Marriage equality is for wedding parties too: 5 tips for bridesmen

Guest post by Mark O'Connell, LCSW

This is an excerpt from Mark O’Connell’s unpublished book, “How to be a Bridesman.”

Illustration by Dan Parent
Illustration by Dan Parent

Marriage equality has arrived and it’s not just for “the gays.” Wedding customs are evolving for all. Marriage ceremonies (even religious ones) are becoming more a proclamation of love and commitment, on equal terms, for gay and straight couples alike.

Wedding parties are progressing, as well, and the tradition of “boys on one side of the aisle, girls on the other” is being adapted so that each spouse-to-be gets to stand with their tightest pals — regardless of gender. Bridesmen and groomsgals are indeed a fact of twenty first century weddings.

But not everybody is ready for this party. Some guests see a bridesman or groomsgal and don’t know what to do. Here are a few simple tips for managing OPA (“Other People’s Anxiety”) and performing at your very best.

(NOTE: These tips are aimed at bridesmen — ’cause nothing gets you down with OPA like a man in “a woman’s role” — but they’re helpful for groomsgals and every idealist who believes in wedding-party equality.)

1. You must be asked

There are currently many people trying to deny women the right to choose, but you can’t be one of them, so as tempting as it is to insinuate yourself into your dear friend’s nuptials, the choice is hers. That being said, if you share a deep bond with a soon-to-be-bride, you’re a likely candidate for her party, if she’s having one.

Women have been the pioneers of wedding-party equality, brazenly breaking tradition to keep their besties in line on the big day. This coming out, if you will, validates many special and enduring platonic friendships between women and men (very often gay men), proudly reclaiming them and challenging the common perception that they’re based on invisibility and shame — the “fag hag” and her “fag.”

So, prepare to be asked and to say, “Yes! I do honor your wish to publicly affirm our binary-shattering mutual affection.” However, if she tries to draft you into the brigade of her betrothed, consider sharing with her how meaningful it would be for you to be deployed on her side instead.

2. Complain about your suit

Not literally, but here you might have to severely depart from bridesmaid rule of thumb. Your bride-to-be means well when she may tell you to suit-up like a groomsman — whether or not that suit works squeezed between two bridesmaids’ gowns. This could be an immaterial concern, but you don’t want to look like you accidentally wandered to the wrong side of the altar.

Ask her about the bridesmaids gowns, and collaborate on a look that captures the same essence, colors, and style of the bridesmaids’ gowns. (For example, if the maids are to wear lavender crepe gowns, and the groomsmen seersucker suits, then you might suggest a lavender summer suit for yourself, or pale gray with lavender tie and socks.) Now the girls and boy(s) of the bridal tribe look coherent, confident, and distinct.

Have your outfit tailored: For some men, putting such effort into looking good may bring up feelings of being emasculated or vulnerable. Reframe this, and think of it as a gain not a loss (even George Clooney allows himself to be eye candy), and picture the bride beaming with joy and appreciation for your cooperation.

Maybe you have more flexibility than the ladies, but with it comes the responsibility to co-create a clear and respectable sartorial role — for yourself and for future bridesmen.

3. Get tight with your fellow “maids”

A surefire entree into the clan is to enthusiastically participate in planning the bachelorette events, with a soft, genuine curiosity. For example: “What happens at a shower?” “Can we use Google Docs to budget for this thing?” “Must we wear penis crowns?”

Sharing what you know always helps, so offer something you’re good at. For example: decorate a cake in the bride’s likeness, or design a signature cocktail utilizing the wedding theme colors. The gals will appreciate your efforts.

As a warning: If you’re the only male in the bridal party, don’t let it get to your head and lead you to offer your stripping services. Unless you’re a pro and it’s as easy as tying your shoelaces, this will just be weird and could defeat your intent to form a secure attachment with the ladies.

4. It’s not about you; it’s about her and you

Whom and what this day is about is certainly not up for debate, but when you’re cast against type in the eyes of your audience (imagine The Rock playing one of the seven dwarves), you’re going to be more distracting if you try not to be noticed than you’ll be if you make active choices. So to ensure that the group focuses on the lovebirds and their revelry, you’ll want to address a few technicalities.

Clarify the bouquet situation: If she wants them, consider how harmonious it is for you to hold one, and if very, then great, but if not-so-much, then offer her a few creative alternatives — perhaps a matching boutonnière.

