A Perfect Union
A hot August day Richmond knows so well during summertime offers the perfect contrast to the atmosphere shaping in the Rotunda of the Jefferson Hotel.
At a cocktail hour inside the city landmark, friends and family sip a chilled glass of chardonnay in celebration of the newlyweds.
The classical notes usually played on the grand piano have been replaced by favorites from the 80s by request of the happy couple.
Music aside, other elements of this reception speak traditional uniquely them.
While those piano’s keys are tickled outside, the staff sets up for sit-down dinner service. The colors are minimal as the ornate detail of the Empire room set the tone. On the tablescape, a red runner compliments crimson roses.
Dinner is set.
The couple exchanges rings and personal hand-written vows to bring their 80 guests into the moment.
There’s cake. For the first dance, he puts his hand over his new groom’s shoulder. The guests join in.
They are wed.
Peter Valiante and Jimmy Bryant met through mutual friends at a party two years ago.
“We just kind of hit it off,” Valiante says. “We’ve been inseparable ever since.”
They exchanged rings in April 2010 and began moving forward with the planning process deciding to host a reception locally and have a small ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The legal ceremony – small, private and informal – takes place this August in front of the fountain in Dupont Circle. The Richmond reception follows the next week.
The couple reached out to the Jefferson and got a response from an event planner within a day, set a site visit within a few weeks and fell in love.
To the event coordinator, Valiante was very clear that this was a same-sex union.
“I asked him point blank,” he says. “His response was, ‘I’m sad that you even have to ask that question.’”
Rick Butts, Director of Sales & Marketing at the Jefferson Hotel, says they approach each and every wedding the same way – orientations aside.
“For us, our clientele, we see those as all regular partnerships. We approach each piece of business, whether same-sex or not same-sex in the same manner. We try to be professional and give the best service possible.”
According to Butts, The Jefferson, hosts about 100 wedding receptions each year.
The couple attended the Richmond Wedding Expo in January for inspiration and to find potential vendors. Valiante recommends “outing” early in the process because you never know the response you will get. He says those that can’t relate, politely decline.
“I felt out of courtesy and our own piece of mind, I wanted to be up front,” Valiante says. “If there are any issues, you need to tell me now.”
At the expo, Valiante notes, there were no looks or stares.
Amye Vickhouse Brunette is the publisher of Richmond Weddings Magazine, the company that produces the Richmond Wedding Expo. In a recent issue of her magazine, she’s also featured the story of a lesbian couple.
Brunette says all couples, regardless of orientation, have to make sure their personalities mesh with the vendor. She says she’s noticed several couples attending the expo.
“I’d love to see more,” she says, adding that any engaged couple could find helpful vendors at the event.
Valiente and Bryant met photographer Melody Smith of Twilight Images at a wedding last year. The couple also had Smith photograph a set of engagement photos for use in this article. Smith describes the couple as a refreshingly nice match.
While she’s heard stories of vendors that don’t accept gay or lesbian clientele, to Smith, it’s a matter of being the right match for the couple.
“For me, it makes no difference who you are, who you date, who you love if you are passionate about what I do and love the work.”
Patrick McCormack, owner of Nard’s Professional DJ, says his company has been doing same-sex wedding for a long time and advertised on a rainbow wedding website upon the recommendation of a former manager. While they don’t currently advertise to gay clientele specifically, McCormack says one third of his customers come from word-of-mouth referrals.
Valiante and Bryant found out about McCormack’s company through their contact at the Jefferson.
McCormack grew up in DC surrounded by diversity. In business, he says, it’s important to treat everyone as human beings.
“I provide a service,” McCormack says. “Every wedding is different. They have specific things that they want. Your job is to not tell them how to do the wedding. It’s to get in their heads and get it done.”
“You never know you’ve done the job until after the reception when the couple sends you a note saying you were instrumental in making their day,” he continued. “That’s what makes you feel good.”
To take care of coordination and details the day of the Richmond reception, Bryant and Valiante hired wedding planner Colleen Cook, owner of CCS Events.
For Cook, reaching same-sex couples has also been through word-of-mouth. She came recommended through a friend of the couple. Cook has been in business for nine years and is starting to see more interest locally in same-sex ceremonies.
“To me, I see zero difference in my approach to planning. Obviously, there has to be comfort level,” she says. “When they come to interview me, I’m just as much interviewing them because I’m trying to play vendor matchmaker based on personality, budget, wants and needs.”
She echoes the mentality of other vendors emphasizing the importance of being the right match for the couple. She felt special electricity meeting Valiante and Bryant.
“I walked away with such a warm feeling with Peter & Jimmy,” she says. “I loved them because I love doing things out of the box and they wanted to do some really special things with the reception.”
Cook’s seen an increase in requests coming in from same-sex couples noting that DC is a hop away to have the marriage become a reality on paper. She says having a ceremony separate of the reception has its advantages.
“When you do the ceremony on your own like Jimmy and Peter, you can do it really casually,” Cook says. “Then, you get to throw this fun party two hours down the road. It takes the stress out of it.”
Within her industry, Cook says she’s seen more vendors are coming out themselves to do same-sex weddings.
“One of the top photographers in Richmond proudly posted pictures on their website of a female couple. They were really cute pictures,” she says. “When one big dog sets the tone, it says it’s okay. Now, we’re not going to be the black sheep by saying we do.”
Cook believes she’s going to see even more same-sex couples in the years ahead as society becomes more accepting and the economy begins turning around.
“It is a civil rights movement we’re in the middle of,” she says.
As for the Bryant-Valiante party, she’s ready. “We have lots of great surprises.”
The couple, now residing in Midlothian, just put Bryant’s Forest Hill residence up for sale as the continue the process of combining households. Valiante is a transplant from Connecticut and Bryant grew up in Danville.
Both are fortunate to have supportive families that will be attending the wedding.
Valiante was married with children prior to coming out. He jokes that he and his ex-wife are a real-life “Will & Grace.” In fact, she and her husband, her parents, and brother will be there in August to celebrate with Valiante and Bryant.
“The support we have across the board is pretty remarkable. I run across people in situations where the marriage has dissolved and it’s been volatile. It doesn’t need to be that way – put your kids first. It didn’t happen over night, but we did get there.”
Valiante also notes that he’s excited that all of the vendors have been so supportive and open.
“We really haven’t been treated any different that anyone would treat a traditional “bride and groom” – I think that says a lot about Richmond and how society is supporting same-sex marriage.”
“We’re very blessed.”
Kevin Clay is the editor and publisher of GAYRVA.COM. He is a Richmond native, loves the city and knows it's on the edge of greatness. Don't hold back RVA. You can follow Kevin on GAYRVA's Twitter or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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