SOUTHFIELD — It’s been thrown each year since 2010, but this year’s Ultimate LGBT Wedding & Anniversary Expo came at a special time: right on the heels of Michigan’s same-sex marriage ruling.
“Even though we’ll have to wait a little longer for more couples to legally marry in Michigan, more than 300 couples were recently married in just a few hours,” Jan Stevenson, co-publisher of event sponsor Between The Lines, said in a press release. “And we’re ready with cakes, fashions and everything needed to plan a great event.”
The event was held in the Southfield Pavilion for the first time April 12 in order to accommodate the larger-than-ever list of vendors and attendees.
The event was a hit for 61-year-old Dawn Mead and her partner, 57-year-old Diane Barker, of Lansing, who drove for an hour to get to the expo.
“It felt so good to be part of something so open, so comforting,” Mead said, adding that, much of her life, she has lived cautiously when it came to being openly gay. “I loved the idea of an event where you could just go and be who you are.”
Mead and Barker have been together for two years and met through mutual friends. They decided that, if nothing else, they might find companionship after both had suffered losing long-time partners to medical issues, Mead explained.
Her partner of 25 years had died of cancer, and Barker’s partner of 12 years died a sudden death.
When Mead and Barker came together and realized they wanted to share the rest of their lives together, there was no fancy engagement, only a series of conversations on how the two — both never married and without kids — would proceed.
“We never thought we would be lucky enough to find a second soul mate. We had to celebrate that,” Mead explained. “We had both come from the attitude that if marriage wasn’t available to everyone, it shouldn’t be for us. But this time we thought, let’s not make that mistake again.”
So, Mead and Barker will make their public declaration of love, followed by a celebration of their relationship, friendship and second chance, Oct. 4. The couple will have their ceremony at Mead’s East Lansing United Church of Christ, then a reception on the Michigan Princess riverboat.
Several details — like their outfits, table settings and desserts — are still to be determined, and that’s what brought them to the expo at the Southfield Pavilion, Mead explained.
They left with a whole bag full of “goodies” to look through, a contract with a photo booth provider, and a special feeling of loving each other out loud.
“We could go and walk around, and we could actually be a couple while doing it,” Mead added. “We had a blast.”
Mead and Barker, along with hundreds of other couples and supporters, strolled through the Pavilion to meet and greet with local businesses providing wedding services to same-sex couples, including venue representatives, florists, jewelers, entertainers and caterers. The expo also featured a bridal fashion show modeled by local gay rights supporters such as Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter, modeling tuxedos. Free wine, hors d’oeuvres, demonstrations and dancing set the atmosphere.
For the past three years, the expo was held at the Livonia Marriott and was significantly smaller in size and attendance, according to organizers.
This year, due to the overwhelming response and interest, the venue moved to the Southfield Pavilion and brought on event manager Bill Lonskey, of Quintessential Events, to assist in pulling together the details.
“The event grew considerably this year; there were 80 vendors this year, whereas there were 35 in past years,” Lonskey explained, adding that there was even a waiting list for vendor booths. “Attendance doubled over prior years, too, and we had close to 500 people attend.”
He said that with all of the activities at the expo and the emotionality of the marriage equality issue coming to a head, there was an enjoyable atmosphere, and the event was a success.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm. … Even with the (appeal) happening in court, everyone is still very optimistic that marriage equality will come to the state of Michigan relatively soon,” he said.
With the conclusion of DeBoer v. Snyder on March 21, some 323 couples were married — some after being together for decades.
Judge Bernard Friedman, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michiga, ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage — approved by voters in 2004 — violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is often interpreted as an attempt to honor the concept that “all men are created equal.”
The day after Friedman’s ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit placed a temporary hold on the ruling. In the short window of time between Friedman’s ruling and the Circuit Court’s stay, more than 300 same-sex couples got legally married in four Michigan counties: Ingham, Muskegon, Oakland and Washtenaw.
For the couples who wed that Saturday, their marriages are legal, though Michigan won’t recognize them. The legal battle continues with a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to request that the state recognize the associated benefits of those marriages.
The defendants in the case are listed as Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney Gen. Bill Schuette, representing the state of Michigan. Central to the state’s case was their claim that a household with same-sex parents is not the “optimal” environment in which to raise children, and that the “will of the people” should be upheld from the vote in 2004.
As for the 2015 Ultimate LGBT Marriage & Anniversary Expo, Lonskey said organizers won’t forget Southfield when planning.
“I think that we will be looking at the Southfield Pavilion as a strong contender for next year’s event, as well,” he said.
A portion of the proceeds went to benefit the Michigan Marriage Challenge, a fund created to raise money for the legal fees and expenses in the DeBoer v. Snyder case. Plantiff April DeBoer has been in a relationship with her partner, Jayne Rowse, for more than a decade, and together they have three adopted special-needs children.
DeBoer is a neo-natal intensive care nurse, and Rowse is an emergency room nurse.
As a couple, they became licensed foster care parents, and within a year and a half, they adopted three newborns. Currently, one has adopted two of the children, and the other has adopted one; they hope to jointly adopt all three children.
Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski contributed to this report.
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