Governed by doctrine, most churches are staunchly opposed to homosexuality. Harlem’s Riverside Church, however, is a church that breaks from that doctrine and not only welcomes gay and lesbian believers, it even hosts and presides over same-sex marriage, a fact that it made known when it hosted RainbowWeddingNetwork’s Gay and Lesbian Wedding Expo.
Under the banner of “Same Love, Same Rights,” RainbowWeddingNetwork founders (and partners), Marianne Puechl and Cindy Sproul created the Expo to assist same-sex couples that are looking to wed and to educate attendees about the threats to pro-gay legislation.
With propositions on the ballot that seek to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, gay marriage, for some is seen as more than just a ceremony. “Same-sex equality is a social justice issue,” says Angela Gregory, Wedding Coordinator of the Riverside Church. “Riverside Church has a long history of a progressive pulpit, especially in social justice.” The church has been performing same-sex unions since 1991.
Launched in 2000, the RainbowWeddingNetwork has grown to become the most extensive wedding resource for the gay and lesbian community in the United States. RWN began the expos in 2003 and, has since, produced 23 different events in twelve states. This is the first of their expos that has been held in a church; they are normally hosted in hotels.
The expo is just like any other you’ve ever seen: vendors arranged in single-line aisles with photos and samples of their services; raffles for vacation cruises and luxurious three-day getaways; photographers, caterers, and DJ’s are at the ready to make your event “a more memorable one.” The only difference is the clientele. Gay and lesbian couples (and bachelors) stroll between the tables stopping at booths that strike their interests. Walking around with a friend, I was asked more than once, “Are you two getting married?” Not normally a question that I get on a daily basis, and that’s what serves as Pruehl and Sproul’s motivation. “We see our role as a bridge,” Pruehl explains. “We see our goal as to help provide the resources.” She says that her company is useful in that many gay couples don’t know where to go when they decide to take this step, and it can be awkward to approach vendors who may not cater to the gay community.
“We just take that awkwardness out of the planning,” say Sproul, who actually screens the expo’s vendors. Before a vendor is approved, they must not only ensure that their business is gay-friendly, they are also required to sign a non-discriminatory agreement. In the case that a merchant is reported for unfair treatment, Sproul steps in to mediate. To date, there’ve been no complaints of discrimination. Sproul also touts the usefulness of the expo, as she mentions that many vendors have been gay-friendly for years, they simply didn’t know where to go.
RainbowWeddingNetwork has been a successful venture for couple, spawning not only an extensive online directory of gay-friendly businesses, but a magazine as well. But, for all their successes, the ride has not been an easy one. Due to hate mail and even death threats, the couple has had to move their business on more than one occasion, and even had to move their residence after police in their North Carolina town told them there was not much they could do to protect them and their two-year old daughter. “We don’t advertise what we do in the city that we live,” says Cindy. “That reduces the impact of the threats.” However, the hate mail still arrives in RWN’s inbox. Over the years, Sproul has noticed that the amount of mail they receives usually spikes when gay marriage issues are on ballots around the country. Having the largest gay wedding resource also increases their visibility, making it easier for opposition to find them when they do a Google search for “gay marriage.” She explains, “We can time it when the far-right runs ads. We get a lot more mail.”
At the Riverside Church, however, they were welcomed and Angela Gregory affirms that this is not the last time they will make an appearance. “We’ve got to have them back!” she exclaims.