Question: I am a straight middle-aged woman with dearly loved lesbian and transgender relatives and several close gay male friends, but I don't know how to ask this question without getting someone mad at me. Why is it, when a lesbian couple marries, one wears a dress and the other wears pants (usually a tuxedo-like suit)? Every lesbian marriage I have attended or seen coverage of bears this out. Is there some reason for this? After all, when a gay male couple marries, neither partner ever feels required to dress like a woman.
Well-intentioned questions are fair questions, and yours definitely falls into that category - although I'm glad you're asking me and not some of your lesbian friends.
Your question hits a number of hot buttons - about gender, identity, sexual orientation and, yes, even style. It certainly provoked the ire of some of my Facebook followers. A straight woman with a lesbian daughter commented: "I am beating my head against the keyboard. Why do you care what anyone wears? This is not a question that should ever be asked."
Why such a strong response? Part of the reason is that your data set of lesbian brides is leaving you with a skewed snapshot. According to a 2014 survey of more than 900 couples conducted by 14 Stories and Community Marketing Inc., a mix-and-match combo of gown and tuxedo or suit is worn at 36 percent of weddings (which makes it most common but far from universal); both brides wore wedding gowns at 27 per cent; both chose a tux or a suit at 8 per cent (the remainder made different choices, such as beach attire, traditional ethnic garb or period clothes).
You note that gay grooms don't dress "like women," which suggests that for a lesbian to wear pants means she's dressing like a man. I'd like to think we've come far enough, sartorially speaking, that we can separate our choice of wardrobe from our gender identity and our sexual orientation. Sure, it's possible that a couple's choices of clothing are an expression of their gender roles within their relationship, but they could also just be reflections of their sense of style or simply how they feel most comfortable and attractive.
Remember the most iconic lesbian wedding of all time (at least to date)? Ellen DeGeneres opted for white pants, a sheer white shirt and a white vest, while Portia de Rossi chose a pink gown with a Cinderella tutu. Both brides expressed their female identity through their sartorial choices. Ellen may have been in pants, but she was not dressed like a man.
Lots of straight women prefer wearing pants to dresses, as well, even for weddings. Human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin wore chic white pants to her civil ceremony to actor George Clooney last year (no one suggested she looked manly). And in her spring 2013 collection, Carolina Herrera debuted her first bridal pantsuit.
One thing is for sure: Same-sex relationships and same-sex weddings are not bound by old gender stereotypes. Perhaps it's true that, as a friend of mine once said, "The nice thing about same-sex weddings is that we're free to do whatever, without any traditional baggage attached."
So the next time one of your lesbian friends announces her engagement, don't hesitate to ask what the brides will be wearing. Just don't say, "Will one of you be wearing pants?" or, worse, "Who wears the pants in your relationship?"
Kathryn Hamm, president of GayWeddings.com, likes putting questions asking for more guidance this way: "Can you tell me more about... ?" or "I'm wondering how you will... ?" Regardless of what two brides may be wearing, tell them they look great - or keep your opinions to yourself.
For a bride on the receiving end of such a question, consider what one of my lesbian followers posting on Facebook described: "I have to remind myself that people are curious and trying to learn, so instead of my initial angry reaction of 'Why does it matter?!' I just answer honestly and calmly. Just as we ask for kindness and compassion, we must give it to those who are honestly trying."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Steven Petrow, the author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners, addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette.