A Match Made in Heaven | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 14, 2015 News » Cover Story

A Match Made in Heaven 

Marriage equality also means even bigger money for Utah's wedding business

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You are cordially invited to attend the wedding of Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity, scheduled to be held Sunday, May 24, 2015, in downtown Salt Lake City.

If the names Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity sound familiar, it's because they've turned up in both Utah and national news: Kitchen is the named plaintiff in Kitchen v. Herbert, the lawsuit filed in 2013 by three couples challenging Utah's ban on gay marriage, which, nearly 10 years after its passing, was declared unconstitutional by Judge Robert J. Shelby of the U.S. District Court on Dec. 20, 2013.

Because the ruling was immediately appealed, Kitchen and Sbeity chose to wait until the lawsuit had made its way through the judicial system before marrying. Not until Oct. 6, 2014, when the Supreme Court declined to hear further appeals and left intact rulings in favor of the plaintiffs, were Kitchen and Sbeity free to begin making arrangements for their wedding.

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Kitchen said via e-mail that he "didn't realize how much work went into" planning a wedding—though arrangements for this wedding might involve extra effort, given that it will be public, a celebration not only of Kitchen and Sbeity's vows but also of the victory of marriage equality in Utah.

"So many people have been engaged in our journey of bringing marriage equality to Utah and the six states in the 10th Circuit, and we want them to feel that they are welcome to celebrate with us," Kitchen said.

The wedding's theme will be a farmers market, "since that's where we spend most of our time in the summer and where so many of our friends find us," Kitchen said, and they'll rely on local vendors for all elements of the wedding. "Moudi and I are passionate about Salt Lake City, and we're proud to incorporate as much of this city as possible for our big day," Kitchen said.

Not all gay marriages since its legalization have been so elaborate. The first same-sex couple to wed legally in Utah was Seth Anderson and Michael Ferguson, who headed to the Salt Lake County Government Center on Dec. 20, 2013, as soon as they heard about the ruling—before county clerks had been informed.

"Twitter announced our wedding," Anderson says. He tweeted the experience, from the moment the district attorney walked in for a rushed meeting with the clerk, to the notification that they could be issued a license, to enlisting people to perform and witness the ceremony. At 3:12 p.m., he tweeted a cell-phone photo of himself with Ferguson and the caption, "Me and my new husband!! My polygamous Mormon great grandparents would be so proud!"

There was no wedding photographer tailing the couple, taking photos of the moment or staging poses. Instead, there were crowds of people—members of the media, other couples—snapping photos with cell phones or news cameras.

"While I do think marriage is a community event and should be shared with family and friends, the situation in Utah made the ability to plan, prepare, invite impossible, which underscores just how second-class LGBT people have been," Anderson says.

But when they got notice that same-sex marriage was suddenly legal in Utah, "what mattered was that the state (begrudgingly) recognized our marriage and all the rights that came with it. At that precise moment, that was all that mattered to us."

click to enlarge Brian & Duane Jennings - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Brian & Duane Jennings

Duane and Brian Jennings were legally married at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Dec. 23, 2013. They knew they wanted some sort of reception but held off because of uncertainties about whether the state would recognize the marriages, especially after Gov. Gary Herbert announced in January 2014 that it would not.

Now that the state has been forced to recognize their marriage, "we know we want to wait for the right moment" to have a reception, Brian says, "and then we want as much of our family as we can get."

"How many of them will actually come, we don't know," Duane adds.

The couple plans to have a full reception because recognition of their marriage "needs to be public."

"It's for the sake of family, honestly," Brian says. "Whether people thought we were married, we treated it as a marriage." A reception, not just the ceremony at the courthouse, provides recognition of that.

And between the extremes of a pared-down, spur-of-the-moment ceremony and a meticulously planned public event lies an enormous variety of same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies.

LOVE & MONEY

While the opportunity to make money might not be the primary reason to establish marriage equality, doing the right thing for same-sex couples is nonetheless lucrative. Marriage in the United States is not just an institution but an industry, worth over $50 billion a year, according to the market-research firm IBISWorld.

Even the smallest wedding ceremony involves planning and spending, and larger weddings involve a significant outlay: catering, venue rental, photography, rehearsal dinners, flowers, elegant new suits, manicures and haircuts for wedding participants and guests, as well as things like tips to hotel and restaurant staff from out-of-town guests.

The Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California at Los Angeles focused on LGBT issues, looked at spending on gay marriages in states where it was legal and assessed its potential economic impact on states without it. Its April 2014 report for Utah, deliberately cautious in its estimates given that there was a stay on same-sex marriages in place, still projected that "total spending on wedding arrangements and tourism by resident same-sex couples and their guests would add an estimated $15.5 million to the state and local economy of Utah over the course of three years, with a $9.9 million boost in the first year alone." Furthermore, all that spending "would likely add $1 million in sales-tax revenue to state and local coffers."

