Since same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario in 2003 thousands of same-sex couples have wed in Toronto. It might variously be seen as equality, a mainstreaming of queer culture or an assault on the institution of marriage. Wedding planners in this city see it as lots more new business.
The experience has brought insight, surprise, humour… and horror.
In hindsight, many signs indicated that Michelle Piper, 33, would not be the satisfied wedding planner she has become, working now for Presidential Gourmet, one of Toronto’s most chic caterers.
Piper, the company’s director of wedding design and social events, used to cringe while observing overbearing mothers-of-the-bride in a wedding shop where she worked while attending Queen’s University. She dreamed of being a divorce lawyer.
“I just ended up being the one to plan all the stagettes for my friends and I was always the one running around the church on the wedding day,” she says, laughing.
The Kingston native has survived more than six years in the industry — she once carried the title of director of romance at Toronto’s Delta Chelsea Hotel. Over the years she estimates she has planned more than 100 weddings — a dozen or so for female couples.
“They have tended to be less traditional,” she says. “A lot of straight couples still feel they need to follow a path that their parents have created for them.”
The spontaneity was evident at one lesbian wedding when, midway through, one of the brides needed a change. “She disappeared with a friend and reappeared with her hair all spun and braided-up real funky,” Piper recalls.
At another lesbian wedding, guests swigged back more beer than Piper calculated. “I was running around to every beer store in Scarborough,” she says.
For Piper, the marriage itself can feel like a breakup.
“It’s bittersweet on the wedding day because it’s often been a year of constant contact and then nothing,” she says.
Considering he’s a wedding planner, Phil Connell doesn’t get too caught up in the craziness of weddings. The 28-year-old president of Hudson Nuptials, which caters to non-Canadians travelling to Toronto to get hitched, creates “packages” — weekend escapes which happen to include nuptials — rather than weddings.
“It’s stressful for people to go through a semilegal process in another country so we help navigate them through it and also have someone on the ground making the arrangements,” he says.
Connell and two friends created their business plan over beer at Future Bakery on Bloor St in the spring of 2005. They’ve since handled more than 40 same-sex weddings. Connell’s knowledge of the marriage process reassures his faraway clients.
Despite the joy of the occasion, Connell has seen some distressing moments. “It’s a really emotional thing to get married and some of my clients are doing it without their families because they don’t know about it or they’ve refused to attend,” he says. “So although it’s great that they can marry, it’s a bit sad.”
Connell recalls two men from Texas who married privately at the Windsor Arms because they were tired of waiting for marriage to come to their “family values”-oriented state. “It was particularly emotional because they’d been together for such a long time.”
Connell has experienced the occasional hiccup.
“A boy once fainted at one of my weddings,” he says nonchalantly, “so, I got him a glass of water.”
Russell Day is happy he bolted 13 years ago from his job as a librarian to work as a cater-waiter with Daniel et Daniel Event Creation And Catering. “I get to deal with fun every day,” says Day, now the company’s vice president of sales.
Of the near 200 weddings under his belt, Day has planned more than a dozen gay commitment ceremonies and weddings. “I share a bit more in the process with my gay clients because I can identify with them and now benefit from the law myself,” says the single-but-searching 37-year-old.
“In the case of gay couples, both are actively involved in the process and are equals whereas sometimes in a straight wedding [the groom] may not have a lot to do with it.”
Dressed in a tailored suit, French-cuffed shirt and Italian shoes, Day looks the part of the poised wedding planner any stressed bride or groom could trust. But he has his lost composure from time to time.
“When you see two people who have struggled with their own identity and sexuality come together and be recognized, it’s more than emotional, it’s a little bit political and it chokes me up,” he says. “I understand now what tears of joy are all about.”
One lesbian wedding where the brides recited their own vows had Day crying like a baby.
“Sometimes weddings can be really dry but one girl told the other, ‘I always knew I’d marry you but I never knew I could stand up in front of everybody and say I love you,’ and I was so teary-eyed,” Day says.
