A More Perfect Union

Alyson Newquist and her wife, Jesse, at their venue, Juliane James Place. Photo by PhotogenInc

The decision to marry is a deeply personal one, and can be one of the most significant decisions a couple can make. It ties their finances, their families, and their future into a knot that hopefully makes their love stronger, and their life better. But for the GLBT community, the decision to have a ceremony can be more complicated than that. Many Americans (and thus churches and wedding industry professionals) are not supportive of gay and lesbian unions, and no matter how beautiful the flowers, no matter how luscious the cake, these unions are still not recognized in most states.

But that needn’t stop couples from having meaningful, joy-filled ceremonies. In fact, Alyson Newquist, who along with her wife own the exquisitely beautiful venue Juliane James Place, believes it’s all the more reason to have one. “As somebody who got married in a non-legal ceremony, I think it is the biggest thing we can do to make marriage legal, because [that] changes the hearts and minds of people.” She adds, “Some people want to have small ceremonies in their backyard, and that’s awesome, but I think sometimes people think they have to do that because they have internalized not deserving a wedding, or they think their family and friends aren’t going to be supportive…but it’s amazing how supportive people can be once they’re given the opportunity.”

Juliane James Place is often booked by couples who value spending more time with friends and family–or want more elaborate decor–and is rented out for the entire weekend, Thursday to Sunday. The 40-acre wooded property is about an hour and 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities, and features a large pond, a garden and a small orchard, a main house and a cabin; fourteen people can stay on the property for the entire weekend, and the nearby towns of Finlayson, Willow River, and Hinckley can accommodate a large number of guests.

Because it is an outdoor venue, Newquist has planned for all sorts of weather, keeps the mosquitoes at bay, has movable fire pits, and all the necessary furnishings to keep wedding guests comfortable. Juliane James Place is also dog-friendly, and the wedding party can keep costs under control by bringing in their own liquor. Out in the middle of the Minnesotan wilderness, it’s a far cry from the church wedding vision many people have in their heads, but sometimes it’s a wedding’s uniqueness that makes it a more meaningful experience for both couple and guests.

Christopher Westlund's wedding cake to remember. Photo by Troy Kivel

Christopher Westlund, Senior Catering Sales Manager of the Marquette Hotel and coordinator of the GLBT Wedding Expo for six years, says his biggest recommendation for couples planning a wedding is to try and do something a little different. “Most people like the traditional setup and timeline of events, but if you can do something that just throws a little curveball in there, people will remember that.” Westlund recalls of his own ceremony, “Our wedding cake was very important to us, so the design was inspired by men’s clothing. To this day, it is probably the most talked-about thing from our wedding. We also changed up the dinner format, and ended up doing a six-course meal–more of the smaller bite, the tapas, and all of that. It exposes your guests to menu items they might not have otherwise tried, and it makes it more fun for everyone.”

Finding the right vendors has gotten easier over the years, but Westlund admits there was one potential candidate that shied away from a GLBT ceremony. “Other than that,” he states, “it was open arms. I think we were really surprised by the number of vendors and businesses and people that were just so open.” Still, just to make sure there aren’t any unpleasant surprises down the road, he recommends working it into any vendor conversation right away that the ceremony would be for a same-sex couple. “I doesn’t have to be like, ‘We’re a gay couple. Do you work with gay couples?’ I just said, ‘My fiance,’ and said his name, so it’s clear that it’s two men right from the get-go.”

A networker of weddings, Julie Lyford. Photo by John Molene Photography

If you choose to work with a wedding planner like Julie Lyford of Fabulous Functions, they can have this conversation in your stead. Lyford explains, “One of the things I do is I go out and pre-screen the vendors. I go and talk to them, and make sure that they are GLBTQ friendly, because some aren’t. And to be blunt, this is America, and they have a right to their opinion, but we have a right not to go there. I ask them some pretty pointed questions so that the bride and bride or groom and groom can feel comfortable going in there.”

For Lyford, planning GLBT weddings has been a long-time passion, inspired by her father’s 25-year relationship with his partner. Just last year the couple was finally allowed to get married in Iowa. Lyford states, “I feel like there’s an abundance of joy and love and acceptance at the GLBT weddings that I don’t always feel at the straight weddings. It’s hard to explain, but there’s this blanket of love surrounding them.” In addition to Fabulous Functions, Lyford is president of Wish Upon a Wedding, which grants wedding wishes for couples, regardless of sexual orientation, who are facing terminal illness.

For couples trying to keep a wedding within a budget, it can often be tempting to scratch the wedding planner and do everything themselves, but a wedding planner can often save you money in other ways. Lyford explains, “We know so many different venues, and so many different vendors that we can let you know if there’s someone who’s up and coming but who’s fabulous, because I know all of these people.” Moreover, if you do the wedding planning yourself, you will be the ones left to deal with any last-minute issues, so instead of enjoying what should be an amazing day, you and your immediate family can become stressed out.

For no-fuss catering, some wedding planners are turning to the Chef Shack. Life and business partners Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson took their vast culinary knowledge and invested in a two food trucks and a trailer. Their cheery trucks delight guests who appreciate the novelty, but foodies are just as thrilled. Pastry chef Summer hails from Morimoto and Jojo in New York before migrating to the Nicollet Island Inn and Spoon River. Carlson’s credits include Lespinasse, Les Escargot, Campton Place and Chez Panisse before also migrating to Spoon River. Chef Shack has made the top 10 list for Bon Appetit, and was chosen as one of Mpls.St Paul Magazine’s Best Restaurants in 2011.

“We really pride ourselves on being creative chefs. We tailor the menu to the guests, and keep the menu seasonal and super fresh,” Summer states. Anything from an informal backyard affair to a multi-course, sit-down dinner is possible from the truck, and best of all, once the meal is over, no extended clean-up is necessary. The truck simply drives away.”

Of course, just like one’s photographer and choice of music, food is a very personal choice. If the myriad of catering companies are leaving you a little numb, Summer recommends hitting up your favorite restaurant. “A lot of times even if catering is just a sideline project, they’d be more than happy to do a little catering gig and make some money. Just go wherever you like the cooking and ask them.” She adds, “I think most chefs would definitely be flattered, and any establishment that’s doing any kind of volume would definitely have the experience and the volume to do a catering gig.”

A photograph of the photographer, Emma Freeman. Photo by Emma Freeman.

There are also a multitude of choices when it comes to photography, but beyond flipping through stacks of albums, finding a photographer that you resonate with personally can be key. Emma Freeman usually connects with clients through referrals. Because she prefers to use film, couples often are drawn to her subtlety and use of color. However, she strongly recommends getting to know photographers beyond their work. “You can learn a lot about style and approach from looking at their websites, but having a face-to-face conversation is essential to see if you have a connection. I try to remind couples that they will be spending most of their wedding day with their photographer, so you want to be sure you like their personality and feel comfortable around them.”

Freeman adds, “Being gay myself, I feel a strong connection with GLBT/queer couples who are choosing to celebrate their lives and have a wedding, especially in a state where it is not legally recognized. Marriage is a very political issue, and not all photographers see it that way.”

Even in this strange 21st century intersection of romantic love and political ambition, there’s no reason why  everyone can’t experience the most important aspect of a wedding: declaring a commitment to each other, and announcing that commitment surrounded by the love and support of friends and family. And that’s the kind of sacrament no law will never touch.

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