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Gay Wedding Etiquette: A guide to hosting and attending a same-sex wedding

Same sex wedding at Willowdale Estate (Topsfield, MA)
Same sex wedding at Willowdale Estate (Topsfield, MA)
Krista Guenin/Flickr/Creative Commons

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Same-sex marriages were only legalized just one year ago this week in California, but perhaps only now have you just opened up your mailbox to find an invite for your first gay wedding. 

While a wedding is just a wedding, same-sex weddings are something new. You might wonder if there's a specific etiquette and set of rules to follow.

Steven Petrow, author of "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay and Lesbian Manners" and a columnist for the Washington Post, spoke with Take Two and offered advice.

For couples who decide to get married, what tradition is developing when it comes to proposing?

For many gay couples, they kind of stumble into the idea of getting gay married. Oftentimes, a state just legalizes it, and two guys or two women will be sitting around saying, "Well, honey, do you think we should get married now?" Maybe the other one's watching "Jeopardy" and they say "sure."

I think I've seen a survey from The Knot and The Advocate magazine that says in 58 percent of same-sex couples, someone does make a proposal, versus 91 percent of what I call an opposite-sex couple.

In an opposite-sex proposal, generally, the man proposes to the woman with an engagement ring. How does it work in same-sex relationships?

What tends to happen is that they will go to a jewelry store together, and they will pick out either matching rings or complementary rings. That's what my husband and I did. He paid for mine, I paid for his. He's never let me forget that mine was more expensive than his!

But also there's a good number of same-sex couples who eschew the ring notion and are buying watches as their symbol of their engagement about time and longevity. That's an interesting twist, and I'm seeing that among the millennials more.

Does it make sense to still host separate bachelor/bachelorette parties?

You're right: It's not really as though you have his friends and the other's friends. They're one set of friends. But what I've seen — and what statistics bear out — is that these pre-wedding parties tend not to happen. It's more that there are post-wedding parties — brunch or after-party type of thing — because there's really not that necessity to escape to Vegas.

As a couple, are you obligated to invite family members who've spoken out against gay marriage in the past?

I understand the hurt, and I understand the inclination to either want to hurt them back or not to have them present. But I suggested [to one advice-seeker that she] open her heart one more time and invite them. Family should trump politics. It should trump religion. I would hope that these parents would open their hearts to her and say, "This is our daughter. She's only going to get married once."

I actually asked one of the members of an advocacy group that's against same-sex marriage what his advice would be for these parents. He said, despite their objections to same-sex weddings, he encouraged the parents to go as well for the very same reasons: Love their daughter. Family first. That's often how political beliefs change: by knowing LGBT people who get married and seeing these ceremonies and understanding they're about love.

If I attend a same-sex wedding, what are some new traditions I should be aware of?

It's less common that parents will be escorting either of their children down the aisle. The ritual of being given away by a parent doesn't quite make sense there. However, it does happen from time to time, and I think it's a lovely gesture, nonetheless. You may have also seen in some of the weddings you've been to that the bride's family sits on one side and the groom's on the other side.

Again, because so many of the friends have been intermingled for a long time, there's mixing from the very start in terms of where people sit. If there's any one moment that seems the most different, it's in the pronouncement. The first time I heard two of my friends pronounced as "husband and husband," it really struck me: This is marriage. The words are a little tweaked, but it's the same thing. It takes a little getting used to, as do these monikers: husbands and wives.

What is the general makeup of the wedding party if there aren't separate maids of honor and groomsmen?

There's a lot of role-bending and gender-bending around these positions. Modern couples of all sorts are choosing people whom they're closest to to fill these roles, so that's a slight difference.

What are common faux pas that you've seen guests commit at same-sex weddings?

This is a joke, but I have found that a number of gay friends of mine: They don't understand that weddings start right on time. That's probably the most important thing that I can tell anyone. When we look at more specific things, it's how each member of the couple refers to each other.

The default is "husbands" and "wives." But it's taking a while for straight friends to get habituated to that. We've kind of gone from "lovers" in the early '90s to "partners," and partners was so confusing because are they business partners or are they lover partners? Now it's husbands. So I often counsel: Be sure to listen to how two men or two women are referring to each other, and follow suit.

What's a final suggestion you have for couples tying the knot?

One of the benefits of paying for your own wedding, which is what 86 percent of same-sex couples are doing, is less meddling from any in-laws. There are certainly monsters-in-law in any family, and when you pay, you have a little bit more room to do it your way!