(Originally posted on AfterEllen.com today, except this version has footnotes!)
Matrimonial bliss must be in the air—two good friends announced engagements in the last week, and I’ve been inundated with emails from heterosexual women agonizing over what the heck to do with their masculine-of-center lesbian bridesmaids. These emails come in two general flavors:
#1: I want my butch friend to wear a dress and she said no! WTF—it’s MY wedding!
#2: My butch friend would hate wearing a dress, so what should I ask her to wear?
I’ve been on all sides of this: the reluctant dress-wearing bridesmaid, the tie-sporting bridesmaid, and (many years ago) the hetero bride.
The women who ask question #1 tend to write things like, “I get that she’s a lesbian, but it’s MY wedding. Even if she doesn’t like dresses, it’s what my bridesmaids are wearing. It’s MY day, and I want everyone to match.”
Matching, I must say, is highly overrated.
Matching sides are not chic or modern. Matching sides are not correlated with matrimonial happiness. And I can virtually guarantee that when you and your beloved are thumbing through your photo album on your 25th anniversary, you’re not going to give two craps about sartorial uniformity. You’ll only care who was there and how much fun you had with them.
With sufficient badgering, some butches can be bullied into donning a dress. But most will feel wildly uncomfortable. (Trust me—I’ve been there. A butch in drag feels like a show poodle on steroids.) And don’t you want her to stand up for you as who she is, not as some silly dysphoric cartoonish version of herself?
I can hear it now: a bride-to-be asking, “But lots of people feel comfortable in other clothes. The groomsmen would prefer to wear sweatpants, and we’re not letting them get away with it.” Listen, sister—this is nothing like that. It’s not just a matter of formality. Showing up in something more physically comfortable is qualitatively different from showing up in clothes that cut against the core of who you are as a person. Hence my use of the word “dysphoria” above.
Suppose you were going to a fancy-schmancy event and the host asked you to wear a tuxedo and fake mustache. Not as a joke, mind you, but because this was what they wanted you to wear and be photographed in. If you really wanted to attend the event, maybe you’d do it. But something in you would blanch. Yuck, you might think. This is not really me. I feel like I’m in a costume—I hope no one sees me like this. This is how many butches feel when we put on a dress.
So let’s suppose I’ve successfully persuaded you that Butchy McBridesmaid needn’t sport frills. Onto question #2: what, then, is she supposed to wear? This is the fun part. Possibilities abound:
One bride-to-be recently emailed me a more subtle question. She explained that she wasn’t going to force her butch bud into periwinkle chiffon, and had instead told her that she could wear pants… as long as they were flowy women’s pants with a women’s shirt, which she said would be more closely aligned with the bridesmaids’ look that she was going for. The butch in question was offended and the bride-to-be was like, WTF, I thought I was being cool.
While I don’t think all butches would be offended by the specter of flowy pants, plenty would be uncomfortable. It’s as if the bride is saying, “I get that you’re different, but you have to present in a way I think women should. You still have to fit within my definition of acceptable femininity.” And that doesn’t feel very nice, especially if your butch friend has weathered years of feeling like she wasn’t “doing” femininity correctly. For many of us, being butch is liberating because it means we no longer have to “do” femininity at all. Making her wear flowy pants makes her enter that lousy terrain all over again.
It’s not that your butch friend should be allowed to wear anything she wants. After all, your other bridesmaids may or may not find tea-length periwinkle chiffon flattering on them, and your groomsmen may not love peach-colored ties. It’s not about giving your butch bridesmaid free reign—it’s about asking her to wear something consistent with who she is.
My opinion? Don’t force her to fit into your mold. Approach the conversation with love: Ask her what she would be comfortable in and why (or ask something like, “Would you be more comfortable in what the groomsmen are wearing, or in what the bridesmaids are wearing?”), and listen with an open mind and heart. Ask yourself where your discomfort is really coming from. Is it really about formality, or is it about a fear that others might somehow judge you if your friend wears a men’s suit?
Now, what about the other wedding-related events, decisions, and festivities? Here’s a handy Q&A for your matrimonial reference and planning pleasure:
Q: Do I let her invite a guest?
A: Yes, if you’re letting everyone else in the wedding party invite a guest. This means that gay people might dance at your wedding. Everyone’s on their best behavior at weddings and no one will make a thing of it.
Q: Bouquet or boutonniere for the butch bridesmaid?
A: Your choice.
Q: Is she supposed to walk down the aisle with a groomsman, or walk by herself, or what?
A: In my opinion, this one is your choice, too. You can ask her what she’s comfortable with, and you could always have her seat your groom-to-be’s grandmother or something, but I think you get to decide this based on what’s convenient for the ceremony. When I was a bridesmaid in a suit and tie, I walked down the aisle with a guy, and although it made us smile and probably made an uncle or two scratch his head in momentary confusion, it was completely fine and didn’t detract from the ceremony. The point is to get everyone up there in an orderly fashion. Don’t sweat this one too much.
Q: Do I invite Butchy McB to the bachelorette party or will that be weird?
