As Date Nears for Gay Marriages, Planners of Weddings on Island See Modest Impact


Less than five weeks before Massachusetts town clerks start handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the Island's well-oiled wedding machine is capturing little interest from gay couples planning to tie the knot.

On May 17, Massachusetts will become the first and only state to officially extend marriage rights to gay couples. The Island - known anecdotally to be the nation's second most popular wedding spot - seems an ideal destination for the new rush of ceremonies. But after conversations with more than 20 Island businesses with ties to the Vineyard's robust wedding industry, the Gazette could account for less than 10 same-sex weddings planned between them. The bulk of these are mainland couples with special ties to the Island.

"Realistically, the Island hasn't historically had an enormous influx of gay and lesbian people, so I don't know why they would suddenly choose the Island as a place to get married," said Patrie Grace, a long-time wedding planner who is assisting in one same-sex wedding in August. "There's nothing on the cutting edge [on the Vineyard] that would draw them here and away from a place that had meaning."

Ten weddings is a small showing compared with the 250 to 300 ceremonies performed on Island each season. The reasons why gay couples are taking a pass on the Vineyard are not entirely clear. Theories, however, range from the Island's reputation as a more conservative summer resort to the perception that premier venues may have been booked long before gay couples began planning ceremonies.

Whatever the reason, the Island's business community, by and large, seems ambivalent about catering to an untapped population which some analysts say could pour more than $16 billion into the wedding industry over the next few years.

Provincetown, the Vineyard's neighboring seaside resort, however, is poised to cash in on the same-sex marriage windfall. The town has recruited extra manpower to deal with a May 17 marriage license rush. Wedding planners and caterers are already working around the clock. Provincetown officials are also challenging the state attorney general's recent determination that couples from 38 states with laws defining marriage as a heterosexual institution will be turned away by Massachusetts town clerks.

"It's hard for the Island to compete with other areas, particularly Provincetown. It is a gay destination," said Bryan D. Freehling, owner of the Shiverick Inn in Edgartown. "As a result, anyone coming to the state of Massachusetts, who is thinking of going to the shore, would go to P-town."

The Island is not actively seeking business from the wedding industry's newest customers. Only a handful of the businesses reached this month market themselves as "gay friendly" in niche publications or websites; only one had placed wedding advertisements targeting same-sex couples this year. Leaders from the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, which distributes hundreds of wedding information packets each year, officially decided to not solicit gay marriage business.

"We're not doing any segmentation. Anyone is welcome to the same information because Martha's Vineyard is a beautiful place to have any kind of ceremony," said Valerie Richards, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

"But I would hope that Island businesses, after having a rough couple of years, would welcome the opportunity if [same-sex marriage] business comes our direction. But everybody has a different opinion on that subject," Ms. Richards continued.

Though some Island religious groups are torn over their involvement in same-sex weddings, getting married in a Vineyard church is an option.

The Old Whaling Church, owned and managed by the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, can be leased for same-sex ceremonies, though the United Methodist minister overseeing the congregation will not participate in them. Only the Catholic churches have expressly ruled out ordaining same-sex weddings, but other religious organizations, like the Unitarian Universalist Society and the Hebrew Center, are willing to perform gay marriages.

By and large, Island institutions have adopted a "come one, come all" attitude, but most business owners aren't willing to dole out extra advertising dollars to ensure a diverse wedding clientele. Plus, there is risk, some say, in pigeonholing themselves in the gay marriage market.

"I don't want to be known as the guy who only does same-sex weddings. But, on the other hand, I'll take all the weddings I can get," said Jim Pringle, a justice of the peace who performs many Island weddings.

Some proprietors, like the Beach Plum Inn, said they considered advertising to same-sex couples, but missed the window for this year. The inn, a popular wedding spot in Chilmark, only has two vacancies left for ceremonies this season.

"I think it took us all by surprise. The controversy happened too late for us to market to these potential clients. May has been booked since last December. We're booking right now for the 2005 season," said Craig Arnold, Beach Plum Inn proprietor.

For most, capacity is not a problem, and they would welcome the extra business. But a few business owners thought that launching marketing campaigns to lure same-sex couples would be tasteless.

"I'd really feel that I was pandering to something that was a flash in the pan. I'd feel like an ambulance chaser," said Karl Buder, owner of the Thorncroft Inn in Tisbury. "I think the analogy would be famous people. We don't advertise in Variety [magazine], saying ‘celebrities welcome.' It would be unseemly."

Those caterers, tent rental companies and wedding planners involved in same-sex marriages on the Vineyard this summer said that their orders differ little from the range of requests made by heterosexual couples. One is being held at a private house on Chappaquiddick in August, while another is a whole weekend affair up-Island.

"Most of the same-sex unions will be traditional. They are looking to have a ceremony and reception in the same genre as heterosexual couples," said Ms. Grace.

Some attribute the lack of wedding bookings to the uncertainty still hanging over the May 17 start date. The attorney general has refused Governor Mitt Romney's requests to seek a delay to the start date, but the governor has continued to be a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, putting some couples on edge. A constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual union is also underway on Beacon Hill, but the three-step measure - if successful - would not take effect until November of 2006 after a state-wide referendum vote.

"I don't think you can underestimate the uncertainty surrounding this - not just for Massachusetts couples but for out-of-state couples as well," said Mary Breslauer, a Chilmark resident and a communications consultant for Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) - the group that brought the discrimination lawsuit which eventually earned the Massachusetts Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage last November.

Town clerks yesterday received direction from the state saying there will be a training session the first week in May about how to handle marriage license requests from gay couples.

"It's time for some state direction," said Marion Mudge, Tisbury's town clerk, who said she has received a few calls from gay couples about the process.

"I'd at least like some forms that don't say bride and groom," she added.

And as Massachusetts prepares to step into this uncharted territory, gay couples brace themselves for an adjustment.

"You are looking at couples who have never faced this question. All of these conversations, straight couples have had for years. These conversations are happening for the first time, and they are resolving them in very different ways," Ms. Breslauer added.

Jan Casey, who is planning to marry her life and business partner from MV Gourmet and Bakery this May, agreed that many gay couples are tentative at this stage.

"Gays and lesbians are so used to being quiet about what they do, it's hard to switch that mentality and go for broke. It's such a heterosexual thing, it's not even on my radar screen," said Ms. Casey.