The ‘Modern Family’ manners guide to same-sex weddings


Mitchell and Cameron’s wedding on “Modern Family” offers viewers an etiquette primer on same-sex unions. (Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC)

As TV weddings go, this week’s “Modern Family” nuptials might not stir up quite the same viewer hysteria that “Rhoda” did back in 1974, when Rhoda and Joe’s wedding episode set TV ratings records. But the same-sex wedding on the popular ABC sitcom, set to air Wednesday, is a must-see event, too — especially for the primer it offers on same-sex wedding etiquette.

Since the start of this season, when Cam and Mitch awkwardly (and mutually) proposed while fixing a flat tire, the path-breaking show has followed the couple’s long and winding road to the altar. The characters’ wedding raises issues every couple faces — from cutting the guest list and costs to choosing the right officiant to, of course, finding the perfect dress for their daughter. As Evan Wolfson, the president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, says: “Our weddings are the same as everyone else’s, only gayer.”

Yet unlike opposite-sex nuptials, the “Modern Family” wedding rushes head-on into many of the unique challenges gay couples face. In a heated exchange shortly before the big day, Mitch’s father, Jay, suddenly reveals that he’s ashamed to tell his friends that his son is marrying a man. He sums up the emotional maelstrom for many when he says, “I have to admit it, this whole wedding thing is weird to me.” He goes on to list his questions: Will there be a father/son dance? Do I walk you down the aisle? Is there a bouquet and, if so, which groom throws it?

These are among the top questions about same-sex weddings I continue to receive, as a manners columnist about LGBT/straight issues, from parents and other family members. (With, of course, one additional question: Who pays?)

As this season unfolded, the sitcom about a close-knit California family became an invaluable manners guide to these new weddings. Herewith, the “Modern Family Guide to Same-Sex Weddings:”

Who proposes in a same-sex couple?

The day the Supreme Court threw out Proposition 8 last year, Mitch and Cam (together nine years) each began devising their own romantic proposal. By the episode’s end, with romantic plans thwarted, they find themselves struggling with a blown-out tire overlooking the City of Angels. “It’s a different world down there than it was 24 hours ago,” Cam says. In moments, with both of them on bended knee, eyes locked, they simultaneously say “Yes” to the unasked question. In fact, according to a 2013 survey conducted by ­TheKnot.com and the Advocate, only 58 percent of gay couples actually propose (vs. 91 percent of straight couples), deciding instead that it’s simply time to get hitched once legal.

Is it correct to refer to a “gay wedding”?

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “a wedding is a wedding is a wedding,” and many LGBT advocates advise against using the modifier “gay.” As comedian Liz Feldman says, “It’s very dear to me, the issue of gay marriage. Or, as I like to call it, ‘marriage.’ You know, because I had lunch this afternoon, not gay lunch. I parked my car; I didn’t gay park it.” “Modern Family” takes up that distinction when Jay, with Gloria’s young son Manny at the courthouse, notices a crowd has gathered. Jay says, “Probably everybody getting their gay marriage license.” Manny replies without missing a teen beat: “I think it’s just called a marriage license.” Bottom line? While a couple may be gay, their wedding is not.

Are parents expected to walk their daughters (or sons) down the aisle?

In the first of the two-episode wedding storyline, which aired last week, the couple’s daughter, Lily, was about to lead the procession (before the wildfire caused a halt to the proceedings), followed by her dads without any of their parents in tow. Simple. Sweet. Appropriate. In fact, discharging Mom and Dad from this duty is not unusual at same-sex weddings because many of the gay couples in this first wave of newlyweds are older ones who have been together for years. One couple I know of “gave themselves away.” Explained one of the brides: “We are both in our 50s, have been together for 30 years, are feminists and no longer ‘attached’ to our fathers.” Still, there’s no rule against one set of parents (or both) participating in this ritual as a show of family solidarity. In fact, I love the idea.

Is it expected that Mom and Dad will pay for the wedding?

The creation of equality. (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

Good news for Jay and Gloria (as well as Cam’s parents): The answer to that question is usually no, especially for longtime partners. Indeed, even as Mitch and Cam look for ways to reduce their sticker shock, they try to cut costs but rule out asking their parents for help. (When Mitch suggests nixing the centerpieces, Cam gasps, “Why even have a wedding?!?”) According to the Knot/Advocate survey, 86 percent of same-sex couples paid for their own weddings, compared with 40 percent of opposite-sex ones. A gay man who married his long-term partner last year told me, “I had zero expectation of any of our parents contributing, not even the ones who were incredibly supportive.” Still, there’s an upside for the brides and grooms: no financial contribution usually translates into little (or at least less) meddling.

Must fathers do the first dance with their sons?

In the midst of his meltdown, Jay blurts out what’s really on his mind: “I don’t think I’m out of line suggesting my friends don’t want to see a father/son dance at a gay wedding.” To which Mitch snaps back: “There is no father/son dance, Dad.” Let’s remember what these dances are meant to symbolize: the bond between parent and child, and two families coming together.

One gay couple I know danced first as new husbands; then many of their male friends cut in as a show of community. After that, each groom danced with his mom. Lovely.

Do you invite unsupportive family members?

When Jay admits his discomfort to his son, he adds, “I didn’t choose to be uncomfortable. I was born this way.” To that, Mitch replies, “If it really makes you that uncomfortable, then don’t come to the wedding.” Father and son repair the damage before episode’s end, but it does raise the question about relatives who may not support a marriage of two men or two women. To invite or not to invite them?

If it helps, a recent Pew Research Center study found that 33 percent of those who opposed marriage equality changed their tune if a friend or a family member was LGBT. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), originally an opponent of marriage equality, changed his mind when he learned that his son was gay. For straight relatives and friends, I say: A wedding is not a referendum. When in doubt, family trumps politics. But if you can’t find it in your heart to support the marrying couple, stay home. For gay couples: If you can bear it, give your unsupportive family members the chance to evolve and invite them to the festivities. They just may end up on the right side of history once they witness you saying “I do.”

One final word of advice to the uninitiated: There’s often one big difference between “gay weddings” and straight ones. The groom’s stepbrother Manny sums it up when he tells his mom, “Weddings are where you meet girls!” His mother replies, “Not at this one.” Go with an open heart and an open mind — you never know whom you might meet.

Oh, and don’t be surprised when the officiant’s traditional introduction is tweaked — officially pronouncing the happy couple “husband and husband.”

Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his Washington Post column, Civilities. E-mail questions to Steven at stevenpetrow@earthlink.net (not all questions can be answered).

Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.
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