The dust had barely settled—no, scratch that, was still settling—in our Highlandtown rehab when Holly started not-so-subtly hinting she wanted to get married. Her eyes were full of hearts, just like a cartoon. I was pretty cartoon-like myself, hearts in my eyes and floating above my head. Then we’d hug, and I’d abandon whatever we were doing to slow-dance in our new southeast Baltimore kitchen.
Our lives had been non-stop adventure since we’d serendipitously met in April 2001. I was a reporter in Silver Spring, not even a year out of college. Holly had just moved to Baltimore from her hometown in western Pennsylvania. Clad in all black with pink-streaked hair and a bleach-spotted jean jacket, I was a Jersey girl in need of an attitude adjustment. She was clean-cut, had never even been to New Jersey, and actually wore colors. But we worked. We were everything we never knew we needed. And 11-plus years later, we’re still going strong.
By the time we moved into our second D.C. apartment, Holly announced she wanted to gut and renovate a house in Baltimore. We moved to Reisterstown in 2005, and a year later, we found a boarded-up Highlandtown row home. Seven months later, we moved in. And a year later, Holly popped the question on a chilly horse-drawn-carriage ride in Central Park. “I was wondering,” she said, her voice shaking, not from the cold but from nerves, “If you weren’t doing anything with the rest of your life, maybe you’d like to spend it with me?”
The city, glazed in its nighttime holiday glory, spun around us, but in that moment, it was just the two of us in the winter air, frosty puffs of breath floating between our faces, the gentle gait of the horse, a song playing in the park’s famous ice rink just behind us.
As any bride knows, getting engaged is the easy part. But for a same-sex couple, getting engaged can present a dizzying array of challenges not faced by heterosexual couples. As we hurried in the cold, hand-in-hand past shimmering Fifth Avenue storefronts back to our hotel, uncertainties flooded my brain: Would our families be excited for us? Would our friends be up for the challenge of helping us with this momentous event? What rabbi would marry us? And would a kosher caterer be willing to cater a same-sex wedding? And how were we going to pay for it?
Some people close to us acted downright ridiculous when we got engaged. It was like the fact that one of us wasn’t a man flipped the whole wedding thing upside down and the usual guidelines didn’t apply. Holly and I were together for more than six years when we got engaged, yet members of our families acted surprised, shocked even, that we wanted to get married.
Because we both happen to be women, I guess we’re not supposed to want what heterosexual couples want? To pledge our love to one another in front of friends and family? To have comfort that we’ll be there for each other, in body and spirit, no matter what, for the rest of our lives? We’re not entitled to that? Really? A sampling of some of the finer comments we received: “Why do you have to take it this far?” “Who’s wearing the tux and who’s wearing the dress?” And my personal favorite: “Why are you doing this to us?”
I think I cried more as we were planning our wedding in the summer of 2008 than I have at any other time in my entire life, including when I was a closeted teen in northern New Jersey in the mid ’90s. And I had really bad hair back then. So that’s really saying something. My tears seemed to have no end. They came from a place deep within me; a place I didn’t even know existed. I felt pink and raw inside. “If we’re supposed to be happy,” I thought, “why are we so miserable?” Everyone was too worried about their own selves to think about how we were feeling.
We were out in left field, and we knew it. But we were gonna do the damn thing. And it was going to be fabulous.
We planned, and we planned. And support came from the unlikeliest of places: my elderly Floridian relatives—all in their 80s—expressed sheer delight over our upcoming nuptials; strangers commenting on my blog as I detailed our struggles; my wonderful Belarusian dressmaker and her assistant, who barely spoke English, but the love in their eyes expressed their joy; our incredible wedding photographer. Once I opened myself up and gave people a chance, they surrounded me—they surrounded us—with love, and it helped ease my aching heart. I got a therapist who encouraged me to open up to friends. I took her advice, and my closest companions helped carry the load, some of them from thousands of miles away.
Once I opened myself up and gave people a chance, they surrounded me—they surrounded us—with love, and it helped ease my aching heart.
