Like the gay activities in most suburban towns, I wouldn't have found the LGBT Wedding Expo in Southfield, Michigan, unless I already knew exactly where to look for it. There were no rainbow flags, trails of glitter, or telltale Human Rights Campaign bumper stickers on the cars outside. But just like the gay people in most suburban towns, the Expo was hiding in plain sight, in the middle of everything — in the complex that also held the library, the police station, the public golf course, the district court, and the Department of Parks and Recreation.
I was there on a fact-finding mission: to see what a gay wedding show was like, and who went to them. To figure out why Michigan, of all places, was playing host to this event even though it's one of 13 states where same-sex marriage is still banned. As a gay person myself, I was also there to try and understand why gay marriage was such a big deal to everyone but me.
I used to think weddings — not all marriages, but definitely all weddings — were stupid, if not just wasteful (the wedding industrial complex, etc.). I thought the marriage equality movement was derailing the real issues — that the queers and the gays and the allies of the world should be using their power and their lobbying and their money and their flags to fight for something bigger, more meaningful, longer-lasting. It seemed frivolous to focus so much energy on weddings when it's still legal in some states to fire someone for their sexual orientation, or refuse them service. I thought it was shortsighted to focus on marriage when trans people are still being murdered, and when just being gay still carries the death penalty in many countries.
But that was before I met someone worth marrying. And logic, in the face of love, feels inadequate.
Inside the Expo, there was an abundance of pride. There was gay music and gay flags and gay cakes and gay flowers and gay champagne (which was just regular champagne that flowed freely on this gay occasion). There were balloon arches and raffles and free samples. Even the trash cans smelled like cake.
Traditional wedding events are marketed to a small group: brides. Namely young, affluent or middle-class brides, their mothers, and their female friends. Grooms aren't banned, but they certainly aren't addressed. These events are even called "bridal fairs" most of the time. At a small bridal fair in another suburb of Michigan that same weekend, which I attended for the sake of comparison, I saw dozens of brides with their attendants lining up to get discounts, book DJs, and see the latest trends in stationery. Every bride there seemed to know two things for certain: who they were marrying, and on which day. They were on a mission, and the vendors were there to suck up to them and make a sale.
But the LGBT Wedding Expo, in contrast, wasn't much like a wedding expo at all. It was like a county fair and a pride parade and a church picnic and an activist rally and a bake sale all in one. The diversity of attendees at the Southfield Pavilion was so vast and varied that you wouldn't know what kind of event it was if not for the tiered cakes and the rainbow balloon arches. There were children, teens, small business owners, politicians, church leaders, and a gaggle of old queers just loitering around the free buffet. They came to mingle and to watch the fashion show. They came to eat and to drink and to meet new members of their tribe. They came to make a mental list of vendors and businesses who wouldn't turn them down or kick them out. Real estate agents, adoption agencies, banks, churches, attorneys, gyms, contractors, and other non-wedding-related vendors joined the ranks to make a statement: We want your money, and we don't care who you're sleeping with.
As I sampled my third piece of wedding cake, I considered that what I thought had been a purely political or intellectual aversion to weddings was also an inability to imagine that I could ever have one of my own. I never dreamed of my wedding day as a little girl. I never dressed my dolls up in white dresses. Instead, I cut their hair and pretended they were living on war rations. Scarcity made sense to me. As a closeted kid in a rural high school, the thought of ever meeting someone who I could publicly love and acknowledge was something I pretended not to want so effectively that I stopped looking for it.
Unlike at the bridal fair, there were shockingly few people at the LGBT Wedding Expo who were actually planning weddings. Part of the reason might have been Michigan's ban, although the poorly attended legal lecture at the beginning of the Expo told attendees that all signs pointed to a positive Supreme Court decision come summer. Another likely factor was that many of the actual couples in attendance were already married, legally or otherwise. Some that I talked to had commitment ceremonies years prior when the thought of gay marriage in Michigan wasn't even on their radar. Some couples had gone out of state for their weddings and come back to Michigan to start businesses and families. But many were single, or couples in the early stages of their relationships who came to see what the future could hold, if only...
If only they meet the one. If only they stay together. If only it becomes legal. If only it stays that way.
At any gay gathering like this one, the celebration and exuberance is simultaneously political and liminal: The undercurrent of all the urgency and excitement is the possibility that all of it will be taken away. Both the joy and the spaces themselves have an expiration date. Pride events end. Lesbian bars close. Gay bars get raided. Equal rights laws are made and then revoked. In some places, every gay wedding is a shotgun wedding.
That's what happened in 2014 when what amounted to a legislative fluke legalized gay marriage in Michigan for 24 hours. Over 300 couples rushed to four county clerks' offices who opened their doors on a Saturday to issue same-sex licenses. One of those valiant clerks, Lisa Brown, was at the Expo herself as an honorary model in the fashion show.
Now they're being called "window weddings." After all that, it still took a referendum from the U.S. attorney general to make them officially legal. I can imagine it, but I can't really grasp the complexity of it all — rushing to get your love legalized before people realize just how wrong you are at your core and take away the rights they once promised.
Aside from the inherent progressiveness at the Expo, there was an element of heteronormativity that belied our Midwestern location. There were no women in suits or tuxedos at the fashion show (though there was at least one trans man who also served as a deacon in his church). When I asked one young male couple about which heteronormative wedding tradition they would want to change, they looked at each other, puzzled. "A wedding's just a wedding," one of them said, the other nodding. "There's nothing straight or gay about it." And for a minute, I couldn't remember why I had even asked the question.
Years before I had ever heard the term "heteronormative," I understood it as an us-versus-them mentality which I readily adopted — those who wanted a predictable lifestyle, and those who didn't. To me, the "normative" was even more unappealing than the "hetero." I didn't want to get married and have kids. I wanted to go to college, move to New York, and be a writer — or just a vagabond. I didn't see any room for overlap. Once I actually got to New York, I was careful with what I allowed myself to dream about. Even when I met my girlfriend and could tell it was something extraordinary, I didn't want to jinx it. Ever since, our relationship has been like a favorite bar that I don't want anyone else to discover. I want to brag about having found it myself without giving away all the intimate details.
When I was at the bridal fair, the only woman walking around without a trail of attendants, a man at the limo rental booth asked me if I was a bride and I said no.
It was a lie. I am, technically, a bride. My girlfriend and I are planning to get married sometime next year, probably at the courthouse, possibly on a boat. But I didn't feel like there was an identity inside the bridal fair that I could wear, or that I wanted to even try on. So I lied.
The term "engagement" feels to me like a terribly public version of an intensely private thing. There's a vulnerability to such a performative promise. The more you air it out in public, show how much you enjoy it, the quicker someone may come try take it away: say you don't deserve it, remind you of your sin.
What I realized, walking the aisles of the Expo, is that a public declaration of love — especially queer love — is itself a radical act. Even if that declaration comes in the form of prewritten vows. And maybe that's enough.
Later that day, I overheard a soft-spoken lesbian teen with tawny blonde hair, diamond studs, and a soccer uniform talking to her mother as they walked past a bakery booth. "When I eventually get married," she said, "I don't want a cake topper. I just want a spray of roses on the side."
She was planning for a future she could actually imagine.
Suddenly, every song the wedding band for hire belted out on the Expo floor sounded like a rallying cry for equal rights. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Pat Benatar. Adele. Even some terrible song by Maroon 5. It's like when you're in love and every song you hear feels like a romantic ballad. And even if you don't know all the words, you start to sing along.