“Mike, I can’t tell you what to do, you know that. People here won’t like you photographing gay weddings. You don’t have to take the weddings. Just tell them you have plans. I’ll make plans for you if you need plans.”
Those were the words of my pastor over 10 years ago. I had decided to give them a heads up that I was going to be photographing same-sex weddings and unions. The pastor’s response was shocking and not shocking at the same time. I was kind of expecting it. For me, this moment was a line in the sand. This moment represented my break with the church and the Republican party and everything those two interlinked structures of power and control represented.
Looking back I remember sitting in a meeting where the debate among pastors was “should the church baptize a lesbian couple?” And they called themselves the accepting church. What was so clear in my mind was not clear in others who considered themselves open and accepting.
My upbringing was based around universal concepts humans share: love, belonging and acceptance. We were nestled in a community based between Philadelphia and Amish country full of non-confrontational Mennonites and a local Catholic church. The subject of same-sex marriage rarely came up in our conservative community publically that I remember. I was ignorant in the more pure sense of the word. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know the struggle, I didn’t know the non-acceptance, inequality inherent in the system, bullying, the graffiti, and the violence the LGBTQ community faced.
It wasn’t until middle school I even knew what the word gay meant. And in the 90s classmates in school used “gay” as slang for something dumb. In high school, a few kids came out as gay but that was the extent to it. You don’t know what you don’t know. And I didn’t know a lot.
Like many, I wasn’t fond of some of my high school experience. I had this ongoing nagging feeling like I didn’t fit in. That feeling translated into punk rock music at the time. Later on, when I started my business, I decided to be the photographer for people who didn’t have a photographer. A photographer for the punk rock kids. As you probably guessed, I didn’t listen to the pastor and starting photographing Gay Unions and weddings.
My clients have inspired me so much. When photographing LGBTQ weddings, the most intense part was hearing their stories and hearing the stories their families shared. Over the years I’ve heard dozens of cringy turned triumphant speeches from the parent who share their journey of acceptance. They started out shocked or in disbelief and came to love their child even more. Sadly, not all stories shared have happy endings yet. I’ve also heard the tragic stories of family members who still aren’t there yet. It is unfathomable to me that some parents are unwilling to accept their children.
My journey from ignorance about what LGBTQ couples in my community faced was changed by the beautiful people I photograph. The common story I’ve heard when talking with parents of children from conservative backgrounds is they didn’t personally know gay people. They took what their churches said as gospel until their children came out. They’ve said to me it was a “political issue” until it was my son.
If you’ve ever been to a same-sex or queer wedding, you know you are in for some both amazingly beautiful and some heart-wrenching stories. Usually, the wedding ceremony shares pieces of the couple’s story. You might hear how they found each other and maybe you’ll learn a bit about the marriage equality battle fought in the supreme court. If you are like me, you’ll have allergies and find your eyes watering. You’ll leave with more understanding and more hope for a better future in America.
Photographing LGBTQ weddings has taught me so much about being a better ally. I feel guilty that I once was a part of a system and a church that didn’t accept people for who they are. I’m sad I once supported a political party who didn’t support the full rights of our neighbors and friends. If I had a time machine, my ally journey would have started in high school. I would have supported each people coming out.
Maybe just like me, it’s time for you to leave a toxic or anti-LGBTQ church or leave a faith that really just wants to exert power and control. Maybe it’s time to change political parties to one supporting LGBTQ rights.
But like the countless stories I’ve heard at weddings, I believe we can become better allies. The journey isn’t over yet. We need to listen to the LGBTQ community. In hearing stories of others we all become better. In listening, we learn to love and understand.
No matter what letter you represent: Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer or Ally, we can create community wherever we go.
To everyone coming out today, I hope you find more support than you ever imagined and find a new belonging and community. You are so worthy of love and belonging as you are. Let us know how we can be better allies in the comments.