I've been to no fewer than 12 weddings in the past few years. I have brought a romantic date to exactly none of them.
This is logical when you consider that many of these weddings happened to fall during my most single years, in which I never dated anyone seriously enough to warrant such an invitation. But even having been in a serious relationship for the past year and half of wedding invites, there always seems to be a convenient timing conflict (or a plus-one deficiency) available as an excuse for me to leave my boyfriend at home.
Of course, I'd love for us to be able to celebrate the unions of my friends and loved ones together. But if I'm being honest, there's an element of relief the both of us feel every time we learn we won't have to attend a wedding as the gay couple that we are. It feels good to be excused from what I imagine would be a series of awkward moments — along with an unavoidable negotiation with feelings of shame and pride that come with being gay in such a heavily gendered environment.
Coming face-to-face with generational divides: A main source of anxiety around this topic is old people. As an indicator of general LGBT acceptance, Pew Research Center data from last year found that 70% of millennials have a favorable attitude toward same-sex marriage. This compares to just 45% of Baby Boomers and 39% of the Silent Generation — both generations that are liable to be present at most any wedding, throwback suits and sequin-heavy gowns and all.
Yes, even some of the most elderly of elders have come to enthusiastically embrace their gay family members. But the slow march of history, the entrenched nature of old ways and the data suggests that plenty of people from our parents' and their parents' generations just may never quite get there, even now that same-sex marriage has passed.
As Sarah Kate Ellis of GLAAD told the New York Times, "We want to make sure that marriage is looked at as the benchmark and not the finish line. Where are the hearts and minds of Americans?"
And where are the hearts and minds of grandma and grandpa when they encounter IRL gays embracing on the dance floor of, say, their only granddaughter's big day? The issue with weddings is that you never know what kinds of people might be in the room. Most weddings are likely to involve a mix of all types, an army of older strangers whose comfort levels you know absolutely nothing about.
"Most weddings are likely to involve a mix of all types, an army of older strangers whose comfort levels you know absolutely nothing about."
Forced to make a decision: While some gay people may typically have no fucks to give about making strangers uncomfortable with outward displays of gayness, straight weddings can complicate the impulse. They're not exactly the best place to make "we're here, we're queer, get used to it!" statements, seeing as they're events meant to celebrate the bride and groom and make sure they have as great an experience as possible.
And it's a pretty safe bet that getting their homophobic Uncle Herb all wound up over a gay kiss during cocktail hour wouldn't qualify as "great," even if your personal opinion is that their Uncle Herb is a backwards asshole.
So gay couples who choose to attend these weddings are left with two options. They could dance and be merry and gay, not caring about inadvertently making a big gay scene — a choice one might expect of more enlightened, proud, self-loving gays. Or they could tone their relationship down until it basically resembles a friendship — behavior that in other contexts feels uncomfortably like self-loathing by gay men who are ashamed of themselves.
The best example of this game-time decision is the first slow dance song, which, once the first notes are sounded, forces gay couples to make a choice between living up to their claims of being out and proud, or essentially going back into the closet for the three-minute duration of "At Last."
James* is a 35-year-old therapist from Connecticut who recently attended a straight wedding with his boyfriend. Knowing that some older members of the bride's family were a bit old-fashioned, they decided to try and meet somewhere in the middle of blatant and discreet.
"We didn't try to act like 'buddies' who happen to be at a wedding together," he said in an instant message to Mic. "But we didn't make ourselves stick out in any way that could steal spotlight from the newly married couple. We didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable."
This meant opting out of the slow dances. "Neither of us felt comfortable enough to do it," he said. "I sort of wish I had the confidence to slow dance, but I knew my boyfriend would be more weirded out by it than me. There was certainly no PDA, but we posed for many photos as any couple would." As for the bride's conservative family, he said, "they seemed friendly enough."
"We didn't make ourselves stick out in any way that could steal spotlight from the newly married couple."
Alicia*, a 24-year-old writer in Brooklyn, recently made a different decision while attending a family wedding with her girlfriend of three years.
"I didn't feel judged at all by her family members, although for older generations I think the word 'girlfriend,' which we use to describe our relationship to each other, can be kind of confusing," she said. "I overheard her parents explaining that we weren't just roommates to a few different guests."
They wound up taking the plunge on the slow dance, though the fact that they were the only gay couple in attendance didn't go unnoticed. "I definitely was more up for slow dancing than she was at first, as I think she felt a little self-conscious in front of her family," she said. "But I didn't feel like I was less affectionate than normal."
Of all the gay couples I know, just one told me that they were able to go into straight weddings with a total DGAF attitude toward the opinions of any unknown bigots in attendance. Kyle* and his boyfriend, both ballroom dancing enthusiasts, have been to nuptials of a number of friends and family members, and they have consciously acted "pretty couple-y" at all of them, in Kyle's words.
"We even ballroom danced together at one, in spite of what we thought other people would think," he said. "Everyone was pretty excited about it, and we didn't really hear anything from the old folks. Another wedding was for my good friends from [college], one of whom came from a rather strict family and had a number of older Southern family members in attendance. They all seemed cool."
"We even ballroom danced together at one, in spite of what we thought other people would think."
A highly gendered tradition: Kyle's story makes me think that my hesitation to attend a straight wedding as part of a gay couple has just as much to do with my own discomfort as with the discomfort of any potential guests. Weddings, like so many other ubiquitous life cycle traditions, are so overtly gendered — from bridesmaids to groomsmen to the bouquet to the garter — that attending as a gay couple means being hyper-aware of one's gayness, to the degree that it's hard not to imagine standing out.
Maybe most guests wouldn't actually think twice about sharing the floor with gays during a slow dance. Or if they did have an issue, maybe they'd keep it to themselves for the same reason the gay wedding guests may feel compelled to opt out of the slow dance in the first place — out of consideration for the couple.
But the internal calculations that go into that guessing game are an indicator of how deeply ingrained homophobia and plain ol' hetero norms are in society. While legislation and representation do wonders for the rights of LGBT people, they don't always change minds and hearts, particularly of older generations, so quickly — nor do they change the pervasiveness of traditional marriage customs.
But hopefully, maybe in a generation or two, two people who love each other will be able to dance at a wedding without having to think twice about whether or not they made the right decision. Until then, navigating these events is likely to be a little more complicated than it ought to for gay couples. Like the bride and groom at the altar, they're forced to make a choice.
* Names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.