If she wants a standard recessional (meaning bridesmaids taking groomsmen’s arms as they exit), she may not have considered how this affects you or the groomsman who’ll be staring at you dumbfounded. I’ve been in this hot seat before and offered my arm to the confounded gentleman — thinking it better to confidently take the novel image of us walking together a step further than to passively attempt to blend in by taking his arm, or to avoid the issue altogether, likely causing an awkward distraction. The crowd laughed, relieved that an active choice had been made, and seemed to be left with an open mind rather than tense embarrassment. Collaborate with the bride on a flight pattern ahead of time so that your ceremonial moves are chosen and smoothly executed.

Don’t let Other People’s Anxiety bump you from (literal and mental) photos of the day. Advocate for having yourself placed in plain view, and allow the camera to capture your natural chemistry with the bridal team. When guests pass by and acknowledge only the ladies with comments like “you look so pretty,” rather than colluding with that guests’ desire to Photoshop you out of reality, deploy your smile teeth and say “thank you” with an easy charm.

5. Just be

Like a professional performer, you’ve set all your marks in advance and carved out the canal, so that when the moment arrives, you can simply flow through it. Now you can just radiate how genuinely happy you are that your dear friend has found a relationship that feels like home.

By default you’ll be performing, and illuminating a very special kind of love between women and men.

Bridesmen: What are your wedding party tips?

Comments on Marriage equality is for wedding parties too: 5 tips for bridesmen

  1. One tip from a bride is, if you are uncomfortable with some aspect of bridesmanning but overall willing to take the role, talk it over with the happy couple. My brother is pretty quiet and doesn’t like the spotlight, especially for doing something unusual or non-traditional. He is also one of the most important people in my life and I *begged* him to stand up with me on my wedding day. Eventually, we took the stuff he was least comfortable with–showers, being matchy with the maids, etc.–off the table and I got to have him there. I was so happy!

    So my message to the men is, if a bride is asking you to stand with her, you are important enough to her to make some (gentle) requests. If you need to ask, ask!

    • Rebecca, I agree. And I like your use of the word “generous”. My article uses humor to make the point that bridesmen have more room to engage the spouses-to-be (“spice”-to-be?) in dialogue than tradition has allowed bridesmaids. But you’re right, that shouldn’t preclude the preferences of the engaged couple at the end of the day. It’s about respectful communication. In fact, this may be an opportunity to consider how strict we’ve tended to be with bridesmaids, and to, perhaps, create more room for wedding party dialogue in general.

    • My brother is also standing on my side, and in line with his personality and our relationship, he will give an awesome speech at the wedding, but will not be participating in the bachelorette or wedding shower. Like you said, take away the uncomfortable parts to preserve what I hold dear.

      My only concern is the walking down the aisle parts. I want to make my brother as comfortable as possible. I was thinking him and the groomsmen could hold either sides of some bunting with a message. Any other ideas? What have other ppl done?

      • Do you have parents or other family members participating in the ceremony? He could walk with one or both of them and escort them to their seats. I’m far from a wedding happening, but knowing my best friend is a guy I currently plan that on my big day I’ll have him as my Man of Honor and walk my mother down the aisle (they are fairly close too).

  2. I will have a bridesman! My brother will be on my side. There’s a chance FH will take our friend (girl) to be on his if we decide we want a number balance. But we’re “breaking tradition” in many a way, and for one, our attendants will be guards. With weapons. To protect us from orcs and hostile tribes. The girls on my side will be dressed a bit like valkyries for our Norse-Celtic themed celebration. Haven’t figured out his outfit/accessories yet, but it will likely be a cross between the girls and my FH’s guards, or be the same as the male guards and just be on my side because that’s easier.

  3. My fiancé and I, getting married this Saturday, are having “I Do Crews” instead of bridesmaids/groomsmen/etc. We decided to be totally gender-neutral and focus on them as a collective group that has helped each of us as individuals.

    My “I Do Crew” includes two girlfriends, my brother, and two closest guy friends. His “I Do Crew” includes five guys and one girl. We love that we can have the people closest to each of us stand at our side instead of having to put all the boys on one side and girls on the other just because of their sex. That’s not what loyalty is about in our opinion, and we’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from everyone we’ve told about this arrangement.

    We could give two craps about what other people think about our wedding ceremony and reception. Isn’t that what it’s all about: making it YOUR day? Here, here!

  4. My one complaint about this post is that the tone presupposes the bridesman is gay. I may be particularly sensitive to this because my bridesman is not, and it’s kind of annoying that people ask me every. single. TIME. if he’s gay. Because obviously only a gay man would stand up for the bride in a wedding. And of course, women can only have deep, platonic friendships with gay men. It’s extremely frustrating. While I agree that gay bridesmen should own their identities and wear them proudly, on the wedding day and every other, being a bridesman should not prompt questions about one’s sexual orientation regardless of what it is. Period. Also, my bridesman is wearing what the groomsmen are wearing. They’re all picking their own ties, and we’re giving them vintage cufflinks to showcase their personalities. I have asked my bridesman if he’d liked his boutonniere to be different, but aside from that I don’t think he needs to be differentiated. The fact that he’s standing on my side should be enough to give people a hint of whose bestie he is.