A: Yes, and yes. Invite her and give her a heads-up on any hyper-hetero carryings on. Some butches think it’s hilarious to sip Long Island iced teas through penis-shaped straws while pretending to ogle a male stripper. Others will be extremely uncomfortable. Make it clear that you’d love to have her, but that it’s 100% fine if she opts out.
Q: What about while we’re doing our hair, nails, and makeup?
A: Give her some non-gender-conforming options. If you’re going for manicures, tell her she can get a men’s pedicure or a foot massage. And during makeup time, ask her to be the official photographer (scientific fact: butches love having duties).
Q: I'm giving all my bridesmaids a gift. What do I give the butch one?
A: Nothing traditionally girly! Something that’s more “her” communicates that you see her as an individual. Failsafes include a unique pocket knife or watch, a modern laptop bag, a high-end wireless speaker, or something cool for her kitchen.
Q: What if my other bridesmaids are homophobic?
A: If they’re your buddies, you need friend upgrade. If it’s a sister-in-law or someone else you’re obligated to include, you’ll have to deal with some discomfort. Lines you can use include, “This is my wedding and she’s my friend, and she’s going to be a part of it as she is,” and “Jesus didn’t teach us to judge each other by the clothes we wear.”
And that, my dear straight friends, is how to gracefully incorporate your masculine-of-center friend into your wedding with grace and style. If you have lingering questions, feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy wedding planning!
 Years ago, as a straight young bride, I left a good male friend out of my wedding party because the way the numbers worked, he would have had to stand next to the bridesmaids and then the sides wouldn’t match. Yes, I left out one of my closest friends in the name of sartorial symmetry. What a stupid decision.
 Plus, if it’s simply that you want the pictures to look a certain way, just take some with all the people in dresses, some with all the bridesmaids, etc.
 And if she insists that she doesn’t care (which I would have a difficult time believing), at least give her the option of changing between the ceremony and the reception. (And no, you don’t get to offer this as a “compromise,” saying that she has to wear a dress for the ceremony, but gets to change later. The only thing you’d really be compromising—besides her dignity—is your friendship.)
 Personally, I would not be offended, but I would shudder.
 If you don’t know what’s happening at your party, just fill your maid of honor in and let her communicate with your lesbian friend in your stead.
 Not intended as sacrilege, by the way—do you really think He cares what your bridesmaids wear?
The first out gay person I knew was a guy from high school named Kevin. Halfway through his senior year, which was my sophomore year, he came out, and it caused an enormous stir. Someone GAY? In OUR high school? (Actually, he came out as bisexual, but our collective shock was so great that we did not make such fine distinctions.)
To my knowledge, no one else in my high school had ever come out. We were a community of farmers and commuters in a conservative, mixed-race exurbia. It was the mid-1990s. True, we knew that gay people existed, and in theory, some of us (myself included) even supported gay marriage. We had Red Ribbon Week, sure. But all of this was a far cry from meeting an actual GAY person. While we suspected that our principal was a lesbian (she was), she had the good sense never to drop a word about her sexual orientation. A Gay/Straight Alliance didn't materialize for another decade and a half. I had never met someone with two mommies or two daddies. Heck, Ellen wasn't even out yet.
I didn't think much about Kevin. He was a drama guy, and I was more of a nerd/artist/debate kid. But I knew OF him--we all did. I don't know what the personal repercussions were like for him. I can't imagine they were mild. I imagine he lost friends over it, was socially excluded, was bullied. Maybe once or twice, he was quietly thanked or congratulated. I hope it wasn't all terrible for him, and I wish I had known myself better back then and had the courage to talk to him about it.
By the time I came out as a lesbian many years later, the world--or at least, MY world--was a different place. True, it was not particularly easy. I had some struggles. I lost some friends. And I continue to face mercifully sporadic unpleasantness in my everyday life (due, I daresay, more to gender nonconformity than sexual orientation, but I digress.) Kevin crossed my mind several times when I was coming out. I couldn't help feel that whatever I was going through, it had been ten times worse for him, a 17-year-old kid, all those years earlier. A few years ago, I friended Kevin on Facebook. I didn't even know if he would remember who I was. We hadn't really known each other, or even had many friends in common. But he was the first out person in my everyday life, and somehow, that meant something to me, and I wanted to see how he was doing. He accepted my request, but he's the kind of guy who has a zillion friends, so I assumed he still didn't know who I was.
Last week, mostly on a whim, I wrote Kevin a Facebook message along these lines: Hey Kevin. This is going to seem like a weird email from someone you probably don't even remember from high school. I was two years behind you and remember when you came out your senior year. You were the first person I knew personally who was out and proud. I've thought of you several times throughout the years in my own coming out journey. I know this is out of the blue, but I just felt compelled to tell you that your act of courage all those years ago made a difference.
He wrote back immediately: Yes, I do remember you. Thank you, that really means so much. I had no idea that I would touch and inspire by doing that. All I was trying to do was be who I was. And although hard, I am proud that I did it then. Glad I could help in your journey!! If you are ever in the area come by for a drink!!
Isn't that cool? It made my day brighter, and I bet my expression of gratitude after all these years made his day a little brighter, too. I only wondered why I hadn't done it earlier.
If you have a Kevin in your life--and I bet most of us do--why not track him or her down and say thanks?
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