Nice day for a pink wedding

Gay marriage may be the social issue that's dividing the US. But at New York's Love Land, a trade fair for same-sex nuptials, the only debate is whether to go for fondant or frosted icing
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The Independent US

They promise romance, but first impressions inside New York's annual GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual) Expo are discouraging. The venue itself doesn't help - a basement exhibition hall in the chronically bleak Jacob K Javits Convention Center on Manhattan's West Side. And while the arch of rainbow-coloured balloons over its entrance is a sweet touch, it's hardly enough to swell the soul.

They promise romance, but first impressions inside New York's annual GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual) Expo are discouraging. The venue itself doesn't help - a basement exhibition hall in the chronically bleak Jacob K Javits Convention Center on Manhattan's West Side. And while the arch of rainbow-coloured balloons over its entrance is a sweet touch, it's hardly enough to swell the soul.

We've struggled all the way across town - a considerable achievement on the day that 100,000 marchers are paralysing the city to protest against the occupation of Iraq - so we're in no mood to turn back. Somewhere amid this cacophony of pink-tinted commerce, Cupid is allegedly hiding.

But not at this stand, evidently, which has as its main attraction a solitary white lavatory bowl with a sign attached to its lid that reads, "Aaaah, So Clean!" Close inspection reveals a steel pipe inside with a clenched nozzle - apparently designed to deliver that paperless power-wash we've all been dreaming about. This bidet-bog is enough to send our stomachs a-flutter, but certainly not our hearts.

Across the aisle I catch the eye of a dour-faced gentleman in a black suit sitting at an empty desk with folding legs. His stall is shockingly empty. Everyone has giveaways of some kind in little dishes or baskets - occasionally cookies, but usually condoms - but not him. He does have literature that finally reveals his trade: bereavement and burial services for the homosexual who has met with mortality.

Depression is setting in. It is not going to be lifted, even by the motorised caravan driven inside the hall, nor even by the numerous cages of cats and mewing kittens. (Who knew that gay people, especially, loved cats?) And not even by the Gay Rodeo Association, who have come along with a mechanical bucking bronco for anyone to try. It might have been worth waiting for one of the high-heeled drag queens roaming the hall to give the machine a ride - mind the wig, girl - but we are on a mission. We are looking for Love Land.

The GLBT Expo has been a fixture on the city's calendar for 11 years, but this time it is welcoming something new. And you don't have to ask why, assuming that you have been following American politics even casually over the past weeks and months. Love Land, we have been told, will be a whole area of the show dedicated to the prospect of gays and lesbians being allowed to get married.

And there it is. Admittedly marooned towards the back of the hall, it is a cluster of roughly 30 stalls proudly dressed up in Valentine colours of red and white. Scarlet sashes and brilliant red carpet. Red and pink balloons. The only entry is through a joyously festooned arch, guarded by smiling attendants who proclaim, "Welcome to Love Land". We even receive little Love Land passports. Get a stamp from each of the stands inside, and a free trip to Copenhagen could be yours.

Never mind Copenhagen; send me anywhere. For most, Hades would be more inviting than these few aisles of same-sex nuptial nirvana, with its wedding cakes topped with dolls showing, not husband and wife, but husband and husband. At least the priests are real, waiting to offer wedding services to the curious same-sex couples inside. And they are Catholic, too.

"You can be Catholic and still be gay," jokes Brother Jack Singer of the Confraternity of the Holy Angels, an order that specialises in offering gay ceremonies to gay and lesbian couples. "Who would have thought?" His is by far the least over-the-top of the stalls in Love Land, and already he has a list of five gay and lesbian pairs interested in having him preside at their weddings. More flamboyant are his close neighbours, the boys from - their star attraction a tightly torsoed young man called Dustyn, who has lost his shirt on his way to work.

Dustyn's boss is Marc Levine, whose business providing catering staff for weddings and events has been humming along nicely for the last several years. But its profile is suddenly changing. The proportion of gay-themed commitment ceremonies is growing by about 15 per cent a year. Already, they account for roughly a quarter of his revenue. (If his main advertising mascot is Dustyn, who could be surprised?) "Gay and lesbian weddings are becoming more mainstream, and I love to see it happening," Levine admits. "And, of course, I have been getting a lot of calls from Massachusetts."

