Brian, Toby And Madonna: A Gay Wedding, Unrushed
From their first date, it took Brian Rubin and Toby Sowers only days to fall in love and barely seven months to get engaged.
Then the pace of their love story slowed. They spent 20 more months planning their wedding, a three-day flurry of celebrations and ceremonies in New York City.
There were minor crises along the way: losing a videographer just two weeks before the big day; worries that Toby’s sister might miss the wedding while bearing a child. But the baby conveniently arrived a week early, a new videographer was found, and mostly the long run-up to matrimony was exhilarating as the couple and their wedding planner designed a gala occasion. It was all so very traditional - well, almost everthing.
At their joint bachelor party, recalled Toby, "the strippers were male."
In the year since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, we have grown accustomed to watching gays and lesbians rush to say "I do."
Over the past six months, federal and state judges taking note of that decision have struck down long-standing bans on same-sex marriage in 10 states - prompting gay couples by the hundreds to flock at first opportunity to courthouses and county clerks’ offices in states such as Utah, Michigan, Arkansas and Pennsylvania. In some cases, the window was open only briefly before stays were issued that halted the weddings. There was no time for planning, for booking venues, for contemplating large-scale weddings and all the logistical chores they entail.
"I am just in shock," said Susan Barr after she and her partner were the first to marry in Little Rock, Arkansas, during a brief span in May before a ruling allowing gays to wed there was stayed.
The wedding of Brian Rubin and Toby Sowers was not like that. The date, May 25, was chosen in the fall of 2012; gradually, they picked out colors and venues and all the nuptial details. It’s been that way in many of the 19 states that allow same-sex marriage. The option has been around long enough to become normalized and apolitical, with gay couples afforded all the leeway and time that straight couples have to plan, to fret, to dream about the wedding day.
"We feel very fortunate," said Brian Rubin, "that we’ve been able to have a relationship on the same timeline as everyone else."
For all their love of tradition, the couple’s first date was very much a result of modern technology.
It was New Year’s Day of 2012, and Toby - founding partner of a broadcast advertising agency - was bicycling in Manhattan’s West Village when he received a message on his iPhone.
The first sentence was a single word: "Cute."
It was from Brian, employing the gay social networking app Grindr that allows users to see photos of other users in their proximity.
They met for a dinner date two days later, hit it off over margaritas and roast chicken, and dated again in two weeks. As Toby put it, "We’ve been inseparable ever since."
By midsummer, Brian - founder of a New York public relations firm - was wrestling with how to propose. He finally opted for a date in August, at the close of a business trip in Cologne, Germany, where Toby was going to meet him before they headed to a Madonna concert in Switzerland.
They visited a Cologne locksmith on Aug. 16 to get an engraved padlock and the next day headed to the Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine, where thousands of couples have placed locks as symbols of their love. Just before they fastened theirs, Brian proposed.
"Nobody tells you that when you ask your future spouse to marry you, the first thing you see is the blood completely drain from that person’s face, and a look of complete fear take over their eyes," Brian wrote later on the wedding website. "Fortunately, that was only momentary, and Toby responded with a yes."
With ambitions for a large and relatively lavish celebration, Brian and Toby hired one of the top planners in the same-sex-wedding industry, Bernadette Smith, who has worked with hundreds of clients since the first legal gay marriages in the U.S. took place in Massachusetts in 2004. She’s written three books about gay weddings and, as founder of the Gay Wedding Institute, has offered training for the mainstream wedding industry about how to boost business with same-sex couples.
Smith relishes the opportunity for creativity in her work. The opening procession, the first-dance ritual and other traditional wedding components may take on a wholly different cast, or be dispensed with, and there’s now a booming niche industry offering advice on etiquette for same-sex weddings.
"It’s exciting to have that freedom to create our own rules and traditions and philosophy," said Smith. "It’s nice to see gay couples expressing themselves and gay culture at their weddings."
Brian and Toby booked the Hudson Theater for their wedding. For decades after its opening in 1903, it was a Broadway mainstay. More recently, it has served as a TV studio, movie house and nightclub, and now functions as a deluxe venue for weddings and other special events.
