For Gay Couples, Bonding in New England

A commitment ceremony at New Hampshire's Highlands Inn. The state will begin sanctioning civil unions in January.
A commitment ceremony at New Hampshire's Highlands Inn. The state will begin sanctioning civil unions in January. (2003 Photo By Grace Newman)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

The two brides from Massachusetts got dolled up in white and made their way down the staircase at the Highlands Inn, a guesthouse for women tucked away in the New Hampshire woods. Then, before a small gathering, they exchanged vows. The ceremony, which took place a few years ago, "was an occasion that left everyone in tears," recalled Highlands owner Grace Newman. "The only thing that it -- and similar ceremonies -- lacked was the blessing of the law."

But now that nearly all the New England states have made it possible for gay and lesbian couples to create legal bonds, events such as this are becoming commonplace across the region. At a time when legislatures in other parts of the country are slamming the door on gay marriage, the states clustered in the country's northeastern corner are becoming wildly popular for weddings, civil union ceremonies and honeymoons for gays. (See the requirements for marriage or civil unions in each of the states at right.)

The marriage alternative for gay men and lesbians, possible only in Massachusetts, gives the couples the same state rights offered to heterosexuals. Civil unions -- available in Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire (starting this January) -- allow couples a broad range of legal rights, but fewer than marriage provides. Domestic partnerships, offered in Maine, offer a more limited number of protections than civil unions. None of the states allows gays the federal legal rights granted to married heterosexuals.

However limited, these statutes nonetheless are giving a mega-boost to the region's allure among gay tourists.

Since same-sex marriage was legalized in 2004 in Massachusetts, attendance at Boston's annual Gay Pride Day, a major attraction for visitors, has more than doubled, according to the Massachusetts tourism bureau. Last June, attendance exceeded 100,000, compared with 40,000 three years ago. Although Vermont tourism officials don't tally visitors according to sexual orientation, several innkeepers report a strong rise in their gay clientele since civil unions were legalized in 2000.

"The status of gays has made an enormous, quantifiable difference in travel to the region," said Ed Salvato, editor of the OutTraveler, a gay-oriented magazine based in New York. "There has been a huge uptick of travelers visiting for ceremonies and bringing their entire entourages along."

Travelers who come for marriage or civil union ceremonies or honeymoons often build the trip around other New England attractions: Colonial history in Boston; the beach scene along Cape Cod; mountain hiking in New Hampshire; biking and nature escapes in Vermont.

The autumn foliage season -- one of New England's biggest tourist draws -- also attracts a strong contingent of gay travelers, according to Beth White, marketing communications director for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. For his part, Salvato added that there's "a great gay-friendly leaf-peeping honeymoon scene all over that area."

Now more attention is turning to New Hampshire. In May, Gov. John Lynch signed a civil union statute. Although the law doesn't go into effect for a few more months, inns, wedding chapels and party planners statewide are already crafting civil union and honeymoon packages.

"We can serenade a ceremony with bagpipes, offer chauffeur-driven vintage cars or even arrange a ceremony at the top of the mountain," said Les Schoof, co-owner of the Notchland Inn, a deluxe guesthouse in Hart's Location that specializes in tailor-made wedding packages.

As far as the rest of the region goes, Massachusetts -- New Hampshire's neighbor to the south -- is holding on to its distinction as the only state where gay couples can legally marry. The recent defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage probably will continue to keep same-sex marriage legal in that socially progressive commonwealth for years to come.

In Vermont and Connecticut, where civil unions have been legal for several years, gay activists are pushing for marriage statutes. Rhode Island does not allow gay marriage or civil unions, but lawmakers are weighing a proposed gay marriage statute. In the meantime, the state sanctions marriages by same-sex couples in neighboring Massachusetts. Maine allows domestic partnerships for unmarried couples, including gays. New Jersey and California are the only states outside New England with broad civil union statutes.

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