Many Utah merchants seem aware of the plumping of their bottom line that gay marriage can cause. Every representative of every business who agreed to speak to City Weekly and is quoted in this story was eager to make two things very clear: that they see no significant difference between working with gay couples and working with straight couples, and that they will be absolutely delighted to assist gay couples in achieving the wedding of their dreams. "It's really the same. Love is love, a wedding is a wedding," was stated over and over.

Pressed to note small differences, vendors did note that the planning process itself can often vary with same-sex unions—but usually in a good way.

click to enlarge Miriam Footer of - The Write Image - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Miriam Footer of The Write Image

"When a couple's in love and they come in here, I don't pull any different books. I don't behave any differently; it's exactly the same," said Miriam Footer of The Write Image, a Salt Lake City stationer. But she does note that, as parents are sometimes less involved in same-sex-wedding planning, picking out announcements and invitations can be a smoother process.

When an entire family comes in to help a couple select wedding announcements, differences of opinion can cause bickering, making the process difficult and stressful for everyone, but "with same-sex couples, it tends to be between the couples, and they tend to agree," Footer says. "It can be a little more of a joyful experience when we are selling to a same-sex couple."

Linda Lukanowski of RSVP by Linda in Park City points out that many couples, whether gay or straight, arrive at the altar with complicated family structures. "Divorces, remarriage, stepparents, even deaths come in to play when trying to draft the perfect wording to announce and invite everyone to the big day," Lukanowski says. "By taking the time to explore people's relationships, feelings and thoughts, you can find your way to making it just right."

A SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Among the 11 weddings featured in the 2014 issue of the annual magazine Utah Bride & Groom is Bryan Nash and Nathan Judd's commitment ceremony at the Natural History Museum of Utah in September 2013.

The logo of the magazine is the words "Utah Bride" in a large font, with "& Groom" tucked below, almost an afterthought, but no arrow or editor's note tells readers that this wedding is any different from the others featured, beyond its title, "Making History," a clever play on the venue for the ceremony—and, presciently, for what happened three months later. The magazine happened to hit newsstands Dec. 23, 2013, as Nash and Judd stood in line at the courthouse for a marriage license the Monday after the Shelby ruling.

Nash and Judd didn't have a marriage license on the day of their ceremony, but beyond that and the personal details that make any wedding unique, it wasn't set apart from the other events in the magazine, neither by the editors nor by anything in the ceremony's makeup.

That was a point of pride for Mara Marian of Fuse Weddings & Events, who planned the ceremony. "I attend a lot of industry conferences, and as gay marriage became legal in different states, there was a lot of talk about marketing to same-sex couples, and it's such a turn-off to me," she says. "I read somewhere that just because you're gay you don't need a gay doctor. We don't do any special marketing for the gay community. I've opted not to do that because I don't want to even label gay weddings as gay weddings. They're just weddings. They're just clients."

The real point is to tailor the wedding to the couple, whether they're gay or straight, Marian says. "Everything we do is custom. I want to get to know my couple regardless. I want to know what's important to them, what's not important, what traditions they want to keep and what they want to get rid of. We like to tailor the process to our couples and what makes sense for them."

And in the case of same-sex weddings, there's often "a lot more focus on the couple," Marian says. "It's much more important to them to focus on this 10-year relationship that they're finally making official."

That was the case for Judd and Nash, Utah natives who currently live in Las Vegas but decided to have their commitment ceremony in Salt Lake City, since so many of their family and friends still live here.

"The theme of our commitment ceremony was, '10 years together, committing to forever,'" Nash says. "Even though to us it always was real, we really wanted to make it real in front of others."

Because there was no legal aspect to the ceremony, Nash designed a big parchment paper with a photo of the couple and a line for each guest. "Instead of, 'Before the eyes of God,' it was, 'Before you as our witnesses,' the 100 guests who were there, and we had each guest sign it—it was their endorsement for our wedding," Nash says.

Footer has noticed that many same-sex unions seem to be more inclusive from the get-go. The couples often eschew tradition in the wording of the announcement, she says, and "tend to give thanks and inclusion not only to their family, but friends. Often in the wording of the invitation, it will say, 'Because you've shared in our lives, we'd like you to share in our joy.' It's not just a familial thing. It tends to invite more community."

A PARTICULAR SET OF SKILLS

While many couples have successful DIY weddings, some vendors suggest that their professional skill can be all the more important for same-sex couples.

click to enlarge David Daniel of Dav.d Photography - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • David Daniel of Dav.d Photography

"In straight weddings, the groom just has to worry about a tuxedo and then be there on the appointed day," says David Daniel of Dav.d Photography. "In a gay marriage with two grooms, they get to do all the planning, and often don't know the ins and outs of planning a wedding. So as a photographer, I often find myself doing a little bit of coaching and giving some suggestions at least to scheduling and events."

