Here Come the Brides
Wedding guru Kathryn Hamm knows flowers and invitations, photography and etiquette—and which states will recognize your marriage if you’re gay.
When Kathryn Hamm got engaged, her mom, Gretchen, went shopping. But she couldn’t find what she was looking for—a wedding album for two brides. “She looked and she looked and she couldn’t find anything,” says Hamm, 45. “She was taken aback. She thought everything had been invented.”
During the bridal shower, Hamm’s mom retold the story of her frustrated search for a gender-appropriate wedding album for her daughter and soon-to-be daughter-in-law.
That’s when a guest suggested that she launch an online shopping boutique for all the wedding supplies she had found so elusive.
“My mom was like, ‘Well, I will,’ ” Hamm says, recalling how swiftly her mom drew up a business plan and purchased the necessary web domains. “The online version of the boutique was ready to go at the Millennium March on Washington in 2000.”
Today, Hamm serves as president of gayweddings.com, the Ballston-based business her mom launched 15 years ago. The site features everything from true love stories and a map of states that recognize gay marriage, to an online boutique selling goods such as same-sex cake toppers and custom rainbow-colored fortune cookies. (It also includes an online directory of more than 100,000 LGBT-friendly wedding professionals, such as caterers, officiants, DJs, wedding planners, videographers and more.)
Hamm grew up in Dallas and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1991 after graduating from Princeton with degrees in psychology and women’s studies. Two years later, she met her wife, Amy Walter, through mutual friends. They moved to Clarendon in 1995, adopted their son, Caleb (now 7), in 2006 and have a Wheaton terrier, Eli. Walter, 45, is the national editor of The Cook Political Report.
Hamm’s career has taken a few turns. After interning and then working full-time at the Discovery Channel, she coached soccer and worked as a guidance counselor at D.C.’s Maret School while earning a master’s degree in social work from Catholic University. Feeling burned out after a subsequent stint at another school in Maryland, she spent a year and a half in the front office of the Washington Freedom, Washington’s first professional women’s soccer team. She started working with her mom part time in 2004 before she became a full partner at gayweddings.com in 2005.
Hamm recently co-authored The New Art of Capturing Love: The Essential Guide to Lesbian & Gay Wedding Photography with Thea Dodds. She now travels the country speaking to wedding professionals about same-sex weddings.
The marketplace for gay weddings has really grown in recent years.
Yes. Since 1999, the legal landscape has changed and more people have started to enter this market. I provide support to same-sex couples and I do a lot of educating. I’m also an education expert for WeddingWire.
What does that entail?
I do webinars and speak at conferences about the modern couple—understanding who they are and how to define, reach and service them. Because same-sex marriage is being recognized in more and more states—and soon, potentially, all states—same-sex couples have more choices than ever. As a result, wedding vendors can’t just be gay-friendly, they have to be gay-wedding-competent. You can’t just say, “Hey, I support this.” If you want to earn our business, you have to understand what our needs are.
What are wedding planners surprised to learn about same-sex couples?
One of the first questions straight couples ask wedding professionals is, “How much does it cost?” That’s the second question members of the LGBT community ask. Our first question is, “Will you work with me?”
Describe a common mistake that wedding pros make when appealing to the gay market.
Some [vendors] who advertise in my [online] directory have not customized their profile, so it shows a picture of a bride and groom.
Tell us about your book, The New Art of Capturing Love.
It’s about love, which, ultimately, I find irresistible. It has the work of 48 photographers, 72 couples and 180 images of love. We wrote it with photographers as our primary target, but engaged couples and wedding planners also find it helpful.
I talk about specific traps photographers can fall into, such as poses where one person is dominant and one is more submissive. For example, there’s a common pose where the groom has his arms around the bride and she’s resting her hand on his chest. If you plug-and-play this pose for a lesbian couple, you potentially have a photo of someone groping someone else. On the flip side, my co-author, photographer Thea Dodds, told me she realized that the gay couples she photographed often looked like friends or siblings in the photo because that was the only way she had been taught to pose two same-sex people.
