Priscilla Munson of Long Beach, California, became a non-denominational minister in 2003 because she enjoys co-creating custom ceremonies that reflect couples' uniqueness. “Over the years it's become clear to me that the people drawn to my work are those people looking for a ceremony that isn't cookie-cutter," she observes. Since the recent court rulings striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California Proposition 8, her clientele has consisted of a large percentage of same-sex couples.
"It's taken a big jump this year," Munson says. "Up until this year I've enjoyed 15 to 20 ceremonies per season. This year, if I didn't take any more, I'd be up to 34 already." Munson says she previously would have defined herself primarily as an interfaith wedding officiant & celebrant, but now a new challenge has emerged: "I'm bringing the same quality of thought to how to frame and express these couples' relationships in the context of a culture that is rapidly changing its attitude. This is the civil rights issue of our era."
Munson and other officiants around the country are finding that many same-sex couples don't have a solid idea of what kind of wedding ceremony they want. Unlike heterosexual couples, most of whom grew up witnessing friends and family having traditional weddings, many same-sex couples grew up assuming they could never get married. The recent turn of politics has left some same-sex couples floundering in a sea of options.
Many of the same-sex couples getting married now have already weathered their share of ups and downs as the state and federal governments debated the legality of gay marriage over the years. Munson says the majority of couples she sees now have been together for 10 to 25 years and many either have children or are planning to raise children in the near future. "All of the couples talk about the thrill and disbelief of being able to take this step," Munson observes. Because the level of commitment is so high, as opposed to the traditional picture of newlyweds just embarking on a committed relationship, many same-sex couples just want to make their union legal with a minimum of fuss.
"My guess is that, as time passes and these current legal efforts get the country farther along the path to equality, there's not going to be as much difference between same-sex couples and other couples," Munson says. "Especially with the young people–they're going to grow up knowing that all consenting adults can get married if they choose. They'll grow up imagining what their wedding day, including their ceremony, will be like." As same-sex weddings become more commonplace, more and more examples will serve as inspiration for younger generations. Munson predicts seeing fewer couples who are looking to just sign the paperwork quickly while they have their chance at legality.
Munson notices that many of the couples who initially claim they don't want a ceremony only feel that way because the ceremonies they've seen didn't seem personally meaningful, relevant or engaging. Instead, Munson emphasizes that there is great value in ceremony and ritual, both of which help to anchor the commitment of marriage. "It doesn't have to be heavy or lengthy, syrupy or filled with fluff," Munson insists. "It's worth spending the time to create a ceremony that's easy and fun, but at the same time has meaning and impact for both the couple and their gathered guests." She encourages couples–even those who are sure they don't want to make a big fuss out of their wedding proceedings–to speak with an officiant about how to personalize their ceremony. There are many small ways to personalize a wedding without turning it into a large, intimidating production.
To begin, Munson sends her prospective clients an outline of a typical wedding ceremony. This includes details such as setting the scene, the seating of the parents, the consent, promises, vows and ring exchange, and of course, the pronouncement and the kiss. Each couple goes through the outline and, together with Munson, chooses the elements that most appeal to them. The outline serves as a starting point for a conversation about how the couple wants (and does not want) to embellish those mandatory elements. "I take about three hours with each couple. I learn about who they are and what shapes their beliefs, as well as what their marriage means to them," Munson says. "I encourage them to do their own research, through magazine images, family traditions or religious customs, and what they liked or didn't like about friends' weddings. That gives us a road map of where we're headed."
Many same-sex couples come to Munson with a long list of things they don't want in their ceremonies, but with less clarity about what they do want. "A few have said they just wanted a simple 'I do.' I asked them, 'Are you sure? What about not missing this historic moment? What about making it a little richer?' And all of them changed their minds." The weddings Munson has performed include details like sand and unity candle ceremonies, poetry readings, remembrances, tree plantings, butterfly and dove releases, Chinese wish lanterns, gift giving to the parents, tea ceremonies, and even more personal rituals that include the couple’s children, family members, and all their guests. "Over the course of our pre-wedding conversation they move along to, 'Wow, it really could be something more,'" Munson says. "Now we're doing more embellishments and more in-depth celebrations, which I think is quite lovely."
One of the biggest challenges for same-sex couples is inviting guests who haven’t attended many (if any) same-sex weddings before. Munson observes, "Not only do a lot of couples not have a clear idea of what their ceremony should be, but the people they gather don't have a lot of experience witnessing same-sex unions and public celebrations of their love, either." During one such wedding the week before the Supreme Court’s decision was rendered in June, the father of one of the brides approached Munson before the ceremony. He had never been to a same-sex wedding before and was curious what she would pronounce the couple at the end of the vows. Munson informed him that, while she was not yet legally allowed to pronounce them wives at that time, she and the couple had settled upon the pronunciation, "partners for life." After the ceremony, the father approached Munson and, weeping, gave her a big hug. He told her he’d been to a lot of weddings, but never one so personally meaningful. "I truly enjoy helping to evolve all people's experiences with weddings, so the day will come where no matter who the couple is, the guests see two people in love making a lifelong commitment," Munson says. "We're at the beginning of that journey now."
Priscilla Munson of Sacred Ceremonies performs marriage ceremonies in Long Beach, California, and the surrounding area.