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Family Business: Dealing with relations who hope your happy day never happens

"I had to decide that my energy was better spent focusing on those who had shown support."

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The letter came in a plain, white business envelope. Even though it hadn't been mailed in the tan envelope with a cake stamp we enclosed with our wedding invitations, we knew what was inside.

Sure enough, handwritten on white computer paper was a response from a relative, explaining why she couldn't come to our wedding. A same-sex marriage, she wrote, "would be in conflict with my religious affiliations and beliefs."

The letter wasn't mean-spirited. She wished us the best, wrote that it hadn't been an easy decision. Like many loved ones who declined our invitation, she used familiar phrases — "I've spoken with a number of priests" — as well as qualifiers like "I wish you happiness" and "I don't want to hurt you."

But it does hurt. We knew our wedding would be a struggle for some of our loved ones: Both of our families have deep Catholic roots. Even so, deep down, we hoped that love for us would win out over religious doctrine.

Sometimes it has. Other times, the rejections haven't been limited to checking the "unable to attend" box over a list of beef, chicken and fish entrees. We've gotten responses that are still too difficult to write about, except to say there are relatives we probably won't ever hear from again. One family member — one of the most important people in my life — can only acknowledge that something is happening in September, but can't call it a wedding.

Such experiences have presented an uncomfortable reality: Although weddings are supposed to be about starting a new life together, some loved ones see our nuptials as a point of conflict. 

"Marriage is the language in which we talk about love, commitment and family. We know that gay couples have been shut out of that language because of the law," says Evan Wolfson, founder of the Freedom to Marry Campaign. "There's always a suggestion it's not as real, it's not as deep or not as important."

In the debate over same-sex marriage, legal rights tend to dominate the discussion: Because same-sex marriages aren't recognized by federal law, my fiancée and I don't receive nearly 1,200 federal rights and benefits afforded married couples. But when you're planning a wedding, the social ramifications are often more apparent. 

I received two general reactions when telling my family and friends about my engagement to my girlfriend. The first was one of overwhelming support: a round of beers, an influx of texts and Facebook messages, hugs and high-fives. All this even though I accidentally knocked my betrothed into a lake while proposing.

The other reaction — mostly from extended family and more casual friends — was much quieter. Tears, but not the joyful kind. But you're both women. It's been more than a year since we announced our engagement, but some people haven't called back.

And they didn't even know about the lake.

For the most part, we've been incredibly lucky. Both of our immediate families have fully supported our wedding. My fiancée's family helped her pick out my engagement ring. My dad and brother were the only men in David's Bridal when we bought my dress.

Other same-sex couples haven't been so fortunate, at least not at the outset. Lawrenceville resident Victoria Bradley-Morris, for example, had to contend with her family's devout Mormon roots. On the day she got engaged, her father emailed her sisters — and copied her on his response.

"He said, 'This isn't a wedding. This isn't something we're going to celebrate,'" she recalls. He cautioned her sisters to not explain it to their children. 

"Both of us cried," Bradley-Morris recalls. "Then we got really mad, then we laughed about it."

The couple still decided to take a pro-active approach. They traveled to Idaho to visit family at Christmas. Meanwhile, her father, then a Mormon bishop, was encouraged by his superiors to be more supportive. Shortly after, he began being more inclusive to Bradley-Morris' fiancée. Then came the nonchalant announcement that Bradley-Morris' parents would attend the wedding reception in Pittsburgh, the day after the ceremony, in Washington, D.C. He even gave the blessing at the dinner. 

Bradley-Morris believes part of what softened her father's stance was the fact that, by getting a legal marriage, she was demonstrating a willingness to pursue a lifelong commitment.

"They still have a hard time," she says. "We just try to keep in mind that no matter how hard it is or what happened along the way, the goal was we wanted to be a part of both families. We knew it was a climb against our families, but we felt if we weren't going to take it seriously [by having a legal wedding], why should they?"

On her fiancée's side, meanwhile, support was more immediate: Jennifer Bradley-Morris's mother, an ordained minister for 30 years, married them on the West Lawn of the Jefferson Memorial. But there has still been some fallout.

 Bradley-Morris's brother responded to the engagement with, "We're not ready to explain gay marriage to the kids," she says. One of her nephews refuses to call her wife "aunt"; in a discussion, he pointed to the sky and asked "what would he think" about their marriage.

 "We're the only exposure [that nephew] has," says Bradley-Morris.

The worst, though, are the people who don't respond at all, who answer with a chilling silence when you tell them over the phone that you found the perfect spot to get married.

"Sometimes silence speaks volumes," says Maureen Hensel, who married Carolyn Corboy in Liverpool, N.Y., last year. 

While Hensel's mother and an aunt and uncle attended and were supportive, no one else from her family came.

"At least some of those people acknowledged the wedding happened," Hensel says. "There were some in my family that, once they declined, never mentioned it again. For me personally, the ignoring hurt more than if they had stated their non-support.

"I have had to step back and kind of redefine what my relationships with those people are," she adds. "I had to decide that my energy was better spent focusing on those who had attended and who had shown support and those who reached out even not being able to attend."

On the flip side, Hensel and Corboy also met with a lot of support — especially from Corboy's family. 

"It was literally overwhelming the amount of positive response we got," says Hensel. "We found it funny just the amount of people who treated it like any other wedding, even with the traditional 'Oh, are you ready for the ball and chain?' jokes."

"Some of my conservative aunts and uncles came from Ohio," says Jennifer Bradley-Morris. "I'm the only gay person these people know, and they wouldn't have missed it."

My fiancée and I have met with pleasant surprises too. Relatives we thought would never attend have been among the first to RSVP, and have gone to bat for us when others proved less than supportive. Even though our wedding may cause spiritual turmoil, there are people who want to be a part of one of the most important days in our lives. Those are the people that matter.

We've also received supportive messages from people who couldn't attend due to the distance or a scheduling conflict. (While planning any wedding, gay or straight, is a challenge, gay couples in Pennsylvania have to travel out of state to get married, thanks to the state's Defense of Marriage Act. On the bright side, though, one of our vendors just offered us a discount for having two brides.) 

Coworkers have also been supportive. Almost all of City Paper's editorial staff will be making the five-hour trek for the occasion; my fiancée's coworkers, meanwhile, threw her a surprise bridal shower and bachelorette party. 

In the eyes of the state of Pennsylvania, and in the eyes of some family members, our marriage will be meaningless. But it will mean everything to us. And while same-sex couples may carry additional burdens, their weddings also can provide a special opportunity: a chance to add to the discussion of what it means to have marriage equality.

"I don't believe in not doing something because of resistance," says Victoria Bradley-Morris. "We believe in trying to be the change."

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