Chicks Getting Hitched: Wedding dress shopping while gay

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Before I embarked on my own search for the world’s most perfect, completely unique, but somehow affordable, wedding gown, I imagined dress shopping would be fun – kind of like a spa day with sisters and friends, where you relax and sip champagne and indulge your feminine side. In case you, darling readers, are laboring under similar delusions, I feel it is my duty to set you straight.

A visit to a bridal shop typically begins with an intense interrogation by some lady on the phone who is inevitably irritated or distracted (or both). It’s shocking how many questions you have to answer just to get an appointment, considering you are purchasing a piece of clothing – not applying for a job with the CIA.

Once you get past the initial scrutiny and the bridal shop grants you the privilege of trying on their precious gowns, then the fun begins, right? Wrong. That’s when you get to stand under fluorescent lights in front of a three-way mirror, dressed in your underwear and strapless bra, and be manhandled by a “bridal consultant” trying to zip you into 40-pound wedding gowns.

Along the way, you may encounter some other delights like having your perfectly reasonable dress budget not-so-subtly judged by the people trying to sell you a gown. Or, if you’re as lucky as me, the other person modeling dresses during your appointment will be a size 0 child bride. True story – and actually a really sad one. The poor thing clearly had no interest in dresses or weddings. She was frowning and texting the entire time. But, she fit into all the deeply-discounted designer sample dresses that I could never wear, so that was reason enough for me to resent her.

So far, I’ve visited five bridal salons. Number of dresses I’ve been stuffed and clamped into: 23. Number of times I’ve been offended by a salesperson: 6. Glasses of champagne sipped at bridal salons: 0. Stiff cocktails consumed after each afternoon of dress shopping: 3-6.

There are many, many indignities to be suffered by any woman in need of a wedding dress. But if you’re a lesbian bride shopping for a “traditional” gown, then there is a special layer of awkwardness reserved for you: everyone will think you are straight.

If you’re the kind of gay gal who people assume is straight in neutral settings like the grocery store or the library, then you don’t have a fighting chance in a bridal shop. These places are like temples erected to celebrate heterosexuality, and we lesbian brides are interlopers.

In fairness, I haven’t experienced any outright discrimination at any of the dress shops I’ve visited. In fact, one of my bridal consultants was a spirited and fashionable trans woman who had a great eye for dresses that would fit me like a glove, and who was delighted to have the rare occasion to work with someone from the LGBT community. Everyone else has responded with various levels of enthusiasm (either genuine or feigned) when I revealed to them that this wedding gown would be marching down the aisle at a same-sex wedding.

Even if you’re pretty confident the staff at your dress shop isn’t blatantly homophobic, the moment when the salesperson or seamstress asks about your groom can be awkward and anxiety inducing. And trust me, that moment will always come. You can’t blame them – 99% of the women they work with are, in fact, marrying men, and a wedding is typically the topic of conversation when you are standing in a big white dress.

What I’ve learned over the past few months of searching for a wedding gown is that being in various states of undress in front of strangers is sufficiently awkward without the white elephant of my homosexuality in the dressing room. Depending on your situation, there are a few different ways to get it out in the open so that you can enjoy your dress shopping experience (as much as this type of experience can be “enjoyed” – see above, re: indignities suffered when shopping for wedding dresses).

One easy way to make it blatantly obvious that there is no groom in the equation is to go dress shopping with your fiancée. You can subtly let them know you’re a couple by saying something like, “We are getting married in April and we’re looking for two gowns that will complement one another at our outdoor ceremony.”

Of course, there will be plenty of people who will hear that and assume you are just friends who are each marrying a man in April. The other complication with dress shopping as a couple is you might not want to see one another’s duds before the wedding. Or, you may be marrying someone who doesn’t want to wear a dress at all.

If that’s the case, you have a few other options. When you undergo the interrogation by the irritated/distracted lady on the phone, she will ask you approximately 100 questions about your wedding. Sadly, none of those questions will be: “Are you marrying a man or a woman?” But, you could work it into the conversation and mention that you’re planning a same-sex wedding. The only caveat here is that irritated/distracted lady will probably not be the person helping you when you arrive on the day of your appointment. But, you can hope that she will make a note in your file (“WARNING: This woman is a lesbian. Show her the gay dresses!!!!”).

Another possibility is to pawn off this task on somebody from your dress-shopping entourage. Have your mom or a bridesmaid make a loud and unmistakable reference to your same-sex status early on during your appointment – and hope the staff takes the cue.

I stumbled through awkward coming out moments at three of my first four dress shopping experiences. The trans woman who helped me at one shop made that particular appointment stress-free, at least as far as revealing that I’m a lesbian. Sadly, she could do nothing to change the fact that I look pregnant in drop waist dresses.

When I arrived yesterday afternoon at my fifth bridal salon, I was simply in no mood to evade questions about grooms. It was as hot a Bikram yoga studio in the dress shop, thanks to a crazy heat wave in Chicago and an apparent breakdown in an air conditioning system. And I had been sick to my stomach all morning as a result of the brilliant decision I’d made the night before to eat some hummus that had been sitting in the sun for hours. Plus, my wedding is in seven months and the time has come for me to get serious about buying a dress (bridal magazines aren’t kidding about wedding gowns taking five months to be shipped to you!). Emboldened by a very real time crunch and an even more real fear of having a moment like Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids, when she poops in an expensive designer dress, I decided to just be upfront.

My lovely bridal consultant sat down and excitedly asked me what kind of wedding I was planning and what kind of dress I was looking for. I told her I was looking for a ballgown with illusion lace and three-quarter length sleeves for my formal evening winter wedding. Then I bluntly said, “Also, I’m a lesbian, so it’s gay wedding.”

I’d hit her with a complete non-sequitur since “illusion lace” and “formal” are words you would actually use to describe a wedding dress, while “gay,” I think we can all agree, is not. Nevertheless, my very nice consultant didn’t miss a beat. “I love working on lesbian weddings! Let’s go try on some ballgowns!” was her reply. Big sigh of relief.

I learned yesterday that in bridal salons, as in life, being open and upfront about your sexual orientation is almost always less stressful for everyone involved. As uncomfortable as it has been for me to reveal to strangers (in my underwear) that I am gay after they’ve been bustling me into wedding gowns for an hour, I’m sure it’s been equally as weird for them. I think most well-meaning, non-homophobic people feel a little awkward when they presume a gay person is straight. But, how can they know unless we tell them?

So, if I find myself in a sixth dress shop (which I sincerely hope I do not), I won’t be mincing any words: “Illusion lace, ballgown, gay – do you have anything like that in the back?”

In case you’re wondering, I made it through the entire day without pulling a Maya. Even better, I think finally found the one – my most perfect, completely unique, but somehow affordable, wedding gown! Maybe it’s a total coincidence, or perhaps honesty really is the best policy.

What’s your best strategy for “coming out” at bridal salons?

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