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This is an excerpt from Mark O'Connell's unpublished book, “How to be a Bridesman.”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

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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.

  10. 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. 🙂

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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).

  14. 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).

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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 🙂

  18. 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!

  19. 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!

  20. Did anyone have issue with their family or their partner’s family not being supportive of your mixed gender wedding party?
    I’m having my best friend since kindergarten as my bridesman. My FH’s family is pretty conservative/traditional and I know when it comes down to it they don’t really care, but they are going to be making a lot of inappropriate jokes, especially since his groomsmen are his stepdad and brother so they’re going to be expected to walk with my bridesman (any non-traditional recessional ideas/suggestions would be great). Then on the other hand, my mom and sister automatically assumed my guy would be in the wedding because he’s practically my brother. But my dad, who I’ve always known to be super inclusive, keeps making really inappropriate gay jokes about me having a bridesman.

    Now I’ve fully briefed my guy about my FH’s family and he’s fine with rolling his eyes and looking the other way, I also told him that’s he’s more than welcome to throw a few barbs back at them because they’re the kind of people that love some witty back and forth. And he’s also rolling his eyes and looking the other way with my dad because he knows that my dad’s kind of slipping mentally. But honestly, the remarks that my dad has made have really offended me, and I don’t know how to handle it with him. I tried talking to him about it and he told me I was being ridiculous and just didn’t understand how great his joke was. I’m just super worried that he’s going to say something at the wedding or in his speech and end up making me cry. I’m gonna be crying enough that day, I don’t need bad-crying added on.

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