The wedding industry, like society at large, is plagued with systemic discrimination that makes it harder for LGBTQ people to say "I do."
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
When Addie Tsai proposed to her partner, she didn't get down on one knee. She'd already bought a cheap rainbow floral engagement ring on Etsy, which she took out after singing Band of Horses' "Marry Song" in the bedroom of their vacation lodge in the mountains in Ruidoso, New Mexico. She asked her partner to make the song a reality; two weeks later, they surprised her with a matching rainbow band of their own.
Tsai and her partner were 36 when they got married. They would have gotten married younger had they had the financial resources, but they didn't want anyone else to pay for their wedding. "We had a very nontraditional wedding, which meant that we ended up inviting only those we felt could truly accept us in all the ways we express ourselves," said Tsai. The couple planned a rainbow-themed wedding, complete with Tsai's fluffy colorful tulle dress.
We know that millennials are waiting longer to get married than previous generations, but the same is true of LGBTQ people, too: We're waiting longer than our cisgender heterosexual counterparts to tie the knot, even with nationwide marriage equality. According to the 2017 Newlywed Report by WeddingWire, an online wedding vendor marketplace, the average age of marriage for opposite-sex couples is 30 for women and 32 for men; for same-sex couples, the average woman marries at 33, with men at 38.
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While 2015's Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision removed many of the legal barriers LGBTQ couples face in seeking marriage, those couples must also contend with a variety of smaller hurdles that explain the age disparity, like a lack of support from friends and family, the heteronormative nature of traditional weddings, their high cost (made even more daunting for queer and multiply marginalized people), and a wedding industry that's still far from inclusive.
"The majority of wedding professionals say that they are ready, willing and able work with LGBTQ couples, but not all have translated that desire into updated language and representation," said Kathryn Hamm, the publisher of GayWeddings, an online wedding planning marketplace for queer couples. "This is especially challenging for men because there is so much 'bridal bias' in the industry, and also for those couples who do not fit a gender-normative mold."
Getting married can also lead to a sort of perpetual coming out for LGBTQ couples, who are made to define their couplehood to wedding professionals, which can put people in an uncomfortable position—particularly in unaccepting communities. "Planning for a wedding ultimately forces a person or a couple to continuously come out again and again to every vendor and venue they're speaking with or hiring," said Kirsten Palladino, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Equally Wed, an online wedding magazine for LGBTQ couples. "It's exhausting and anxiety-producing."
Weddings are also made inaccessible by their sheer cost. According to 2016 study by The Knot, an online wedding news publication, the average cost of a wedding is $35,329. And according to WeddingWire's 2016 Contemporary Couples & Current Wedding Trends Report, 74 percent of same-sex couples pay for their weddings themselves, versus 48 percent of opposite-sex couples. And for LGBTQ people, many of whom face workplace discrimination and wage disparities, those factors make it much more likely they'll be cautious about when they choose to tie the knot.
"There's job inequity for the LGBTQ set, especially ones who aren't deemed visually acceptable by cis straight people: The genderqueer folks who play with both masculine and feminine styles," Palladino noted. In other words, it's harder to get and keep a job if your gender expression isn't clearly defined. According to a 2012 survey by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ legal advocacy group, 76 percent of genderqueer trans people are unemployed, compared to 56 percent of binary trans people.
If you're multiply marginalized, finances might be even tighter. My partner and I, both twenty-four, have talked at length about when we want to get married, since we've been in a committed relationship for eight years and have lived together for two, but we need to hold off because we can't afford a ceremony. We're both multiply marginalized—she's Mexican and I'm disabled—and, like many others in our generation, we both have student loan debt. Though we intend to get married eventually, we don't feel comfortable announcing an official engagement or setting a timeline until we're more financially secure. In contrast, many of our cisgender, heterosexual peers are married or engaged, and several have at least one child.
"Upon getting married, my wife and I faced a steep increase in our student loan payments due to our change in filing, costs related to our ceremony, and other expenses," said Victoria Kirby York, deputy director of the advocacy and action department at the National LGBTQ Task Force, an LGBTQ advocacy group. "For lower income members of our community, marriage can be a financial hardship. Combined with the lack of family support, some couples opt out."
Ludmila Leiva, a queer mixed-race Latina writer and illustrator, said she's had several conversations about marriage with her partner, a queer black woman. "Each time it feels like the happiness is followed up by a looming sadness," Leiva said. "Our families are still struggling to accept our relationship, mostly our mothers, both of whom are women of color from strong cultural backgrounds and religions. For us, the barriers we face aren't systematic as much as they are social; I am currently closeted from the majority of my extended family, as is my partner."
Leiva's struggle raises another important factor in queer marriage: how and when one comes out to their family. According to a 2013 PEW Survey, only 54 percent of all LGBTQ people feel that the most important people in their life know about their identity; the Human Rights Campaign's Supporting and Caring for our Latino LGBT Youth Report shows that only 53 percent of Latinx youth are out to their immediate family, with 29 percent out to their extended family.
Like Tsai and her partner, Leiva's mind is on her hypothetical guest list, and it's not uncommon for queer couples to have to think carefully about who to invite to their wedding and how. "All around me, I see friends in hetero pairings getting engaged and married and it's bittersweet," Leiva said. "I am happy for them, but I am profoundly aware that those circumstances will never be mine—it would be a miracle to have my whole family even in attendance at my wedding."
Although it seems like LGBTQ couples are waiting longer to get married, Kathryn Hamm believes the gap will likely even out with time. "There has been so much change in opportunity in the past ten years. Our community is still settling into our new patterns," said Hamm. And with any hope, the wedding industry and society at large will find new patterns to accommodate us, too.