By Andrea Poteet
When Jason Rice and Stephen Fleck look back on their wedding, they have few regrets.
“We wish we’d worn more fitted tuxedos,” Fleck says, laughing. “That’s the only thing when we look back on it, we wish we’d done differently.”
Baggy suits aside, the Royal Oak couple, who were joined in a commitment ceremony nine years ago, said their wedding was nearly perfect.
But for Rice and Fleck, creating the perfect ceremony was a nine-month process.
They started with the location, booking the Lafayette Grande Banquet Facility in Pontiac for its historic architecture.
“Once we found that building, which kind of fit our personality, everything else kind of fell into place,” Fleck says.
To help pull off their vision of a signature wedding with a twist, the couple turned to husband-and-wife team Miriam Jerris and Stephen Stawicki, who run The Wedding Connection, in Huntington Woods.
Jerris, who has performed same-sex marriages and commitment ceremonies for more than 20 years, said some of the only differences she sees in a ceremony for a gay couple is in the words she uses.
“The language goes from ‘partner’ to ‘spouse’ to ‘husband’ and ‘wife,'” Jerris says. “It varies a great deal and I want to make sure the language I’m using is language that is meaningful and is the language they use.”
She said couples contact her at different stages in the planning process, from three weeks to more than a year before the ceremony. No matter when they start, she reminds couples to emphasize their love for each other and make choices that are important to them.
“I think the ceremony is the most important part of this celebration – otherwise, what’s the point?” Jerris says. “It’s not a party, it’s a celebration of love. I would say get your place and some dates and then find the person that’s going to officiate your wedding.”
After she’s hired, Jerris said she likes to begin working on vows with the couple immediately and ask them to settle on a general outline and length of their vows. Some couples choose to make their vows a promise, while others choose theirs to be a statement of their love, she said. Lengths vary.
“Short and sweet doesn’t fit everyone,” she said. “It fits short and sweet people. I just let the couple go. I give them lots of examples so they have permission to be who they are. They see there are so many ways to go about it and they feel quite free to do what would work for them.”
Fleck and Rice said it was important for them to include their siblings in the ceremony. Each had their oldest sister walk them down the aisle. They also chose other personal touches, like inviting couples they respected – one straight, one lesbian, and one gay – to speak at the ceremony about what made their union successful. At the point where a bouquet would be thrown in a traditional wedding, the couple opted instead to scatter carnations decorated with affirmations to their guests.
Stawicki, who works with his wife on the event-planning side of the company, said that once a couple has decided on their budget and guest count, everything else falls into place.
In an unstable economy, he said couples tend to plan weddings faster. What used to take a year can now be planned in months or even weeks.
Using an event planner familiar with commitment ceremonies can be beneficial, he added, as they can weed out any vendors or wait staff uncomfortable with a same-sex marriage.
“In the old days, you really had to ask that everyone participating in the event not be offended by emotions and acts of love,” he says. “It’s getting less and less now, but you still have to ask the question.”
Rice said that’s one reason he and Fleck were glad they chose an event-planning company familiar with commitment ceremonies.
“I didn’t want to ruin the feeling of the euphoria of planning the wedding with people turning me down and being bigoted,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons we asked Miriam and her husband to find all the venues.”
Fleck was surprised to find that some of his supportive family members seemed a little uncomfortable with his wedding. He said talking about it directly with the family helped smooth the issues over and brought everyone closer together.
“What was really awesome and beautiful was that we all talked about it,” he says. “As planning got closer, the families talked about how much they loved us and supported us. They were kind of surprised that their homophobia was coming up a bit, but they took ownership of it and it brought us even closer.”
He said the planning also helped bring him and Rice closer. And one decision they made during the planning has helped them to continue to strengthen their bond.
They videotaped their ceremony. When times are tough, they pop it in.
“It kind of reminds us of what’s important,” Fleck says. “All couples struggle, and sometimes we’ll go, ‘We need to pull that out and pay attention to the vows we said.’ It puts things in perspective.”
Wedding Do’s & Don’ts
Do: Take time for yourself
After all the anticipation of planning the wedding, don’t forget to enjoy it when it’s finally here. Jason Rice, who married his partner Stephen Fleck in a commitment ceremony nine years ago, said he’s glad he took time to fully enjoy the day.
“Stephen and I took moments,” Rice says. “It was an unspoken thing; we would stop whatever we were doing every 45 minutes to an hour and hold hands and watch everybody in silence all around us. It helps to cement a lot of those memories for me.”
Don’t: Let people bully you
Rice and Fleck said they encountered some negative reactions when they told people they were getting married, but didn’t let it ruin their ceremony. Dealing with the issues head-on diffused them without ruining the day.
Do: Play to your strengths
If you’re a details person, focus on attending to the small things. If your strength is seeing the bigger picture, don’t sweat the small stuff. Figuring out what each partner was best at helped Rice and Fleck plan their ceremony with minimal stress, and the effects spilled over to their relationship and business. The couple owns Changez Salon in Royal Oak.
“Either hire someone to help you or figure out who does what the best,” Rice says. “And then get over yourself and let it be.”
Don’t: Lose sight
Bickering relatives, scheduling conflicts and other devilish details can be stressful, but don’t forget the reason for all the planning. Memories of wedding snafus will fade, but the emotions behind the ceremony will stay with you.
“There’s something very potent and meaningful about being witnessed as you vow to love this person for the rest of your lives,” says Fleck. “If people truly know this is the person they want to spend their life with, even though it’s not recognized, I would encourage people to do it.”