Given that they're already changing protocol by not marrying a person of the opposite sex, many same-sex couples also feel freer to adapt or forgo convention to tailor a wedding that suits their personalities.

"Sometimes, tradition can bog traditional marriage celebrations down," Footer says. "And when you don't have that to fight with, it's just a party."

Wedding planner Marian concurs. "A lot of these couples are open to more innovative ideas," she says. "They don't have a vision that they've been stuck on for two decades, so they're more open to doing things different."

Some traditions do stick. Jenna Cole, manager of the Brides Shop in Salt Lake City, says that when both brides elect to wear wedding dresses, they still maintain the tradition of not being seen in their dress by their future spouse until the wedding. "I've never had a same-sex couple come in at the same time," she says. "They like to keep what they're wearing a secret. They come in with a friend or someone they both know who will keep the secret what each bride is wearing, but help them coordinate. I think it's cute. It's super fun."

click to enlarge Jenna Cole, manger of The Brides Shop - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Jenna Cole, manger of The Brides Shop

Cole admits she was initially surprised the first time she helped a woman who was marrying another woman, but that the feeling wore off quickly. "She was a regular bride and we treated her like a regular bride," Cole says. "We're here to help women and girls on their wedding day and help find their dream dress, be their consultant, help them style their dress and help them figure out ways to make their wedding complete. We don't care who you're marrying. We just want to help."

Now that Cole has worked with several same-sex couples, "maybe the most surprising thing is how shy they sometimes are to tell you," she says. "Usually we start out with, 'Who are you marrying?' When we're in the dressing room, that's what we ask them. I've had girls just kind of beat around the bush and try not to say anything, and then eventually she'll say, 'Oh, she's a girl.' And I'm always like, 'That's great!'"

Hannah Herman, manager of Tuxedos by Lee in West Jordan, also describes working with same-sex couples as "fun." The same-sex couples she has helped were women, which "was a new experience." The women "were real fun to work with. Definitely a fun group of people to have in the store," she says.

What mattered most was what mattered with every group she works with: pleasing the patrons. "It's definitely something I shoot for, working in customer service," Herman says. "I love seeing people leave happy."

For Daniel, having a professional onhand to focus on that happiness above all else can save the day itself, and memories of it.

Part of his job, he says, is to coax couples into poses that capture the love involved in a wedding.

"Some gay couples are afraid to show affection in front of the camera, at least in a public setting," he says. "Often they are fearful of a homophobic reaction."

click to enlarge Megan Berrett and Candice Green - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Megan Berrett and Candice Green

Megan Berrett and Candice Green, who had a reception in South Jordan before flying to New York City in 2012 to be legally married in a ceremony in Central Park, were anxious about planning a gay wedding celebration in a conservative area of the Salt Lake Valley.

"Every number we called—be it caterer, florist, photographers—we first asked if it was OK that we were a gay couple," Green says. But everyone responded with "nothing but support," she says. "Noah's, the reception place, told us we were their first gay couple, and they were excited about that."

Even vendors the women could recognize as LDS "talked to us with excitement as if we were any couple," she says.

It was a welcome change for the two. "We had many extended family members refuse to come to the reception and even say very cruel things before and after," Green says "But all the professionals were sweet and loving."

FAMILY DRAMA

While every wedding day involves stress, Daniel says, "gay couples seem to deal with a bit more family drama. Not all family members will be in support of gay marriage, and so some family choose not to attend. It depends on the level of support from family members."

click to enlarge Seth Anderson & Michael Ferguson - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Seth Anderson & Michael Ferguson

Michael Ferguson jokingly calls his and Seth Anderson's landmark legal union a "shotgun wedding," but adds that it was perfect, in that "it avoided the pain of having an enormous party to celebrate my life and my love, and then have it become yet another reminder of why and how I hurt my family. Those are painful events. And who wants the most meaningful relationship ritual marred by family demons?"

But for other couples, involving family is integral to the couple's sense of commitment, even with drama to manage.

Berrett and Green were both raised in traditional LDS homes. "We didn't want to feel like we were just living together; we wanted the legal commitment to protect and honor each other," Green says.

Joseph Broom and Mark Koepke had been together almost two years when Koepke was diagnosed in 2013 with inoperable prostate cancer, which made it important to formalize their relationship. (Koepke's cancer is currently contained through various treatments, and he is living an active and otherwise healthy life.)

Their small commitment ceremony in their Holladay backyard in August 2013 was also a way, Broom says, to "'educate' guests (who ranged from gay men to orthodox Mormon neighbors) about what it means to be gay" as well as to "make a statement to our families" about acceptance—particularly since two of Broom's 10 children from a straight marriage will have nothing to do with him.