    • I guess it’s just me but I don’t assume men are with the groom and women are with the bride anymore. As said, if he stands on her side, it should be assumed he’s her man.

      Though, for pictures, I think alternating men and women (or those who identify as either) is enough to get the point across that gender norms aren’t present.

    • So very much this! My brother will be performing Dude of Honor duties at my wedding, because he’s my brother and I’m his sister–not because he’s my “fag” and I’m his “fag hag.” These may be great tips for a gay or effeminate bridesman, but what about our straight and masculine family members and friends? I was really hoping for an article on some good duties for a guy on the bride’s side, how to fit in with the ladies if you’re the only guy, and how you can participate without joining up for the really “girly” stuff if you’re not into that.

    • I know this article mentions that “very often” bridesmen are gay men, but I after reading it over over and over when editing, I didn’t come away with the idea that Mark’s saying ALL bridesmen are gay.

      I’m SUPER sensitive to this whole thing because my man of honor wasn’t gay, and I/he got asked about his sexuality a LOT — as if it was anyone’s business.

      I also reached out to Mark and thanked him for NOT making the blanket statement that all bridesmen are gay. Because the last submission we got on this topic was by someone who wrote “Rule 1: Be gay!” Clearly, I turned down that submission as fast as I could. 😉

      • Someone actually submitted an article that literally said “be gay” as one of the prerequisites to being a bridesman? That surprises me, but then again it kind of doesn’t. Hopefully someday soon that stereotype will also be set aside.

  5. I had a lovely pair of matching Punks of Honour/Bridesdudes/body guards. I chose the two people I feel safest with, my Big Brother by blood and my Big Brother by choice. Two guys I know will always have my back!

    Having boys meant I could neatly sidestep all the hen night/shopping for bridesmaid dresses/makeup and nails/girly stuff I just don’t feel comfortable with.
    They were happy to dye their mohawks a matching shade of red and we kinda cooked up the rest of their look together based on what they both would feel most comfortable in.
    My father got us all to raise a glass to the “beautiful bridesmaids” during his speech and they both insisted on dancing with the best man, so we didn’t entirely forgo tradition!
    They were fantastic!

  6. I didn’t have any bridesmen but my husband had a Best Woman – his sister – in our case nobody really questioned it or seemed to notice, even his super traditional parents. I think the advice to coordinate but not necessarily match the other bridesmaids is great. All of the changes we made to the accommodate for a female best man were based on wardrobe. Since she wore a dress and didn’t have pockets we gave her a grown up ring pillow to carry in the rings, it also gave her something to do with her hands since she didn’t have an escort to the alter – the fact that we had a groom’s side and bride’s side processional probably also shook some people so they didn’t even notice gender at that point (I mean, why shouldn’t the groom get his own grand entrance). Her dress was also chosen to style coordinate with the bridesmaids, but color match the other groomsman – this kept her from looking like an ad-hoc bridesmaid.

  7. I love this COMPLETELY describes what I informed my Honor Guard (Bridesman) when I asked him to be in my wedding party. He’s coming to my shower on Sunday with a bunch of old ladies at a church. Should be fun! 🙂 He’ll also be at my bachelorrette party and with me when I get dressed. As my bridal bestie these are his duties and he absolutely loves it 😀

  8. Our bridal party will have 4 women and 2 men, split equally between our sides. We’re calling them “bridesmates.” Maybe it’s because we are 2 brides, but it hasn’t seemed awkward at all to incorporate our straight male friends into the wedding party. They’re wearing tuxes, the women are wearing dresses, and no one seems uncomfortable about any of it. I hope!

  9. My Man of Honor is one of my BFFs. He’s someone who saved my life, gives me detailed feedback on makeup looks(so no one else has to) and one of the only people I can openly laugh with. He’s like the little brother I wish I had. If anyone deserves the Honor title, it’s him. I feel like it’s considered taboo to have a male on the bride’s side of the wedding, like it’s “ok” if the man is gay but if he’s straight, there’s this hush-hush behavior as if the groom should be threatened by such a bond. It makes me sad.

    • Totally. My best friend these days is a guy. He is also really good friends with my husband, so he stood on that side for the wedding, but he is a straight man who is an incredibly good friend of mine and the person who introduced my husband and I.

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