San Francisco, once the shining hope of most of those visiting Love Land be- cause of its daring success in issuing marriage licences to 4,000 same sex couples (until the California Supreme Court put a stop to it), has now been superseded by Massachusetts, whose highest court has ordered that denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry is a violation of the state constitution. The state legislature is trying to pass its own amend- ment to undo that ruling, but the earliest it could come into effect is 2006. So, from 17 May this year, Massachusetts will become the first state in the Union ever to usher same-gender couples into legal and recognised matrimony.

No wonder the happiest faces in the Center belong to the folk representing a small town in Massachusetts. Provincetown sits at the furthest tip of Cape Cod, and for years has been a favourite resort of gays and lesbians in the Eastern US. With gay marriage about become legal there - at least for a while - the town is bracing itself for a business explosion. Rob Tosner, the director of Provincetown's business guild, points out that, in the whole of 2003, the town hall issued just 30 marriage licences - and they went to heterosexual people. Officials expect to issue 75 licences in just one day this year - 17 May, of course - and every one will be to couples of the same sex. "This is going to be huge for us," he agrees.

Steve Melamed, who for years has owned the gay-friendly Bayside Betsy's restaurant in the town, gets breathless just thinking about it. Already completely booked up through the summer for gay weddings and receptions, he has just done a deal to charter a boat at summer weekends that will be able to accommodate more parties, but on the ocean. "I just couldn't push my walls out any more."

Gay marriage in Massachusetts will be a dramatic first step towards what most in the same-sex community hope will eventually be a national acceptance of gay marriage rights in America. Even the most optimistic accept, however, that that day may still be a very long way off. For now, the legal picture for most American gays living outside of Massachusetts remains convoluted, at best. Here in New York, a mayor of one upstate town, New Paltz, is currently facing criminal charges for performing illegal gay marriages for couples. Scores of gay couples who have recently sought marriage licences at City Hall in Manhattan have been turned away.

For that reason, most of the business owners at Love Land acknowledge that the growth in the gay marriage trade is still in its earliest stages. "We have a lot of people asking," says Brother Singer, "but most are waiting until the legal situation clears up a little."

This is more or less the situation of Beth McAndrew and Karee Etheridge, two teachers who have come from New Jersey to see how Love Land might be of help. Karee, 24, proposed to Beth, 27, at New Year. They had an appointment to be married in San Francisco's City Hall sometime in April. But then the axe was dropped by the Supreme Court and their hopes of an early wedding were dashed. They remain determined to do it some day, but accept that it is unlikely for at least another year.

Love Land at least is helping them to keep the dream going. "We really don't know where the legislation is going," concedes Beth, "so are sort of waiting and seeing." In the meantime, hands clasped, they roam the stands looking for inspiration and practical help - such as what kinds of hotels might be willing eventually to hold their reception. "It's kind of awkward to just walk into hotels or banquet places and say you are getting married," says Karee. "You know here you will get a friendly reaction."

But as long as marriage licences remain elusive, the trend for couples to be joined together in symbolic unions and commitment ceremonies - complete with priests, but bereft of the licences - will continue to blossom. They are the next best thing for gay couples willing to compromise. Family and friends attend the ceremonies and the parties that follow. And that is what, for the time being at least, will keep most of the entrepreneurs who have brought their wares to Love land at least ticking over.

It certainly promises to be demand enough, for instance, for Troy McDevitt, who moulds tiny clay figurines in the likenesses of happy couples (the lovers send in mug shots as a guide). The life-like figurines are then shipped back to them, ready to be plopped atop the wedding cake. While he will always oblige straight clients, the response from the gay and lesbian community has already been overwhelming. "I feel like I invented sex," he gushes. "People are really flipping out over this."

So there is hope and there is romance in the Javits Center, after all. And those not resident in Massachusetts and already headed into Provincetown at least will come away with some options. They can, of course, simply wait until the gay marriage revolution picks up a little more speed and George Bush is thrown out of the White House. But, this being a democracy, there is some risk involved there.

In the meantime, therefore, why not give Brother Singer a call and set a date for a ceremony that celebrates love and commitment, but not quite marriage? Or turn to Levine to people the party with waiters like Dustyn, who will be on hand to distract your not-yet-partnered gay friends? Why don't you and your partner appear in miniature on the wedding cake courtesy of McDevitt? And for entertainment? What about the mechanical bucking bronco? Perfect for the ageing uncle who comes to the wedding, even though it's clear he still doesn't entirely approve. You may not bring him off his high horse, but surely the bronco with throw him. Alternatively you could give the fusty great aunt the shock of her life with a little squirt from the "Aaaah, So Clean!" lavatory.