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This is an excerpt from Mark O'Connell's unpublished book, “How to be a Bridesman.”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. Thanks for all of your great comments! I just want to address some of the concerns about the article pegging “all” bridesmen as gay.

    As Megan points out, above, I do say that “very often” bridesmen are gay, because they are, just as “very often” grooms are straight. That’s simply about numbers. I make no presumptions about your bridesman, and offer tips that I consider helpful for any man in a bride’s party/crew/entourage, whether they be gay, straight, bi, feminine, masculine, or somewhere between.

    That being said, I also acknowledge that bridesmen are frequently “feminized”–which unfortunately has a negative connotation in our society–and offer ideas for all wedding participants to rise above that, to steer the focus from seeing a man in a “girly” position, and onto the platonic love between bridal team and bride, regardless of a bridesman’s sexual orientation or gender behaviors.

    My book offers a greater variety of specific suggestions for all kinds of bridesmen. 🙂

  2. I totally agree that gender/sex shouldn’t be used to determinde who stands up with whom and having the people you’re closest with stand up with you is great.

    I just wanted to mention this idea that popped into my head, that while it’s great to have your people on your side, it might also be cool to swap things around a bit as a chance to get to know people better. Maybe not for the wedding itself, but for some parties beforehand if there are seperate ones for bride and groom. Gender/sex doesn’t have to be the line to divide things by. But the idea popped into my head, that IF my brother got married, then it might be a cool way to get to know his bride better. A way to use tradition to break the ice (IF my brother got married, I don’t think it’d be in any way traditional, and we’re not even that big on wedding parties around here (though you do have to pick two people as witnesses).

    I think that for my own wedding I’d probably want all my people on my side and make people from all other sides welcome too, I can be greedy that way… So probably it WOULD come down to everybody keeping their friends/family! And I actually like it that way.

  3. As a gay man, I’m sometimes hyper-sensitive, and sometimes completely oblivious to pigeon-holing men and women in roles, be it for a wedding or some other socially “acceptable” tradition. I felt this article was a good balance by incorporating ideas that could be used for either end of the Kinsey scale. Let’s not forget that, despite our own best intentions, we bring our own preconceived notions to the table, too. Suggesting a bridesman coordinate his suit with the bridesmaid doesn’t mean he has to wear something from the costume closet of the most recent production of “The Birdcage.” Just as a bachelorette party doesn’t have to include the local all male revue, which could cause a bit of discomfort for your straight guy friends. (To that end, ask him. He might think it would be fun to see you and your gal pals lose their shit over the gyrations of a male stripper!)
    Thanks for this article! I’ve definitely got it bookmarked in my pre-pre-planning folder!

  4. I had my brother on my side (wearing a suit like the guys on my husband’s side). My husband had his sister and a best girl friend on his side. His sister wore the same dress as my girls. The other wore a suit.

    I didn’t plan out how they would recess (instead of a processional, the grooms people all went up the aisle together and only the bride’s people processed), but somehow it ended up perfectly matched boy/girl for walking out! I don’t think anyone would have minded walking out with someone of the same gender, anyway, though. (There were more people on his side).

  5. the recessional part made me chuckle. I had a bridesdude, and he and the groomsman he was paired up with were the most enthusiastic of the three ‘couples’ to walk arm-in-arm.

    In all seriousness, I didn’t think to approach the bridal party and all the stuff surrounding it any different just because one of them was a guy. This list was good, especially for a dude that might be hesitant about dealing with the ‘girl’ side of the wedding, but I didn’t really think it was that much different than being a groomsman when you get right down to it. I dunno, I feel like it’s making sound more complicated than it is, like being on the ‘bride’s side’ is somehow way different. Not that it’s wrong or anything, but it’s stuff that’ll come up regardless of which ‘side’ you’re on (if that makes sense, I’m not sure how to exactly phrase my feelings).

  6. I have a long-time friend who had her brother as the “honor attendant” for her first wedding. No one questioned his sexuality and it was all good.

  7. Our bridal party is all over the map, gender-wise. We have 4 Bridesmen, 3 Bridesmaids, 5 Groomsmen, and 1 Groomsmaid. We’ve just invited everybody to every party and let it work itself out. The men are all wearing the same suit, and the women all have the same dress regardless of affiliation, but their names will be listed under their respective groups in the program. So far so good, I think.

  8. This is a wonderful post; thank you. I will have a straight man in my bridal party and my partner will have a gender-free person in his groom’s party. I had decided a decade ago that I would never do the matching dresses thing, so my male Partier won’t need to worry about the outfits, thank goodness 🙂

    Our bigger concern in this context is that we have some family members attending who hold very traditional views. We will be very unhappy if our gay and gender-queer/gender-free friends are at all uncomfortable, so we’re thinking of creating an insert for our invitations, which will be a little note of “we request your consideration where gender assumptions are concerned” – this particular article will be useful in inverting assumptions in a loving way 🙂

  9. My brother and his gf are going to be our “Best Man” and “Maid of Honor” but they both will stand by my side and my fiancee will have her sister and brother-in-law on her side. But we have the same “Best Man” and “Maid of Honor”. Our mothers will walk us down the aisle, at the same time so as not to have that whole “Which one is the guy?” thing. We will both have bouquets and garters and will both do the tosses. I was actually thinking of having my daughter be the ring bearer and my soon-to-be nephew be the flower boy, but we decided that was too “in your face” with the gender thing. The men will have suits, unless of course they want dresses (they might joke about it but I don’t think they’d actually do it) and the women will have dresses but I’m not giving them a choice ’cause I’m a bridezilla and I’ve already picked out really cute dresses. I’m so excited!! Thanks for all the info you put on your site, it’s been helping soooo much!

  10. Any advice for a bridesman / mate giving a speech on behalf of the bridesmaid party? Structuring the speech in a manner that encompasses all bridesmaid stories and some family traits along then evolving to the couples union is the plan so far. Naturally some wit will be included at the start. Traveling through YouTube hasn’t been them most productive as there simply are not ‘Bridesman’ speeches!

    • Absolutely! My best friend was man of honor at my wedding, and I was a groomsgirl at his. Both of us made speeches that represented the (generally) opposite genders’ party. I’ll get on that advice post ASAP!

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