Gay Marriage Quandary: Am I the Bride or Groom?

PHOTO: Cathy and Leah McElrath Renna were married in a religious ceremony in 2003, but they will soon legally marry in New York.
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On the first day that New York State allowed same-sex couples to start the process to get a marriage license this week, Sandra Rodriguez-Diaz and her lesbian partner Miriam Soriano had to make an "awkward" choice on the application form: Who was the bride and who was the groom?

Fredy H. Kaplan and Anthony Cipriano faced the same confusion filling out their personal information, according to a story in The New York Times -- until Kaplan declared to his partner of six years, "You're going to be the bride."

Clerks at city hall told baffled couples to wait until online application forms could be adjusted to accommodate same-sex couples, who captured the right to marry July 24 after New York joined five other states and the District of Columbia to legally sanction gay marriage.

As the right to marry gains momentum across the United States, same-sex couples are redefining the traditional roles of husband and wife, and bureaucrats are scrambling to keep pace with the social revolution.

"This kind of thing doesn't set well with [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg," said Richard Socarides, president of the national advocacy group Equality Matters and former advisor to President Bill Clinton on issues affecting gays and lesbians.

It only took Bloomberg -- one of the most vocal supporters of the gay marriage bill -- 24 hours to straighten out the mess, ordering the city clerk to update the online applications to rephrase the personal information categories to "Bride/Groom/Spouse A" and "Bride/Groom/Spouse B."

"I think it's important not to try to put gay couples in traditional heterosexual married roles," said Socarides. "What we consider traditional roles of the husband and the wife, even in a heterosexual relationship, are certainly evolving into something different. Just like everything else, it happens much more quickly in the digital age."

But even as modern heterosexual couples are moving beyond stereotypes, cultural perceptions of gay couples -- one is assertive and masculine, the other more feminine and submissive -- still persist.

"This topic is always funny to me because we are a couple that juggles a business, a child and care-taking of a parent in our home," said Cathy McElrath Renna, 46, who owns a public relations agency with her lesbian partner. "People still make assumptions about me and Leah in terms of roles."

"When people meet me, I am the face of the business and I am more androgynous looking, so they assume I am the aggressive man of the house, and that is just not the case," said Renna. "I see myself as a true partner."

The Long Island couple exchanged vows in a religious wedding ceremony in 2003 and is raising a 5-year-old daughter together. Soon, they will make their relationship legal in New York.

"I always call her my wife," said Renna. "I consider her my life partner and spouse."

Renna cooks and Leah McElrath Renna is better at negotiating contracts. They share activities with their daughter Rosemary.

"We do different things with her because we are two different people," Cathy McElrath Renna said.

"I think same-sex couples can offer a way for everyone to rethink rigid gender roles -- men do this and women do that," she said. "In some ways, we offer an opportunity to rethink the way a relationship can work and also challenge people's assumptions."

"I am amazed at how fast things are progressing," she said of the New York law, which doubles the number of same-sex couples nationwide who are offered the opportunity to legally marry.

Even indelicate questions about same-sex relationships are important, according to Socarides.

"They are very much on people's minds as this country becomes more familiar and comfortable with same-sex marriage," he said.

Same-sex couples, he added, are "open to looking at a relationship for what they are -- two people trying to create a life together based upon commitment, love and family. And they do it in sometimes unconventional and untraditional ways."

Sometimes, one is the income earner and the other the homemaker or primary childcare person, but often they share the responsibilities, he said, rather than "strict divisions of labor."

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