Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Love Diaries: ‘At Every Stage Of Planning Our Same Sex Wedding, We Were Reminded: “This Isn’t For You”’

Welcome to our series, The Love Diaries – a space for you to share your experiences, advice, fairy-tale endings, setbacks and heartbreaks. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences with love – from the weird and wonderful world of dating, having an open relationship, whirlwind engagement stories and the woman who forced her husband to choose between her and his girlfriend. Today, we hear from a young Auckland couple who talk us through the realities of living in a same sex couple and how battling the default assumptions came to a head when they were planning their wedding.

As any to-be-married couple will tell you, the lead-up to the wedding is half magic, half admin hell as you work through the never-ending to-do list. But there is another layer experienced by those in same sex relationships – and that is constantly fighting for space in a world still built for heterosexuality.

“It’s important to show up fully as yourself, because you never know who is watching and, for the first time, seeing a love that looks like their own.”

Case in point: When Mackenzie Jans and Michelle Frances went to pick up some wedding stationery, Michelle mentioned to the lady behind the counter that it was for their wedding invitations.

“She was like, ‘Oh, lovely!’ and then asked us, ‘So, who’s getting married?’” Michelle recalls. “And we looked at each other and said, ‘We both are…’ and then she replied, ‘Oh, two weddings!’ It’s like… who wants to tell this woman??”

If you are in a heterosexual relationship, it can be easy to believe that when it comes to gay rights, it’s legal, it’s celebrated, companies use the rainbow flag… job done. But for those living in the LGBT+ community, their daily experience is sometimes very different. If it’s not a struggle against outright discrimination, then it’s a struggle against something more insidious: it’s a struggle against the default.

“There are little things at every turn that you have to be aware of, or times when you have to explain yourself,” Michelle says. She puts it bluntly: “National Coming Out Day might be October 11, but actually, it’s every day.”

While Michelle and Mackenzie now live in Auckland, they both grew up in the South Island – Michelle in Christchurch, Mackenzie in Dunedin, and the visibility of the gay community in these spaces was pretty much non-existent – Michelle says she was 24 when she first saw two women holding hands in Christchurch.

The pair had very different experiences in growing up – Michelle didn’t come out until she was in her mid 20s, so even though she says she was teased a lot for being gay, she didn’t consider herself to be for a long time. Whereas Mackenzie was out at a younger age, and was beaten up and bullied because of it.

“I’ve had a very different experience to Michelle, so I’m a lot more cautious,” she says. “Even when we first started going out, I wouldn’t hold her hand… because you just don’t know what will happen. I used to dread going to public events, because it could be so hard.”

“It’s a wee bit better now, but there are still times when we will immediately stop holding hands if we’re out in public and we walk past a big group of guys, we’ll separate a bit,” Michelle says.

It’s clear that there’s a big difference between the equality we might think society has achieved, and the lived reality for those in the LGBT+ community. And Michelle and Mackenzie are young, blonde, white and mostly hang out in more liberal parts of Auckland, so their lived experience is very different from others in the community. And still, as they said, every day it’s work.

It’s the extra effort of having to correct someone when they assume your partner is male. It’s that every time Michelle goes for a check-up for her endometriosis, she has to do a pregnancy test first – even though… well, it’s literally not possible. It’s the fact that so much of society’s default is still set to heterosexual and the onus still falls on people in same sex relationships to do that extra work. And nothing, the pair say, made this feel more jarring than the process of getting married.

But the biggest issue was the constant idea that “one of us was filling the role of the groom.”

“From the very beginning, it was things like trying to find a wedding planner book, because all of them had an entire section on the groom,” Michelle says. “And they’re expensive! So you’re buying this book, only to have to take a quarter of the book out, or cross words out as you go.”

But the biggest issue was the constant idea that “one of us was filling the role of the groom,” Mackenzie says.

“It’s not so much that there wasn’t a space for us, it was that we were ‘allowed’ to enter the space… but one of us had to play the role of the groom,” Michelle says. “And because Mackenzie wanted to wear a suit, it ended being her… even though her outfit cost twice mine AND she looked better than me. She wore Louboutins!”

All wedding photos by Bethany Joy Photography

Mackenzie says this has been something of a running theme throughout the pair’s three year relationship. “There’s always been a natural assumption that I must be butch, or ‘male’, or something.” And so much of the wedding admin only reinforced this stereotype – because it still meant crossing out ‘groom’ at every step. It might sound like a small detail, but it’s not – particularly when it’s on every form, for a process like a wedding that’s a) supposed to be fun and b) you’re paying thousands of dollars to be there.

“At every stage it was like a reminder that ‘this isn’t for you, this wasn’t designed for you and really, you’re not meant to be here,’” Michelle says.

While those not in the LGBT+ community might think that the biggest threat to those within comes from out-and-out bigots – and let’s be clear, they are very much a threat – it’s this messy middle ground of ‘this still isn’t for you’ that can be hardest to navigate.

“At every stage it was like a reminder that ‘this isn’t for you, this wasn’t designed for you and really, you’re not meant to be here.'”

As the pair describe, there are those who don’t understand same sex relationships at all, those who are completely fine with it and those who fall somewhere in the middle, where “they’re okay with it, as long as they don’t have to see it or we aren’t ‘rubbing it in their faces.’” But, as Michelle says, this means “watering down” both their personality and their love in order to fit in – and that’s not a comfortable place to live, either.

“What gets me are the people who aren’t aware that they’re against it,” Michelle says. “They’ll be like, ‘no, I’m not homophobic, I absolutely support the gays!’ But their entire way of thinking is still ‘the gays’ versus ‘us normal people’. And a lot of people aren’t willing to be self-aware enough to go through the steps to realise that.”

In Glennon Doyle’s smash-hit memoir Untamed – written partly about being in a same-sex marriage after being in a heterosexual one – she writes about this messy in-between world, saying, “It’s not the cruel criticism from folks who hate us that scares us away from our Knowing; it’s the quiet concern of those who love us.”

For both Mackenzie and Michelle, they are familiar with this genre of comment: it’s the ‘oh it’s a such a shame you’re gay,’ or ‘your life would be so much easier if you were straight.’ (To this, Michelle replies: “Look, I did that for 25 years! It’s not for me!”)

“While it’s not the responsibility of the queer community to educate the rest of the world, unfortunately change is not going to happen by itself.”

It’s the fact that even family members referred to their wedding as having a ‘bride and groom’, even though there was no husband on the scene.

One of the biggest differences that could help, Mackenzie says, is “more, very visible gay people” – but, as she says, that brings with it certain vulnerabilities as well. “Even the queer spaces, they’re not what they used to be – they’re not as safe,” she says.

But more than anything, it’s for the default to change from heterosexuality – in the language we use, in the everyday assumptions we make. “It’s actually really easy to use neutral language – instead of asking, ‘does your boyfriend want to come?’, just ask, ‘does your partner want to come?’” Michelle says. “But people first have to realise that they are defaulting to that language as a first step, and I think that’s still an uncomfortable process for a lot of people.”

Michelle and Mackenzie are aware that these societal shifts take time. “While it’s not the responsibility of the queer community to educate the rest of the world, unfortunately change is not going to happen by itself,” Michelle says.

But there’s also tremendous value in just being out in the world, young and in love, and letting that speak for itself.

“It’s important to show up fully as yourself, because you never know who is watching and, for the first time, seeing a love that looks like their own,” Michelle says. “For the benefit of young people like me who needed representation, we must commit ourselves to being visible, however uncomfortable that may be, so the next generation don’t need to go through it like we did.”

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