As a straight, cisgender wedding photographer I am extremely grateful and proud that a number of LGBTQ+ couples have trusted me with their weddings, engagements and love stories.
Showcasing these couples’ photos has earned me more LGBTQ+ wedding bookings for the upcoming year, which I’m pumped about.
Working with LGBTQ+ couples has been an incredible part of my business. I have been intentional about showcasing their images. I often get comments from people of all sexualities and genders, saying it’s refreshing to see a wedding photographer’s commitment to inclusivity. Not just in this realm, but other kinds of diversity, too.
In this article, I wanted to take a bit of a philosophical view about how I make couples who identify as LGBTQ+ feel safe, welcome and validated. I also want to go into a little of the backstory, philosophy and my personal journey.
Am I always unfaltering in my attempts? No, but I am always learning and getting better at asking thoughtful questions while respecting boundaries.
How did I start shooting LGBTQ+ weddings & engagements?
As a straight, cisgender wedding photographer, I knew that I wanted to build a wedding photography business that stood for diversity and inclusivity.
William and Shawn were an early couple I worked with back in 2017. I had just arrived in San Francisco from London. Another wedding vendor connected us from their local community in San Rafael.
The couple graciously agreed to meet with me. As I was just starting out, I offered them a complimentary engagement shoot. Of course, I really wanted to work with the couple, was keen to make portfolio pieces, and knew I could create something that they’d love.
I didn’t know it back then, but William and Shawn ended up informing the direction my burgeoning business would move in. A simple engagement shoot led to so many opportunities.
For one thing, the images caught the eye of Equally Wed, the US’s leading LGBTQ+ wedding planning and education resource (more about that later)! This would lead to at least 5 more articles getting published, and an ongoing relationship of mutual support with Kirsten, the co-editor.
Still to this day I get large Instagram accounts reposting images from this gorgeous shoot.
Two years after the shoot, I had an LGBTQ+ couple say to me at a meeting, ‘we want to work with you because we saw your photos of the cute African-American guys’.
As you can imagine, this is a powerful experience.
It’s extremely humbling as a wedding photographer. If you’re not careful, you can get quite blasé about your work. It makes me realize how much I owe to the amazing couples who have allowed me into their lives.
Avoiding tokenism or fetishism when working with LGBTQ+ clients
So, this isn’t all going to be me patting myself on the back. There is one thing that has always bugged me and I wanted to address here. The issue of tokenism… or should I go one step further and call it fetishism?
Tokenism is defined as:
Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial or sexual equality.
And this article on Youthcake goes into more detail about how it feels to be fetishized as an LGBTQ+ person.
I am extremely wary of being misinterpreted in this way. Though discrimination is still rampant in our world, LGBTQ+ weddings can get a good deal of positive attention from the wedding industry. And I cannot say that this has escaped my attention.
Not only that. I thought to myself, if I were gay wouldn’t I feel most comfortable supporting another LGBTQ+-owned business, investing into my own community? Am I taking the opportunity away from someone that deserves it more?
The reasons I shoot LGBTQ+ love stories
As someone who identifies as straight and cisgender, I really want to be clear that I operate under the premises of love, understanding and building bridges. I’m deeply committed to showcasing couples who are woefully underrepresented in the mainstream wedding narrative.
In fact, that was one of the values upon which I built my business.
Whether it’s by race, ability, age, gender, sexuality or any other aspect. My intention has always been to tell the personal stories of each of my couples that goes deeper than minority-status box-ticking.
In fact, it’s because the LGBTQ+ community is not one that I’m a part of, that I have made active attempts to ask questions and get to know those couples.
Fetishizing minorities of any kind is something that repulses me, and I sincerely hope that my own approach never comes off this way. As a minority myself (a POC and immigrant), I have certainly been on the receiving end.
That’s why I never assume that I know what a couple has been through. I never would give off the impression that I ‘know all about gay weddings’.
Like with all my couples, I meet them where they’re at. I let the couple dictate what it feels right to talk about and how far they would like to let me into their personal story, if at all.
Making attempts to connect with trans people in couples
After William and Shawn, I made attempts to connect with a trans-identifying couple. I spent a year getting to know Marissa and Nico, hanging out at their place, gifting them two engagement photoshoots, and eventually attending their wedding picnic as a guest.
