Global Gala Grooms Fernan and Jesse blend religions and cultures for a festive wedding celebration
By Sarah Gleim
As cliché as it might sound, San Francisco residents Jesse Baumgartner and his partner Fernan Kalaw really did fall in love at first sight. The two men met one night in April of 2003 in The Castro and have been together ever since.
But sometimes a couple really is meant to be together, and that certainly seems to be the case with Jesse and Fernan. The two are so in tune, in fact, they actually planned to propose to each other on the exact same night just six months after they first met. And instead of surprising each other, they ended up shocking themselves.
“Jesse told me he didn’t like surprises but I couldn’t help myself,” Fernan says. “I blindfolded him and took him to brunch at the Equinox Revolving Restaurant atop the Hyatt Embarcadero Hotel. You should have seen his face when he took off the blindfold and saw the ring.”
Jesse says he was absolutely shocked when Fernan suddenly proposed. “I guess you never know what will happen when two outgoing men fall in love,” he says.
On September 24, 2004, Jesse and Fernan registered as domestic partners and celebrated their engagement and upcoming “Big, Gay, Fat Wedding,” as they coined it, with a masquerade-themed engagement party in October. They spent the next several years traveling, and celebrated their fifth anniversary in the Philippines, Fernan’s homeland.
But despite all of their love and celebrating, their elaborate wedding plans were sidetracked in the fall of 2008 by Proposition 8. The couple decided that in order to make their marriage legal, they would have a civil ceremony in September, in case the amendment passed that November. “It was a very difficult decision to get married without all our friends and family, but we had the civil ceremony so it would be legal,” Jesse says. “We were devastated when Prop 8 did pass.”
Of course, Jesse and Fernan were legally married, and they certainly weren’t going to let Prop 8 stop their wedding from happening. And what a wedding it was. After looking at several venues and clubs, the couple actually said their “I dos” on April 10, 2010, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church and Center of San Francisco in front of 175 of their closest friends and family members.
“Ultimately, we chose the space because it’s beautiful,” Fernan says. “But also because they have been performing same-sex weddings there for more than 40 years, and we felt good that the money was going to a nonprofit that truly accepts and helps people from all walks of life.”
The wedding featured Indian-themed décor and clothing in honor of Jesse and Fernan’s travels throughout the world. The wedding party included 14 pairs of attendants, each pair carrying a jewel-toned Thai parasol rather than bouquet and an offering incorporating the men’s Jewish, Filipino, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu and Pagan traditions to be used in the ceremony. Both grooms were dressed in designer Sherwanis, elaborate wedding jackets from India.
Fernan was the first to walk down the aisle accompanied by his mother, Helen, while the church choir sang. Jesse also walked down the aisle with his mother, Sandra, but it was Fernan who did the singing this time.
“After Fernan and all the attendants walked down the aisle and my mom and I stepped through the threshold, I was at first nervous and then overwhelmed by the love of all our guests,” Jesse says, “and by the beauty of Fernan’s voice singing [Elton John’s] ‘Your Song.’”
The ceremony also included a video memorial for both men’s fathers and other loved ones who’d passed away, a reading by Jesse’s 91-year-old grandparents and, of course, the exchanging of the vows. “My favorite part was the procession of our loving entourage and singing to my husband,” Fernan says. “Many people told me they were very touched and enjoyed the vows.”
An international-themed cocktail hour immediately followed the wedding, and was decked out with dozens of Thai parasols, large colorful birdcages and garden urns filled with live orchids. Guests imbibed on signature absinthe cocktails dubbed “Green Fairies,” and an elaborate buffet of French, Asian and Californian hors d’oeuvres, while Jesse’s godson Simon performed the violin.
And that’s when things really got wild. Jesse and Fernan wanted their reception to be like nothing their guests had ever seen before. The men absolutely love Paris (it’s one of the cities where they honeymooned), so they opted for a two-act, Moulin Rouge extravaganza reception, complete with a custom tent made from 60 pomegranate-and-cinnamon-hued silk sarees, cabaret seating, elaborate feather centerpieces and gobs of crystals. And the live entertainment included everything from opera singers, burlesque dancers and Filipino dancers.
“Even though we knew the lineup for our reception show, all of the entertainers, like Veronica Klaus, The Parangal Dance Company and The Sin Sisters, blew us away with their talent, sass and wonderful performances,” Fernan says.
Between acts one and two, which Jesse and Fernan warned would be R-rated, guests dined on an elegant buffet dinner of traditional Filipino foods served on custom platters with banana leaves. Several special dishes were even prepared by family members, and like just about everything else in the big event, the caterers were dear friends of the grooms. Jesse’s mother, Sandra, and brother-in-law, Patrick Glenn Kalaw, also gave emotional toasts during intermission.
Instead of a traditional wedding cake, these grooms opted for cupcakes decorated as little nests. Since nothing was ordinary about this wedding, Jesse created a custom 6-foot birdcage to display the cupcakes, which came in flavors like spicy Mayan chocolate stuffed with fresh raspberries. “My favorite were the almond banana cake with cardamom frosting!” Fernan says.
Actually, what both men say was the best part of their wedding was having the chance to exchange vows and celebrate with friends and family, something they were denied in their civil ceremony two years earlier. And they say they would absolutely tell other gay and lesbian couples considering a wedding to take the plunge.
“No matter what you can afford or where you want to go, it is really all about getting away with your spouse and enjoying each other,” Jesse says. “Just follow you heart and have the biggest, baddest, boldest wedding you can muster no matter what law, religion or ignorance tries to stand in your way.”
Fernan says if he had to choose the absolute best part of their wedding, it is that the wedding taught him it’s to love and appreciate his husband and all the people who support them even more. “So have the wedding of your dreams and stay true to yourselves,” he says. “But plan on twice the money, twice the effort, twice the patience and a hundred times the reward!”