage equality has been at the forefront of the national consciousness?
With the initial rush of jubilation and relief once the law passed here in NY, some couples were eager to marry right away. Outside of that I see couples taking their time to plan a gorgeous wedding with all of the fun details their hearts’ desire.
Do lesbian couples ever choose a traditional ceremony?
I haven’t had any request a strictly traditional ceremony, in the religious sense. The structure of the ceremony may have a traditional feel to it, but usually includes a mix of traditional and creative elements.
Are you ever surprised by guests and families at a same-sex ceremony, moved at the outpouring of support, or have you presided over ceremonies with family missing due to their lack of support for the couple?
I love when there are guests and families who are supportive and excited for the couple at a same-sex ceremony. It’s awesome when they are really engaged when I tell the couple’s story; and they cry, laugh with and cheer for the couple. Being seen, loved, respected and accepted by their community is incredibly important to the couple.
Recently I married a couple who had been together since High School, 45 years! They had loving, supportive family and friends who were so happy to see them wed.
At some weddings there has been family missing due to lack of support, or who are present but don’t approve of the wedding, which creates tension. Recently I worked with a couple who has strained relationships with family, and it weighed heavily on the couple. As we planned the ceremony, the couple was concerned about how it would be received by these disapproving family members. It’s a vulnerable position to be in, and important to create a space for the couple where they felt supported and emotionally safe enough to express themselves honestly, regardless of who may be sitting there in judgment. When family members are missing, we focus on the love and support that is present in the room and there for the couple.
Why would you recommend a lesbian couple collaborate with a Celebrant like yourself for their wedding day?
In collaborating with a Life-Cycle Celebrant®, the lesbian couple can be assured that their ceremony will be crafted with attentiveness, care, and creativity. They will be expertly guided through the entire planning process and their unique ceremony needs will be taken into account. Where they are unsure about something they can rely on their Celebrant’s knowledge; and where they have ideas the Celebrant can show the best way to implement them. The Celebrant will also provide options and resources. Their ceremony will be beautifully personalized to include what is meaningful to them as a couple, and will incorporate the story of their love journey. Prior to the wedding day they get to read the script and give feedback to ensure that the ceremony is exactly as they want it to be.
While there are many Officiants who call themselves Celebrant, I recommend that they work with a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant®, as we have undergone in depth training to conduct rites of passage for couples from all walks of life and faiths.
What advice would you give to a newly engaged couple just getting started on wedding planning?
My advice is, every step of the way, remember the purpose of the wedding and what really matters, which is your love for one another and that you are joining your lives in marriage.
There can be tremendous pressure around wedding planning, some of it can be alleviated if you let go of unrealistic expectations about how the wedding “should” be. Make a plan for how you will handle the stress of planning. As you navigate the wealth of ideas and options that are available, frequently check in with yourselves and each other. See if you’re on track with your intentions or if you want to change course. Respectfully discuss how you are feeling and what your needs are throughout the planning process. Also, tensions can arise among family members, with conflicting desires and opinions. Be supportive of each other, and work as a team in handling problems.
If possible, give yourselves plenty of time to plan. Even a simple wedding with a few guests requires more details that you would imagine; which can be overwhelming if left for last minute. Divide up the tasks so that the work doesn’t become a burden for one of you. Allow trusted friends and family to help. And have fun!
What do you recommend a couple focuses on when creating a wedding ceremony?
I recommend that they focus on their values and what marriage means to them, create the ceremony around that, which will make it authentic. Are there any songs, readings, themes or symbols that characterize their partnership? There are ways to incorporate these and make the ceremony special and specific to the couple. They can include only those elements that are most meaningful to them, no need to include anything that they don’t resonate with. Many couples are concerned about pleasing their families, especially if the families are religious. I encourage the couple to focus on making the ceremony for themselves, and weave in elements they feel comfortable with that will also be appreciated by their families.
In working with a Celebrant they will be asked a lot of questions, this is an important part of the planning process, so it’s helpful to be detailed in their answers.
Can you share any wonderful or surprising moments from some of the lesbian weddings you’ve been a part of?
What’s wonderful about most of them is how well organized they usually are. Because the couples don’t take the legal right to marry for granted, they deeply value it, and put so much time and care into every detail, especially the ceremony. It really makes for a warm, welcoming and joyful experience for all.
The moment of pronouncement is always wonderful, as I say the words and see the look of happiness, excitement and anticipation on their faces for this moment that they have long awaited.
The moment when the father and/or mother walks their daughter down the aisle, the look of pride and joy on the parents faces is very touching.
I remember a couple who married on a mountain top, one of the Brides’ father read 1st Corinthians from his heirloom bible, and the other Bride’s mother read “The Giving Tree”, it was so beautiful and heartfelt.
It’s wonderful when nature seems to give her blessing for the ceremony, such as for one couple’s ceremony the skies had been cloudy, and at the moment they spoke their vows the sun broke through the clouds. Their early dating experience was challenging, so this progression of natural phenomenon was a fitting metaphor for their journey.
One couple had children from previous marriages, they’d all lived together for many years and had become a family. In the ceremony they honored their children with a gift, each received a necklace with an engraved charm in the shape of a puzzle piece, which represented that they each were an important member of the family and together they complete the puzzle, they are complete. It was an emotional moment for all of them and we could all see and feel the love between them.
Your wedding had an abundance of wonderful moments. I remember standing on the deck as twilight fell around us, and a hush among the guests as they listened intently, at times peppered with laughter. The energy was gentle and very peaceful. Your parents were beaming and crying in the front row. And afterward a guest said that the memorial candle Sam had lit for her Mom shone so brightly clear across the lake, like a beacon and a blessing.