» Post-Marriage Equality Outlook For Gay and Lesbian Weddings

This post was written by WeddingWire Education Expert Kathryn Hamm, Publisher of GayWeddings.com, the leading online resource dedicated to serving same-sex couples since 1999. Kathryn is also co-author of the groundbreaking book, The New Art of Capturing Love: The Essential Guide to Lesbian and Gay Wedding Photography. Follow her on Twitter @madebykathryn.

In many respects, the wedding industry has already been doing the work it needs to do to embrace and better serve same-sex couples. In a recent poll by WeddingWire, for example, we found that 90% of wedding professionals are already serving or planning to serve same-sex couples. This doesn’t mean, however, that our work is a fait accompli, but it does mean that we are on the right path. Wedding pros must continue to evaluate the inclusivity of their marketing materials, consider how they interface with prospective clients, and understand the needs of the LGBTQ client.

For those of you wondering “What’s Next?”, here are a few broad brush strokes on the canvas that will eventually represent the outcomes of the post-marriage equality market and the themes that I’ll be keeping tabs on in the months ahead.

What does the post-marriage equality market look like for gay and lesbian couples?Couples can now marry in 50 states, but how level is the playing field?

The one thing that simplifies any educational efforts in the field is that we no longer need to lead with how the legal status of individual states impacts the choices a lesbian or gay couple might make in where to marry. With the Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2015, same-sex couples may now marry legally in all 50 states, and all 50 states will also recognize out-of-state marriages.

Those couples who are located in or choose to marry in states where same-sex marriage has been recognized for several years are likely to have an easier time with their planning. In these areas the market has adjusted, Pros have had experience serving same-sex couples and, as a result, lesbian and gay couples are likely to have a deeper pool of seasoned Pros from which to choose.

In the thirteen states that have only recently come to recognize same-sex marriage (and in rural areas compared to urban areas), it’s possible that some couples will have difficulty finding experienced Pros and encounter vendors who are not yet ready, willing and able to serve them. It is also true, however, that same-sex couples will also encounter fabulous allies who are able to provide superior service in those states.

All of this to say that the playing field is not level as far as experience goes on a state-by-state basis, but we’ll get there now that marriage equality is the law of the land in 50 states.

What will same-sex weddings look like in the next two years?

In the past decade, we’ve seen a range of wedding options that have evolved based on each couple’s individual needs. This included legal elopements (traveling out-of-state for a marriage certificate or running down to City Hall for a quick marriage once the laws changed), non-legal wedding ceremonies, big weddings, small weddings, creative weddings, traditional weddings and so on. One of the biggest changes will be that the backlog of couples who have been together for years will abate and the majority of same-sex couples will begin to follow a more typical relationship trajectory (meet, date, get engaged, get married).

This means that the once-skewed average newlywed age amongst gay couples will begin to decrease and track more closely with the average age when today’s non-LGBT couples are marrying. As a result, we’ll see wedding planning statistics begin to track more closely with heterosexual couples. This doesn’t mean that we’ll reject all of our creative planning techniques or that our weddings will be embraced in the same way that a heterosexual couple’s might be, but one should expect to see more assimilation with each passing month of marriage equality. And this will occur not just based on what couples are looking for, but also because of what the wedding industry is offering us.

How does marriage equality impact my small business?

Here’s a way to think of this that you might not yet have previously considered. Beyond the fact that, as a small business in a competitive market, you’ll need to think about making sure that your business practices are inclusive to same-sex couples, you’ll also need to consider your employees. If you employ folks who are LGBT and are now legally married (or soon will be), you’ll need to make sure that you’ve updated your business practices and benefits packages. Entrepreneur has a great summary on how the gay marriage decision impacts every business, offering this reminder: “To put it simply, if you have a gay employee who will now be recognized as married in your state, every form that employee has filled out that has a check box for “married or single” needs to be reviewed and probably updated.”

And, of course, the business owners who do not support marriage equality on the basis of their religious beliefs will need to consult with a local lawyer and proceed thoughtfully. In any state where a non-discrimination law exists to protect LGBT persons, rejecting clients on the basis of sexual orientation (even due to religious beliefs) may put one at risk for a lawsuit. In areas where there are conflicting laws or no anti-discrimination laws in place, the risks still remain but the course remains uncharted. For now. Expect (see below) this question about the freedom of one’s religious beliefs and the right to marriage equality to play out as a contentious civil rights disagreement in the year ahead, especially with the 2016 Presidential race upon us.

How did the market fare on the media predictions about an economic windfall?

If there’s any theme that has frustrated me over the years, it has been the media’s attention to the “economic windfall” storyline. I certainly understand where it comes from and how it has been perpetuated, but it’s been incredibly frustrating to me because the lack of clarity on the nuance of the storyline often leaves wedding pros feeling disappointed. They feel they have been told that same-sex marriage will arrive and, like magic, everyone will make money.

It is true that marriage equality has brought market expansion. Marriage equality is good for business. And, it is true that local and state jurisdictions have experienced a temporary or sustained growth by including a once neglected segment of the marriage market. But, some of those dollars go to sources other than the average wedding professional. And, what an individual wedding pro stands to make as added revenue depends on a number of factors.

Ultimately, I feel that the media hasn’t been as responsible in reporting the economic growth storyline as it could be, but journalists are getting better about it. And, certainly, one of the last bumps we can expect to see will come from the 13 states that have just recently legalized marriage equality. Once those wedding contracts have been signed and paid, and once those couples have updated their 2015 or 2016 tax filing status and paid the ‘marriage tax penalty’ just like non-LGBT couples, we’ll have a better sense of the true (short-term) economic impact of marriage equality.

What marriage-related headlines will dominate the media cycle in the year ahead?

The biggest storylines in the next 12 months will be those related to the small group of wedding professionals who refuse to serve same-sex couples based on a religious objection, and the same-sex couples who sue them for doing so.

Even though marriage equality has landed in all 50 states, the law is not uniform relative to this issue. Religious liberty advocates and LGBT civil rights advocates will continue to push this debate in the court of public opinion while lawsuits will also wind their way through the courts. In recent months, there have been two decisions finding in favor of same-sex couples who sued small business owners after being denied services, but the debate is long from over.

In my opinion, the danger of oversimplifying this conversation is that we lose the opportunity for the market to help resolve organically some of the issue (those who are against marriage equality are likely to lose business from LGBT and non-LGBT couples alike in the mainstream market), and it interferes with an ongoing respectful dialogue about how love, commitment and freedom matter to both communities. Many difficult conversations are ahead, but it’s important that we realize that our answer doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. A recent piece on gay rights and religious freedoms in The Economist suggests as much.

I encourage all wedding professionals, including those with religious differences, to accept with open arms and hearts the same-sex couples who call upon them. Find a way to serve them to the best of your ability. Do what you need to do to educate yourself on what same-sex weddings are all about. And, if you plan to refuse to serve same-sex couples or are worried about what you might say or how you should say it, consult first with a lawyer who is familiar with local and state law in order to avoid an expensive and costly mistake.

Overall, gay weddings have brought a wonderful new set of considerations to wedding planning, largely because of our need to re-think the assumptions of gender roles prescribed by wedding tradition. I’m a staunch believer that all couples — straight or gay — should be able to plan a wedding that reflects their most authentic selves rather than a bride and groom role outlined for them by others. Straight couples can learn a lot from gay weddings and I hope that wedding professionals will re-think some of their habits to better serve all couples as we move forward into this new era.

Photo courtesy of Chil Studios