Weddings are rarely far from his mind. On a recent trip to Mexico, Day caught himself scoping out a unique napkin fold at a restaurant. “My eyes are always open,” he says, laughing.
In the last few years 47-year-old Elena Carson, the Gladstone Hotel’s catering sales manager, has come to more fully appreciate the challenges facing her gay clients. After she started dating a man 15 years her junior, Carson has been a target of innuendo, raised eyebrows and judgment.
“Though I won’t say I can fully relate, I can understand what it is to be different and I want my clients to feel totally comfortable,” she says.
Carson estimates she has been involved in nearly 2,000 weddings since she began her career in the industry. Of the eight gay weddings she has organized, she was surprised by their tenderness.
“The first gay wedding I planned I was imagining glamorous drag queens, fun, fun, fun and it wasn’t that at all,” she says. “It was very serious, very sweet and very emotional. I think that they were so grateful to be recognized legally and it meant so much to them that this was a really heartfelt thing.”
With her years of experience, Carson understands what preparation is all about.
“Any wedding is like running a small country,” she says. “There are politics, boundary issues, religion and high drama no matter how organized and sensible you are or how good your planning skills are.”
Carson sees fewer demands affecting the decisions of same-sex couples.
“Gay couples tend to have gotten past dealing with the family through coming out so it’s more about how do we now share our special moment,” she says. “It’s refreshing.”
Carson fondly remembers a female couple she worked with who abandoned their respective familial traditions and the accompanying formulaic structure in favour of a less formal wedding.
“They used lounge furniture, had no assigned seating and a mingling cocktail wedding and that was what they really wanted,” she says.
She emphasizes simplicity as the key to the best-run weddings and works with her clients to find “those little details that change an ordinary party to making it extra special.”
Among them, Carson likes the ring-warming custom — where guests handle the rings to bring them luck and warmth before they’re exchanged by the couple — or providing table guests with bios of their tablemates to help spark conversation.
She follows her own advice of simplicity, often wearing tailored black ensembles to work, highlighted by a sparkly Daniel Pollak rhinestone accessory.
Good-humoured Questine Francis gives a hearty laugh comparing the styles of men and women from the 40-plus weddings she has organized at the Gloucester Square Inns.
“Women are fairly laid back and casual in terms of what they want,” the Windsor native says, “but men tend to know what they want and it’s something more elaborate and a big party and celebration.”
Francis recollects a pair of grooms who wanted a fashionable means of travelling between the inns and the church but sneered at the thought of a party bus or stretch limousines. She recommended a fleet of Rolls Royces but worried about the price tag.
“When I told them about it, one said, ‘Honey, I have money and I want you to spend it!'”
Another couple, featured on the television show My Fabulous Gay Wedding, chose a masquerade ball theme for their wedding, complete with “a huge Moroccan decorated tent with chandeliers, towering vases of flowers, guests in traditional masks and tons of food and alcohol. It was the most elaborate event I’ve seen here.”
After months of planning the wedding and befriending the couple in the process, Francis, 27, is often asked to stand up for her clients on their big day. She says the guest list of a male couple is also more likely to come close to the 125 person capacity at Gloucester Square than a lesbian couple’s more intimate gathering.
Men are also more likely to schedule their wedding closer to Pride weekend to add to the party fever. “I had one couple of men who had a small wedding and then dashed out with their guests to join the parties on the street instead of a reception,” she says.
Couples and their guests can rent any combination of the inns’ three mansions during the wedding which can cause high drama.
“I had one bride tell me, ‘By any means necessary, do not let my mother in my room,'” Francis says, adding that she and the inns’ staff spent the weekend diverting the meddling mother’s attention.
To generate ideas for weddings, Francis routinely peruses wedding magazines and becomes transfixed when a wedding appears on any of her dozens of favourite TV shows. She regularly flips through an album of thank you cards sent in by clients, many of whom she considers friends.