We zeroed in on our dream venues: the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center for our ceremony (steps away from where we met) and the Human Rights Campaign Equality Center, just down the street, for our reception. We found a wonderful rabbi to marry us, and planned a traditional Jewish wedding. Every time we met with the rabbi in her little wooden-floored study, I got a huge lump in my throat and started tearing up. Holly wasn’t far behind me in that department. We loved each other so much we couldn’t speak.
The kosher caterer we hoped would cater our wedding said yes, and gave us a hearty mazel tov. Before I knew it, I was standing in my dressmaker’s little shop in Pikesville, gazing at myself, completely transformed in my dream wedding dress. And then I was walking down the aisle, to Holly—my heart, my life—who was looking at me like she couldn’t believe this was actually happening. We made it. We were getting married.
We made ancient Jewish traditions our own, circling around each other under the chuppah, just as we’d practiced in the rabbi’s study months earlier. I did the first three. Then Holly. Then we held hands, locked eyes and did the last one together. The rabbi did the Sheva Brachot, the seven blessings traditionally recited at Jewish weddings. I felt my late grandmother watching from heaven. And with that, we were married. The rabbi put a special canvas-wrapped glass we had chosen months earlier on the floor. I lifted my right foot. Holly lifted her left. We stomped down and broke it. (My little pearlescent Steven Madden kitten heel had stood up to the challenge.)
“MAZEL TOV!” everyone shouted.
People still talk about our wedding. They tell us how meaningful our ceremony was. How gorgeous the reception hall was. How delicious the kosher Middle Eastern food was (shawarma, falafel, and kabobs). How much they liked the dress code. (“Jean chic,” we told everyone.) How great the music was. How fitting the fall weather was. Everyone seemed to love absolutely everything.
Our wedding—or “Big Fat Gay Wedding” as I call it on my blog—was indeed magical, but more for our guests than us. Why? Because we were stressed and exhausted. But the silver lining is that I’ve had the chance to marry Holly three more times since then: March 17, 2010, in Washington, D.C., just weeks after Maryland’s attorney general issued a legal opinion stating that the state could recognize same-sex marriages performed out-of-state (D.C. legalized same-sex marriage in 2009); then New York City and Brattleboro, VT, in November 2011. We decided that until America begins recognizing same-sex weddings federally, we’re going to get married in every single state where it’s legal.
From those weddings, all of them different, I’d like to think that Holly and I have become same-sex wedding experts, enjoying the occasional opportunity to dole out advice to other same-sex couples preparing to tie the knot. But the more advice we give, the more we realize: Same-sex weddings and opposite-sex weddings share many of the same challenges. Even more so if the couple breaks the mold somehow, whether it’s age difference, race, religion, you name it. If you and your partner are somehow different from the norm, someone’s going to have a problem with it.
But you know what? It’s their problem. If I could have only understood that when planning our first wedding, I would have cried a whole lot less, and enjoyed myself a whole lot more.
The good news is we still have Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Iowa—and now, at long last, our home state of Maryland (along with Maine and Washington state)—to keep having weddings. Marrying again and again helps us renew our faith that the rest of America will start seeing same-sex marriage for what it is—not “gay marriage,” just marriage. We had a big wedding with all the trimmings because we wanted everyone close to us—even those who weren’t thrilled about our union—to see us as a real couple, having a real wedding. And I wouldn’t take it back.
Couples can forget about the real point of a wedding. It’s not the dress. It’s not the party. It’s the marriage. Our marriage certificates—from the District of Columbia, New York State, and Vermont—mean more to us than anything. The day Marylanders voted for same-sex couples to legally wed was one of the best days of our lives. The jury’s still out regarding the specifics of our Free State wedding, but two things are for sure: we’ll be wearing jeans—and our Maryland marriage certificate is going to be the very first one framed and hung on our wall.
Jessica Leshnoff is a copywriter, freelance journalist and award-winning blogger. She and her partner live in Baltimore. Read her blog at lunchat1130.com.