One of the requests I had for meeting with them was that I could ask them about their lives, their story. Nico is a transgender man who fights for trans rights. Marissa is a lesbian. From our first meeting it was clear that they loved to inform and inspire with compassion, patience and transparency.
Connecting with them was another stepping stone on my own journey.
Working with a couple just for fun, without the transactional nature of a photographer-client relationship, was a foundational first step in serving my future couples right.
After that trans couple, I connected with another just by chance at a Rising Tide Society Tuesdays Together meeting. Their amazing story was published on Equally Wed.
Equally Wed Pro and their LGBTQ+ certified training course
Skip ahead a few more months and I heard about an opportunity from Equally Wed Pro. They launched a program to become an LGBTQ+-inclusive certified vendor.
Kirsten, whom I’d already built a relationship with, excitedly told me her and her wife and co-editor Maria’s plans for the course. So I did the course.
I couldn’t believe how much information was packed into it. Stuff that honestly, I thought I already knew. During the program, I learned several things that stood out to me. Here are just a few of them.
The words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ are not interchangeable
‘Queer’ is not to be used synonymously with ‘LGBTQ+’, ‘gay’ or ‘trans’. It’s a separate community with which some LGBTQ+ people may identify, while others may not. Also, there are many LGBTQ+ people who are not comfortable with straight people using the word ‘queer’ at all.
Not everyone that’s trans is public about it
Some trans folx are not open about their transness and that’s their right. I have learned not to push for details or read anything into it if they choose not to bring it up. Also, some trans people identify as straight.
Trans folx are all on different journeys
I learned not to assume anything about surgery, hormones or anything else that you feel is ‘expected’. These are extremely sensitive issues so it’s best not to ask about anything so personal. Questions can feel like judgment.
Gender-neutral wedding party names
I love that idea that the people who make up the party are based on closeness to the marrier, not their gender! Terms like ‘bridesman’ ‘man of honor’, ‘groomsmaid’ or ‘best woman’ are rather awkward and only serve as good fodder for jokes. They are also not non-binary inclusive. Instead, I learned the gender-neutral word ‘honor attendant’.
The personal nature of marriage proposals
Part of my ‘getting to know couples’ script was to ask questions ‘how did X propose?’ ‘why did that seem like a good time to propose?’ but after the certification, I had to rethink.
Not all proposals are a romantic fairytale filled with drama, intrigue and daring. And not every couple wants to talk about it, or feel less than because they had a chat on the couch one night and decided to get married. Maybe part of the reason was ‘because it was the end of the year and we wanted to file our taxes jointly’. Actually, this goes for couples of any sexuality.
Specifically for LGBTQ+ couples, I want to find a good way of asking about whether there was a double proposal without it sounding like I’m judging that there should be.
Prejudice still faced by marriers within the wedding industry
The prejudice faced by LGBTQ+ marriers was surprising. We went through some examples on the course.
Sometimes the salesperson was so overbearing that the customer felt it was not worth correcting them. It’s not just the baker refuses to make your wedding cake. It’s the assumption that, as you have a female name, your partner must be male. The vendor will be operating on that basis until you are forced to put them right.
It is important to me that my work and approach always be inclusive and supportive, and Equally Wed has helped me maintain that level of care and awareness for my LGBTQ+ clients.
So now, putting it all together. All the experiences I’ve had in the last 3 years have got me to the point I am today.
Despite my sometimes-awkwardness, my still-learning, my slip-ups and regrets, my overzealousness at times to be involved with my clients’ stories…. I have this to offer about the ways in which I actually help and honor my LGBTQ+ wedding couples.
How I help my LGBTQ+ couples specifically
So, putting it all together! The first thing to point out is that each couple is different. Whatever couple I’m working with and however they identify, the most important thing is to keep their unique story and vision in mind.
I think it’s also OK to admit that I don’t always get it right. I try my best, but business is learning. Life is growth.
By nature, I am a curious person. However I’ve had times in my business and personal life in which I’ve asked too many questions and the other person has felt I’ve overstepped a boundary. There is, of course, a point at which curiosity can feel like nosiness. Overfamiliarity (that I’ve also been guilty of) can feel grating. I’m keen to keep this in check!