The stage would serve initially as the setting for the chuppah - the traditional Jewish wedding canopy - and later in the evening as a showcase for some not-so-traditional entertainment.
The guest list grew - to about 230 -- and so did the budget, approaching $200,000 for a three-day weekend that included a cocktail reception on Saturday at a rooftop lounge, the wedding on Sunday, and a brunch on Monday. The cost was shared by Brian and Toby themselves, and Brian’s now-divorced parents.
In the late 1990s, Brian said, his father was dismayed to learn that his son was gay. Now he was enthusiastically hosting a dinner for members of the wedding’s inner circle.
"My father and I have come a long way," Brian said. "When I came out to him, he said, ’It’s just not OK.’ Fast forward to now: He invited so many friends to the wedding. He’s proud."
Brian recruited his rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, to officiate. Since 1992 she has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in the West Village, one of the world’s largest synagogues focused on serving gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. A political activist since her youth, Kleinbaum has been engaged in the campaign for same-sex marriage as far back as 1991, when she performed a wedding for a lesbian couple in Georgia.
Kleinbaum met with Brian and Toby a half-dozen times, helping craft details of the service and counseling them on the Jewish traditions and beliefs that would be evoked.
Toby is not Jewish and has no plans to convert. But the couple aspires to have children with the assistance of surrogate mothers, and Toby says he’d be happy to have them raised as Jews.
The two men said they avoided major disagreements on the wedding planning, although there was occasional stress. Toby, 31, described himself as a "Waspy optimist" who assumed everything would work out. Brian, 40, admitted to micromanaging.
"I’m a perfectionist," he said. "I get frustrated if details are not being attended to."
They got help from Brian’s mother - Lilly Rubin of Encino, California - who last summer organized a wedding in her backyard for her gay daughter. She made a chuppah for that ceremony, and brought it east to be used again in New York.
"Lilly’s expectations of us were the same as for any couple," said Toby. "She’s asking, ’When are the thank-you notes going out?’"
As the guests arrived, a dozen or so family members and close friends gathered in a small room in the theater’s basement to watch Brian and Toby sign their ketubah - the traditional wedding contract.
"You guys are in awe that you live in a moment in time where you can sign this," said Kleinbaum, reminding the group that the right to marry still seemed miraculous to many gays.
Upstairs, the crowd oohed when the gold-trimmed red curtain was raised to reveal the wedding canopy.
Then came the procession. First down the aisle was the grooms’ dog, Daisy, led by actor/singer Kevin Cahoon, a close friend of Brian’s. Then the grooms’ sisters and their families, including Toby’s 9-day-old niece, Olivia. Then the parents.
Finally, hand in hand, the couple themselves - Brian in a gray tuxedo, Toby in a black one.
Kleinbaum exhorted the guests to put away their cameras and cellphones. "And turn Grindr off," she added.
The couple exchanged rings, then read their vows to one another.
"I always have the best time with you, whether we’re front row at Madonna or at home watching bad reality TV," said Toby.
"There’s nowhere I feel safer than by your side," said Brian, on the verge of tears. "Wherever we are, I only feel right with you beside me, holding my hand."
Kleinbaum paid tribute to those in the LGBT community "who fought hard to make sure a day like this could exist." By Jewish tradition, the groom ends the ceremony by breaking a glass with his foot; at the Hudson Theater, there were two grooms and two glasses.
As Brian and Toby kissed, the guests rose to their feet, cheering.
There were hours of revelry still to come - dinner, toasts, the slicing of a four-layer carrot/chocolate/red-velvet cake topped by two little grooms. And dancing galore: the couple’s first dance, Madonna’s "Crazy for You"; a Jewish hora during which the newlyweds were hoisted up on chairs; finally, a group hug to the strains of Madonna’s "Like a Prayer."
Serving as star performer and occasional master of ceremonies was Raven, aka David Petruschin, a drag queen who’s gained a wide following since appearing on the TV reality show "RuPaul’s Drag Race." Raven managed four costume changes during the evening, starting with a white bridal gown.
For Brian, who grew up assuming gays would never have the right to marry, it was all a treasured fantasy come true.
"I am living the wedding of my dreams," he said.