Broom and Koepke were legally married in Hawaii in April 2014, but that, Broom says, "was a mere formality."

Those early commitment ceremonies and receptions, though not legally binding in Utah, may have helped to pave the way for marriage equality by making it more familiar and less frightening.

"There has been no stronger vehicle to humanize gay, lesbian and transgender Americans than marriage," says Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. "Marriage is a universal institution. All cultures have some form of marriage, in some capacity. We all connect to this idea of companionship, love, building a family, as well as the economic importance of marriage. As more people started getting married, it started this momentum, and it opened up people's hearts and minds in a way that no other political movement for LGBT folks has."

For Bryan Nash and Nathan Judd, it was that new acceptance that made them feel comfortable about their ceremony being featured in Utah Bride & Groom—beyond the fact that "it's a compliment and flattering, and who doesn't like to see themself in a magazine?" Nash says with a laugh.

"But my husband, especially, has deep business and family roots in Salt Lake City, and it was like, 'All right, the gig is going to be officially up now,"— they would be out of the closet not only to friends and family but to everyone.

"If this had been five or six or more years ago, it would have been a different conversation than we had about publishing it," Nash says. "But I feel like Utah as a whole and people that we know have progressed enough that we felt comfortable going ahead and running the spread."

And just three months later, while they visited family in Utah for Christmas, Shelby's ruling meant that they could be legally wed in their home state.

THEN COMES EQUALITY

But there is still work to do for LGBT rights—work that was considered foundational elsewhere. "Typically, in Massachusetts and eastern states, non-discrimination laws came first, then came marriage," Williams says. "In Utah, we've inverted that. You can get fired and evicted from your homes because of your sexual orientation or gender identity. You can be denied service in restaurants, buses, taxis. And until we have access to all of those freedoms and all of those liberties, we are not full citizens of the United States of America."

The ultimate objective of the LGBT movement now is "full legal equality in all areas governed by civil law," Williams says. "Now, we have to make the case to Utahns of why it's wrong to fire or evict someone, a hard-working Utahn who just wants their shot at the American dream."

But the LGBT community does not want "to force churches or synagogues to marry gay couples," he says. "There's no desire to impose that on any faith. I know that's a fear that some people have, but there's no movement or effort. The First Amendment protects churches."

"There's very much a live-and-let-live attitude, so over time, those fears will dissipate," Williams continues. "We don't want to be sore winners. We want to reach out to our critics, our adversaries, and find ways to make friends. We've got to begin the healing process in this state."

THE OTHER SIDE

Although the focus is now on the benefits of legal marriage to gay couples, eventually, some married gay couples will avail themselves of the court system to end their marriages—but this, too, is a good thing, many in the legal system say.

"The availability of legal divorce that comes with legal marriage will allow gay couples access to the orderly, equitable and civil process for dissolving their relationship that divorce provides," said Steven Garff, an attorney with Price Parkinson & Kerr, PLLC, in Salt Lake City. "Some people who have been through divorce may take issue with some of those adjectives, but legal divorce is generally much better than the alternatives. The simple ability to turn the fighting over to your attorney so that you don't have to deal with the dispute directly can be a life-saver for some."

Brian E. Arnold, a partner at Arnold & Wadsworth, a firm with offices in Salt Lake City, Lehi and Ogden, thinks that gay divorce will also force courts to grapple more directly with gender bias, in large part because of custody questions.

"No longer will there be the argument in a custody battle that the mother is a better caretaker of the children than the father," Arnold wrote via e-mail. "Now that you will be dealing with two mothers or two fathers who are raising the child (whether through adoption or artificial insemination), the stereotype that the mother is the better caretaker of the child won't apply. I believe better child-custody determination factors will also be developed, that will be more gender-neutral than the present factors we have in place."

Other legal details must change as well: "The child-support calculator will need an option for two moms and two dads instead of just one option of 'mom' and 'dad.' Title 30 of the Utah Code (the statutes governing marriage) will need to be revamped to include definitions and conformity for gay couples that was afforded to heterosexual couples. All the divorce forms will have to change. Child-protective-order forms will need to change."

Arnold believes that rather than being a threat to straight marriage, legal recognition of gay marriage can benefit straight marriage. "As the law develops in regard to domestic partnerships and gay marriage," Arnold says, it's probable that "the law will become clearer, and it will progress in a way that will help people argue their cases in more detail. I believe it will provide judges with better standards to rely on as they make custody determinations. I'm hoping that as these cases progress through the court, it will lead to better law in divorce actions overall."

Ultimately, all anyone has about what the long-term fruits of marriage equality will be in Utah are guesses—many of them extremely educated and well-informed, but guesses nonetheless.

But as David Daniel of Dav.d Photography puts it, "It will be an exciting time for sure."

And don't forget: Everyone is invited.

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