I sometimes feel afraid of messing up by saying the wrong thing in front of my clients. Calling someone ‘he’ or ‘she’ when they use the pronoun ‘they’. Or nonchalantly saying ‘hey guys’ when I’m speaking to two lesbians.
But fear of getting it wrong isn’t an excuse not to put myself out there on this journey. Every time I shoot a wedding I have the potential to put my foot in my mouth or upset someone unintentionally. Here are a few of the ways I cater to LGBTQ+ clients, specifically.
Listen and learn
The key is to listen and learn, and definitely let the couple lead more so than other couples. I create space for each couple to bring up what’s important to them in a natural way.
I have learned that it’s respectful and polite to ask any person their pronouns. That may lead to a wider discussion about how they identify, and their level of comfort around words like ‘bride’, ‘wife’, etc.
Be enthusiastic and supportive
Whenever couples reach out to me telling me their wedding is an LGBTQ+ celebration, I am always extra sure to give them the max excitement! Rather than saying ‘that’s no problem’, I tell them what a high honor it is to be considered for this celebration of their love.
Don’t take it for granted
Gay marriage is still relatively new in the United States. Some of my LGBTQ+ couples, particularly the older ones, or couples from other countries, spent much of their lives believing they would never have the right to marry. I’m aware that I’m part of a celebration that most thought would never happen, so awareness and gratitude are usually appreciated.
Leave assumptions at the door
I come to each consultation free of assumptions as much as I’m able. Some LGBTQ+ couples want an extremely traditional wedding, and others want nothing conventional whatsoever. For most, however, it’s a blend.
Use genderless posing
LGBTQ+ weddings test photographers because we cannot resort to the tried and tested posing techniques: ‘bride does this while groom does that’. Genderless posing involves getting couples into great photography poses without casting marriers into gendered roles. I’m still working on this as it’s honestly quite tough. I may write a more detailed article about genderless posing when I have had more experience with it.
Observe the couple’s natural interactions
Every couple has a different way of interacting. That’s true across the board. But with LGBTQ+ couples I’m careful not to push them into something that feels uncomfortable or inauthentic. I take my cues from them, whether they’re goofy types, more serious, touchy-feely, or not.
Test the waters regarding PDA
I ask a couple about the level of public display of affection they are happy with, as it’s a vulnerable subject. Some couples love to let me lead and pose them however I see fit. Others may want to keep their wedding portrait session private and even formal, without a lot of kissing, snuggling, squeezing etc.
Deal with mistakes graciously
To the LGBTQ+ community, a seemingly innocent slip-up of gendered language, or a misplaced hashtag, matters. I try my best to put things right when I do say something insensitive or mistakenly tag an Instagram post ‘#queerlove’ when that is not how the couple identifies.
I hope it goes without saying by now, but I would never condone posing non-LGBTQ+ people as a real LGBTQ+ couple. This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves and something I think the wedding industry has a lot to answer for. Yes, photographers have been caught using straight, cis models for ‘same-sex styled shoots’. WHY?!
To other wedding vendors out there: until you stand for equality yourself, there’s no point in taking on an LGBTQ+ wedding project. And please, don’t use models who aren’t even a real couple! OK, rant over.
Steph Grant touched on this topic in her conversation about LGBTQ+ wedding representation with other wedding vendors. If you want an excellent piece for further reading, read the thought-provoking article here.
Honor the differences but don’t dwell on them
Every couple is unique and I like to think I honor them each in an individual way. However, people are not defined by what sets them apart but what brings us together. At the end of the day, the idea of a wedding is the same whatever the marriers’ sexuality and gender.
Ultimately, I hope to contribute to a more inclusive wedding world. In my work, I showcase not just LGBTQ+ couples, but also swirl couples, POC, older/ age-gap couples, as well as any couple who identifies as white, straight or anything else. I try not to focus on labels, and would never want to fetishize those labels.
However, I also appreciate that many of my couples are extremely proud of how they identify, and want certain words to be part of their story. So, it’s a fine balance that I will not always get right.
It matters to me that clients know when they come to me they will be respected and treated fairly. Photographing LGBTQ+ weddings requires a little more sensitivity at times, and I know this is a constant process of learning and being led by my couples.
Zoe Larkin Photography is an equality-minded vendor that celebrates diversity, avoids hetero-normativity and promotes true marriage equality.