By Juan Forero
Sunday, September 12, 2010; A17
IN BUENOS AIRES Sergio Donoso is gay and says he loves feathers. So on this day, in Andrea Pipkin's party favors shop, he draped a white feather boa around his neck, donning plastic neon sunglasses and a goofy silver-topped hat.
"I'm going with the feathers," Donoso, 38, said. "I don't care if it's gay or not, I like it, and that's it."
His advisers cooed in approval.
"Precious, just precious," Vanesa Marini said, checking off her to-do list.
And so it was all afternoon as Donoso, with Marini and her business associate, Miriam Perez, at his side, careered across the capital preparing for Donoso's October wedding to Natalio Kusnir. The men have been partners for 17 years but now, after Argentine lawmakers in July made same-sex marriage legal, they will take the plunge.
The law has prompted wedding planners across Buenos Aires to retool for a new market: gay couples, who say they are partying in joyous style after Argentina became the first Latin American country to permit couples of the same sex to exchange vows.
Gay leaders say there have been more than 140 same-sex weddings nationwide, with another 120 expected before the end of the month.
For Donoso, the change in law meant rushing to wedding providers on a recent rainy day, choosing cupcakes from the Delicias Gourmet bakery, visiting a caterer and renting party hats from Pipkin's shop. Marini and Perez were there, taking copious notes, offering counseling and making the arrangements.
Their business is called Gay Planners, founded in 2009 as efforts to legalize same-sex marriage gained momentum in Argentina. Now, they anticipate planning an average of four weddings a month.
"The market is wide open for weddings, and our workdays have been nonstop," said Marini. "We are now offering lots of packages, options so they can celebrate with everything they have."
This is a strongly Catholic country where a pioneer image of manhood is celebrated, whether it's the rugged cowboy taming the frontier or the stoic immigrant who worked the stockyards. Argentina's famous populist leader, Juan Peron, heralded his iconic countrymen and showed little patience for homosexuals.
"They're a sign of decadence," Peron once told a biographer.
But Buenos Aires has in recent years become something of a gay mecca.
The city is home to hotels such as the Axel, part of a luxury chain that calls itself the first in the world for same-sex couples, and has gay-friendly districts filled with bars and restaurants. There is a center for gay senior citizens, and music halls cater to men who want to tango together.
That does not mean there aren't hurdles for those planning a same-sex wedding, as became apparent to Donoso during a stop in Tito Samelnik's tuxedo rental shop, Matices.
For nearly 40 years, Samelnik has dressed Argentina's rich and famous, from soccer great Diego Maradona to Guillermo Francella, an actor in Argentina's recent Oscar-winning "The Secret in Their Eyes."
But Samelnik, who says he likes to get to the point, told Donoso that he is accustomed to straight couples. "I am used to dressing a man and a woman, not a man and a man," he said.
Samelnik then measured Donoso(thin, about 5 feet, 8 inches) and asked about his partner (tall and at well over 200 pounds).
"What I always look for is an equilibrium, harmony," Samelnik explained. "I cannot have one of you wearing a smoking jacket and the other in black tie."
Donoso, who runs a Web site, liked a tux that came with a dotted vest. But he took Samelnik's advice, opting instead for conservative black, tightly tailored, with white suspenders and an elegant striped tie.
"No one can overshadow your big day," Marini told Donoso, approvingly.
By mid-afternoon, Donoso had already accomplished half of what he had set out to do but admitted being a ball of nerves.
"There's only two months left!" he explained. "This is such a big event for us, and it means running around, making decisions, buying things, this and that."
Marini smiled as she listened to her client and said she was not surprised.
Gay couples, she said, have spent as much as $25,000 on the big day, far outspending their heterosexual counterparts. As in the United States, gays in Argentina are relatively well-educated and upwardly mobile.
For this wedding, she noted, Donoso and Kusnir went all out. For music, they hired a sextet and a top-notch DJ. The dinner menu includes sushi as well as Mexican and Argentine delicacies.
So even though Gay Planners is there to plan every stage, Marini said that Donoso and Kusnir, who works in a bank, have been there, too.
"In typical weddings here, usually the woman preoccupies herself with everything," Marini explained. "In this case, it's both men - a 50-50 collaboration."