How social media has changed the face of gay-wedding planning
By Candace Walsh
I’m what you’d call a latebian: I came out to my parents (after much agonizing) in my mid-thirties. Nobody died. And as a matter of fact, my parents were really cool about it. One of my parents did float that I might not want to do anything permanent that would preclude other opportunities (i.e., don’t shout it from the rooftops, or get married, for heaven’s sake). They were friendly and sweet to my partner, Laura.
As a latebian, I know what straight women experience when they share their wedding plans with friends and family. They all but get a parade. I’m not lying. It happened to me when I married my ex-husband in 2000. So the contrast has been quite noticeable this time around. About 3.5 family members (including a second cousin I haven’t seen in 12 years) have given me sweet, awesome congratulations. The rest have been completely silent. One of the ways this has shown up has been on Facebook. I posted a photo of my wedding dress and received 18 comments from friends, two from family. Otherwise, crickets.
It got me thinking: I am having a social experience I wouldn’t have if Facebook didn’t exist. I would still be receiving pushback about my relationship and our plans, but it wouldn’t play itself out in this particular way.
Social media, namely Facebook, has changed the daily interactive lives of much of the population. For gay people who have had to make more than their share of decisions about negotiating the personal and the public (Should I be out to my parents? My coworkers? My old classmates? And if so, how out?), it’s been especially revolutionary.
Kelli Dunham grew up in a born-again Christian family, went to Christian high school and attended a bible college, and then added a whole other layer of Catholic pals when she became a nun (that didn’t last). And then, she came out.
“Facebook is where my closet ended,” says Dunham. “My original coming-out process was not easy: My mom, when I told her, actually ripped up my birth certificate and sent it to me. When I got on Facebook and all those people started friending me, I thought ‘Well, this is where my worlds collide.’ And I’ve just let them collide.”
As the tides shift in the same-sex marriage debate, Facebook is a canvas upon which the issue shows up in stark relief. Exchanges now happen which would, pre-Facebook, have only occurred in Theater of the Absurd-tinged dreams.
Jeffrey Ward, a D.C.-based gay man, married his husband pre-Facebook (in 2004).
“I grew up in Texas, and many high school friends and acquaintances still live in that state,” he says. “There’s a huge ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ aspect to our Facebook interactions. I had an instant-message discussion with the alpha female cheerleader from my high school class. She loves Glenn Beck and the Teabaggers. The only thing she ended up saying in support of marriage equality was, ‘It sucks [that] you may not be able to visit your spouse in the hospital.’ On the positive side, this was an acknowledgement of my relationship with my husband. On the other, the implicit message was, ‘Marriage is still between a man and a woman.’”
And for same-sex couples planning their weddings, the responsiveness of family members can either affirm and support their nearest and dearest, or dole out a hit of rejection.
Jennine Estes, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, says, “Being on social networking sites with family can create a sense of added pain when family members comment on the ‘I ate a delicious brownie today’ post, yet they ignore all the wedding planning. Any response is better than no response. When family comments only on the insignificant life posts and leaves the significant life-changing posts, they send a message that they are not supportive, and that their love is judgmental and conditional. It can feel like a punch in the stomach.”
However, it’s just one of those things. We can’t hide our lives from others when we’re on Facebook. Haven’t we hidden enough? According to a 2009 Gallup poll, straight people who don’t know gay people personally are way more likely to be opposed to gay marriage. Those who know gay people are more evenly split: 49 percent feel gay marriages should be legally valid, and 47 percent think they should not be. So while it might feel uncomfortable to notice a lack of enthusiasm by family in your engagement, you may be swaying members of your high school and college diaspora in swing states which could make gay marriage a reality across the country. So Aunt Mabel doesn’t approve. Big whoop.
But for Kelli Dunham, Facebook has been a healing experience. “Last Christmas, my mom wrote ‘Merry Christmas to you and Cheryl’ on my wall,” she says. “It was the first way she ever officially acknowledged my girlfriend and me as a couple. I’ve noticed that even my most conservative friends will sometimes ‘like’ when I write something sweet about my girlfriend.
“There is something about reading the little things about someone’s life that lets people see queer lives in a way they might not otherwise. They can get very close, virtually, without ever having to worry about ‘catching the gay’ or whatever it is they might be worried about.”
Dr. Loren Olson, author of the upcoming book, Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight (January 2011) says, “One of my friends said, ‘Our [gay] marriages are political, whether or not we choose them to be.’ Presenting pictures of two men, making a lifetime commitment to each other, normalizes this experience.”
Facebook (along with your own brave and honest depiction of yourself) can be an agent of change, but it can also just amplify off-line life.
“Sometimes we hope that family dynamics will change and that the use of the online connections will ‘finally get mom to see me for me,’” says Jennine Estes. “Sad thing is that family dynamics don’t change simply because we are using online networking to connect. People are people; Facebook only creates a space for family dynamics to continue to appear.
But, Estes continues, if family members aren’t great at communicating, or feel overwhelmed or hapless in the face of their family member’s impending same-sex nuptials, “The ‘like’ button is a great way for family to express their approval.”
I think it made some of my nearest and dearest more comfortable to think that this was a phase. That I was running off to a soft-focus, Sapphic land of cuddles and flannel pajamas, and would eventually emerge, healed, as if from a sanatorium, and float into the arms of a man. But instead, the love of my life put a ring on it. And we are getting hitched. This is, after all, my (not anyone else’s) happily ever after.
Candace Walsh is the co-editor, with her fiancée Laura Andre, of the upcoming anthology, Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women (Seal Press, November 2010) and the editor of Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On (Seal Press, June 2009). She blogs at www.mothering.com/candacewalsh.