So what’s the secret to a good wedding photo?
You lose the dynamic of a couple when you put them in a pose that’s not reflective of who they are. This is true for straight couples, too. One of my friends (who is straight) came to a talk we did. At the end, she said, “I can only think of one day when I sat on my husband’s knee—and that was on my wedding day because my wedding photographer told me to.” We do a disservice to everyone when we put people in roles that aren’t necessarily organic to them.
What other advice do you give to couples who are planning weddings?
Do what you want to do for your wedding. Not what your parents want or what you think they want. It’s your big day and should be representative of who you are as a couple. And make sure you go over every little detail with your wedding planner. I was at a lesbian wedding a couple of weeks ago where one bride wore pants and the other wore a dress to the rehearsal dinner. Then they switched it up the next day for the wedding. When the ceremony started, the bride wearing the pantsuit walked down the aisle first and people weren’t sure whether to stand or not. In retrospect, both women were really upset that people stood for the bride who was wearing the dress, and not for the bride wearing the pants. When they brought it up with their wedding planner, the planner’s response was, “That’s what you wanted.” They didn’t feel taken care of. Even the tiniest details matter.
You first got married in 1999—and you got married again last year, right?
We had a wedding in 1999 on the Eastern Shore. But 2013 was a banner year for marriage equality. After the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was overturned—after the U.S. Treasury announced that it would honor all marriages, whether they were considered valid in the home state, I called our CPA and I called our lawyer and I said, “Is this it? Is this the time?” Once we had their blessing, we decided to get legally married.
How was your second wedding different from the first?
We treated it like a vow renewal. We redid our exact vows and our son, Caleb, was our best man. What we added was a family commitment ceremony—a sand ceremony to acknowledge who we are. We took turns pouring sand into a container to symbolize that we are a “forever family.”
Where was it?
Our second wedding was at the D.C. Superior Court. The judge who married us is Marisa Demeo. She’s an Obama appointee who I knew back in college.
Was it a big wedding?
We had 160 guests. So much of our life now is friends with kids who we met through Caleb. We brought in sunflowers and asked each young friend to surround us in the well to make it a little more intimate and human and take the courtroom out of it. I had asked each of them to share with me a reflection on what love is. I made a poem out of it and a friend read it.
So you were married in D.C. because you couldn’t get married in Virginia. You also had to leave Arlington in order to adopt your son, correct?
When we were considering adopting, the lawyers advised us that same-sex parents couldn’t adopt kids in Virginia. The bottom line was, if we were gonna adopt a kid, we each needed to be his legal parent. So at that point we had no choice but to leave.
Where did you go?
We went to Takoma Park, Maryland. We were there almost a year. Then we made our really hard choice: Do you go live in a state that isn’t legally hospitable to your relationship? Even if it’s a place where you have known your neighbors and know your schools are good and the commute gives you more time at home? We decided we were willing to take a risk as a couple to have the family life, so we moved back. We bought the house in Clarendon that we had originally rented.
On Oct. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review same-sex marriage cases in five states, clearing the way for gay marriage in Virginia. Arlington County began issuing same-sex marriage licenses that same day. How did you feel when you heard the news?
It’s been 15 years since our wedding. With much consideration and against many objections, we opted to settle here even though our relationship wasn’t recognized in the eyes of the law. Today, that wait has been worth it. Over 21 years together and, finally, we are now legally married in our home state. Here’s hoping that all 50 states will recognize marriage equality in the very near future!
How do you balance the demands of your job with those of being a mom?
Amy and I both feel really strongly about wanting to be very present and on-deck parents, so we have funky schedules. I wouldn’t say I work part time (I work more than that), but my business suffers because my priority is my family. I’m just another example of a woman trying to have it all. See, I’m just a stereotype.
Do you feel like you’re raising Caleb in the right place?
Our experience in Arlington has been that we are treated as the family that we are—and that legally we should be. And that says a lot about the people who live here. We have just felt so embraced and celebrated and appreciated. That’s the kind of world I want to live in.
Wendy Kantor is a freelance writer and another mom trying to have it all.