Mini-mass wedding is smaller historic gay rights moment than they wanted

Washington, USA - According to Mike Wilkinson's datebook, Saturday is the day that history would be made. It's the day when 400 same-sex couples would stand shoulder to shoulder in a gilded ballroom between the White House and the U.S. Capitol and finally, legally, be wed. The event he organized would break the Guinness World Record for the largest mass-marriage ceremony, and far more important than that, it would become the lasting, internationally recognized image of gay equality in Washington, D.C. Freedom would ring with a giant chorus of "I do." And the love in the room, Wilkinson hoped, might serve as its own rebuttal to those who oppose gay marriage.

But sometimes, even if you build it, they don't come.

Or, at least, not so many of them.

Turns out only 15 couples registered for the event.

The thinking was this: The gay marriage equality movement was conducted en masse, so the triumph should be similarly shared.

"We've marched together and we've advocated for this for so long together," Wilkinson said two weeks ago. "My dream for this event is for couples to come into this space and look across the room and see other couples who've been waiting just as long and be able to celebrate with them and all feel happy together."

Also, he thought, it would "make a big splash for our company."

Wilkinson is a 27-year-old, clean-cut, baby-faced Richmond native -- a planner by nature and profession. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, he came to the District and got a job putting his organizational skills to use as an events coordinator for the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which provides health services for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community.

He moved on to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in recent years, but when it became apparent the same-sex marriage bill would pass in the District, Wilkinson, who is gay, couldn't resist the urge to get involved.

He reached out to Jenna Mack, owner of the local planning company Event Emissary, and together they set up a GLBT wedding services division. In January, the two found themselves at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, an immense Constitution Avenue NW venue that Event Emissary manages, when Wilkinson turned Mack and described his vision.

"We want to do something with flair and we came up with the idea to break the Guinness World Record for largest wedding," he recalls, excitedly. "Cause it's such a big, big space, we have to fill it and we kind of thought, 'Well what is the record? and would this be something we could do?' "

The truth is, they didn't know. But the Unification Church, famous for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's officiating at weddings of thousands in the 1980s, never bothered to get the Guinness folks involved, which would have required an official verification and the submission of marriage certificates. So the record on the books was 168 couples, Wilkinson says, a number they were confident they could beat.

The event would appeal, he imagined, to gay couples who'd already had big commitment ceremonies and wanted to marry without throwing a second wedding. Others, he thought, would want to participate in order to get their marriage on the books quickly and have a larger reception for family and friends down the line. (And naturally, Event Emissary is available for hire to help them plan such an occasion.)

So two days after same-sex couples could first apply for marriage licenses in the District, Wilkinson and Event Emissary put out a news release. "The largest gay wedding in history is scheduled for Saturday, March 20th in Washington, D.C.," it read. "Up to 400 couples will exchange vows breaking the current Guinness World Record."

They called the event "Our Time Has Come," and promised individual ceremonies for couples who wanted something a little more personal, plus a 4 p.m. group marriage. There would be a champagne toast for all and a lavish party that night for anyone willing to buy a $200 ticket. (That was on top of the $300 registration fee required of couples participating in the mass wedding.)

The blogosphere jumped. NBC4 dispatched a reporter and camera crew to interview Wilkinson. Dozens of GLBT publications picked up the story and the event got mentions in The Washington Post and on NPR.

Amy Sokal was folding laundry 2 1/2 weeks ago when she heard a radio report describing the mass ceremony. "I was like, 'Oh that's kind of a cool idea,' " says the 26-year-old accountant. Sokal and her girlfriend, 30-year-old Alex Khalaf, got engaged on Thanksgiving. Once gay marriage became legal in the District, they decided to wed sooner rather than later. Sokal works at a nonprofit and Khalaf just opened a salon, so an expensive wedding didn't seem, Khalaf says, "like the smartest idea."

Plus, she adds, it would be memorable to "be a part of history. We were thinking if there were that many couples, it would be pretty cool to be a part of."

Sokal rushed to find a dress and Khalaf a suit. Wedding bands were quickly ordered and their families were informed -- and assured there would be a bigger celebration later this year.

Then Wilkinson called last week to say he was expecting about 15 couples, not 400. "I was a little disappointed," Khalaf says.

"With anything you go into it with one image set in your head of how things are going to be and look and feel," Sokal adds. "And then to have that change last minute was a little bit difficult."

Negative feedback

Wilkinson and Mack were braced for a potential blowback from those who oppose same-sex marriage, and "we did get three or four e-mails," Mack says. "No matter what type of event you plan, somebody's always going to have something negative to say and something positive to say."

Most of the negative feedback came from within the gay community, as people questioned whether a mass wedding would make the right statement.

"We have been waiting a long time for gay couples to be able to marry, so people are focused on creating events that are going to be really special," says Mike Crawford, co-chairman of DC for Marriage. "And it's hard to be special when you're getting married with hundreds of couples you don't know."

"Weddings are sacred gatherings," says Aisha C. Mills, president of the Campaign for All DC Families. "It's the joining of two soul mates. That's a very personal thing for gay couples as well as lesbian couples. . . . A mass wedding doesn't lend itself to that kind of intimacy."

Kathryn Hamm, president of planning service, thinks the idea might have worked, especially as the formalization of marriage for couples who'd already had commitment ceremonies, lavish in some cases yet "unofficial" in all. But a lot of local gays -- not to mention their formalwear -- were already booked for March 20. Two galas, one raising money for lesbians with cancer and another hosted by a group supporting gay service members, are also scheduled.

Smaller than expected

The Mellon Auditorium can hold up to 1,000 people, but Wilkinson now expects a total of 50, including guests. They'll move the ceremony to a smaller back room because, Wilkinson says, "although I love that auditorium, I think we'll be a little swallowed by it." And the nighttime bash has been canceled, but there'll be cakes for each couple and more than enough champagne for everyone in attendance.

Though it will be only a mini-mass wedding, and the company is losing money on the venture, Wilkinson says he's glad he did it.

"There are going to be 30 people that I can say I helped make their day unforgettable," he says. "As an event that's never really been tried with the GLBT community before, we had no idea how to project what the demand was. But I think that we also have gotten a lot of leads and a lot of people have noticed us as a company."

Kelly Thompson and Naomi Swickard are friends of Wilkinson's who had been to past events he'd organized, and they signed up for the wedding because they trusted, "that this would be beautiful, not tacky," Thompson says.

The couple, together since 2006, registered as domestic partners two years ago. That experience, harried and bureaucratic, took place in the basement of a District government building and left them wanting more than a courthouse ceremony, though neither wanted to deal with the stress of a full-blown wedding.

This would be, Thompson says, "a good, tasteful alternative." For them, it was relief to hear there wouldn't be quite so many couples involved. "It would've been a good event either way," Swickard says. "It's still, in some sense, a historical thing, because it is a number of people celebrating the fact that its legal. And it doesn't matter if it's five people or 50 or 500 -- it's still that occasion."

Khalaf and Sokal have come around to a similar way of thinking. When they picked up their marriage license this month, they were touched by the emotion welling up among the gay couples waiting to do the same. But the glimpses they caught of couples getting married in small, fluorescent lit courtrooms seemed like a letdown.

"I was like, 'Okay, I like ours better than that, at least,' " says Khalaf, who will drive to the Mellon Auditorium separately from Sokal so they'll only see each other in their wedding clothes just before the ceremony.

"And we'll still be with other couples, which I think is cool," Khalaf continues. "I just think the energy in the room will probably be great, for all of us."