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Planning your own Big Day Out: a guide to the guides
By Claire Gummer
26th April 2005 - 12:00 pm

The Civil Union Act's embrace of same-sex couples has given us all the more reason to hold public ceremonies celebrating our relationships. But how can gay and lesbian partners work out what to do on their big day?

One way is to consult the available books. There are three kinds: the ‘how to' guide featuring step-by-step suggestions, the ‘sample ceremony' collection and the anthology of suitable readings. All three – and some books that combine one or more of these roles – can be found at the gay- and lesbian-friendly Women's Bookshop, which is the Auckland stockist of texts for students on the AUT Celebrant Studies certificate course.

Don't be put off by words like ‘weddings' in the titles of some books. Although New Zealand's civil unions are technically and (for some of us) philosophically distinct from marriage, books dealing with weddings nevertheless have useful information for any same-sex couples who are planning a ceremony in this country.

The texts don't all focus only on weddings and other unions. A good example of one that looks further afield is Dorothy McRae-McMahon's Rituals for Life, Love and Loss ($29.95). It's relatively short but offers 30 sample ceremonies, covering celebratory occasions such as public recognition of relationships through to occasions of mourning such as private acknowledgements of loss. You can use this book to mark the death of a pet, your survival of domestic violence, bush fires (this is an Australian book) and – yes – ‘commitment' between ‘two people'.

The author outed herself as a lesbian in 1997 when she was the director of the commission for mission of the Uniting Church, Australia's third largest Christian denomination. Her book is of interest to people of any religion or none.

Another multipurpose book, also Australian, is Dally Messenger's Ceremonies and Celebrations: Vows, Tributes and Readings ($34.95). A third of it is devoted to weddings, and there's a sensible introduction helping couples to think through what they want from their event. Four main ceremonies are offered, with same-sex couples advised simply to substitute ‘spouse' or ‘partner' for ‘wife' or ‘husband'. There is a large section on alternatives, including ceremonies with rings, the breaking of glass, renewal of vows and so on. One additional feature of Ceremonies and Celebrations is its lists of music (including specific songs) and other books.

Kate Gordon's book Alternative Weddings: A Practical Guide ($29.95) is another short book but it has the advantage of focusing solely on celebrating couple relationships. It's British, boasts a section on same-sex unions (including a simple commitment ceremony) and also contains a short anthology of readings (rather old-fashioned despite the title of the book).

I Do: A Guide to Creating Your Own Unique Wedding Ceremony ($37.95) by Sydney Barbara Metrick has a cover that can be interpreted two ways: mainstream het couples will assume that the six people pictured are an entire wedding party; gays and lesbians will ‘read' them as distinct gay, straight and lesbian couples. My reading: a clever piece of marketing!

According to the American publisher's publicity, “Whether you're celebrating an interfaith or intercultural union, a second or third marriage, a same-sex marriage, or a commitment ceremony, you can make your special day a walk down the aisle less travelled with I Do'. Certainly this book is persuasive about the need for a personalised wedding – adapting tradition to meet your needs. As with Ceremonies and Celebrations, it helps couples to think through what they want.

I Do offers very interesting information on the meanings of customs and symbols, and has a chapter on ‘special touches' such as altars. There are snippets and ideas to get your creative juices going, and wording from actual ceremonies in case the well has run completely dry. An added feature is a section about ongoing commitment. My only complaint: the lined pages at the back for readers' notes would have been better filled by an index indicating where to find, for instance, same-sex relationship material (for your information, it's on pages 12-14).

For lesbian and gay couples, the pick of the crop in the ‘how to' category is – not surprisingly – one that's written just for us. Gay and Lesbian Weddings: Planning the Perfect Same-Sex Ceremony ($39.95) is by David Toussaint and Heather Leo, both of whom have written extensively for that illustrious organ Bride's magazine.

Gay and Lesbian Weddings is another American effort and it has ‘gay event management' stamped all over it, with such indispensable sections as ‘Questions to ask your florist', ‘Find your wedding style quiz' and ‘12-step wedding planner' (a program for anonymous addicts?)! It's pleasantly chatty and casual, and also offers such useful sections as ‘Tips to figure out why you should have a wedding in the first place', ‘Who proposes to whom?' and ‘People who boycott' along with suggestions for dealing with ignorance (‘It's a gay wedding, not a real one'). Plus… this is the first book I've found that gives the low-down on how marriage might change your sex life.

Finally, a new Kiwi book collects readings that are much loved by affianced couples the world over – together with some interesting and intriguing additions to the canon. Heartsongs: Readings for Weddings ($29.95) has been put together by Wellington celebrant Pinky Agnew (also a stand-up comic, and better known to some of us as Jenny Shipley to Lorae Parry's Helen Clark). I have to declare an interest – I'm employed by the publisher – but a leading celebrant told me (unprompted, and not knowing where I work) that this book is the current must-read for couples contemplating a wedding or other union.

Unlike many anthologies of readings for weddings, Heartsongs is very wide-ranging. The usual suspects (Kahlil Gibran et al) are present, but so are such arty types as Margaret Atwood, several local contributions, a healthy dose of humour and short quotes suitable for the after-match function. (While there's no overtly queer content, there is work by at least a couple of lesbian or gay writers, and many of the readings are non-gender-specific.) The other thing that sets Heartsongs apart is its design: from the beautiful gold and cream cover to the stylish pages within and the bookmark that divides them, this is a fitting publication for use at a ceremonial occasion.

[Claire Gummer, a former express editor and bookseller, works in publishing. She speaks about books every Thursday fortnight on the gay-focused G&T Show, 7am on Auckland's Planet FM, 104.6 FM.]

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