Jerry Della Femina
WHEN A FEW THOUSAND STRANGERS R.S.V.P. (9/29/20)
JodyAnn Morgan, left, and Chaya Milchtein with their officiant, L.S. Quinn. The two were married Aug. 29 in Indianapolis.
There I was, searching for a column this week. Nothing changes. The coronavirus is still with us and growing stronger, thanks to some idiots who refuse to wear masks.
Our beloved president, Donald Trump, it turns out is not just morally and spiritually bankrupt, the mean son-of-a-bitch is also financially bankrupt, according to a story in the New York Times. Perhaps some of his backers might take up a collection for him.
Then my good friend Ed Kosner sent me this wedding announcement from the Times and, with tears in my eyes, I had to share it with you. Please note that by publishing this story of their wedding on Facebook I’m not laughing at them, I’m laughing at us:
When a Few Thousand Strangers R.S.V.P.
JodyAnn Morgan and Chaya Milchtein married in Indianapolis at what they called the “biggest, queerest wedding of the year.” There were no guests present, but an audience from around the world watched online…
JodyAnn Morgan wasn’t expecting to catch a glimpse of her future wife while working as a security guard when the circus was in Brooklyn in February 2016. But the noisy chants of children and wafting concession stand aromas all seemed to pause for a moment as Chaya Milchtein walked through the security checkpoint.
It was actually Ms. Milchtein’s outfit that grabbed the attention. “I don’t want to use the word ‘inappropriate,’ but it was not fashionable for the circus,” Ms. Morgan said through giggles. She described Ms. Milchtein’s fashion choice – a tight, red minidress with black, thigh-high boots – as better suited for a dance club.
Ms. Milchtein was getting a manicure earlier that day when another patron offered her nail technician a seat for the show, but the tech couldn’t attend. Ms. Milchtein, who was raised in a Hasidic household before spending her teen years in foster care, missed many typical American experiences of childhood. She took the ticket to help make up for lost time.
Days later, Ms. Milchtein posted in a local Facebook group for queer people living in New York City, and Ms. Morgan noticed her again. This time, she messaged Ms. Milchtein to compliment her style. After a few hiccups trying to connect for a date, they attended a party for a friend of Ms. Morgan and they were comfortable with each other right away. “Everyone kept asking me how long we’d been together and we laughed because it was our first date,” Ms. Milchtein said.
Their relationship quickly became serious. Later that year, they hosted a hybrid Christmas and Hanukkah party, posting an open invitation to members of another online group for local L.G.B.T.Q.+ people.
“My parents always invited a ton of guests for Shabbat and holidays,” Ms. Milchtein said. “My mother instilled in me that there is always room at the table, and we made room.” Ms. Morgan peeled 30 pounds of potatoes to make latkes for guests they had never met but welcomed into their home.
That spring, the pair hosted a Seder for 38 people in their 650-square-foot Brooklyn apartment.
In 2018, the couple moved to Milwaukee. Their new home felt comparatively huge, so they crammed in a dining table that seats 12.
They still live in Milwaukee, where Ms. Milchtein, 25, has an eclectic career as a style influencer, writer and automotive educator. Her website and blog is called Mechanic Shop Femme, where she also writes about plus-size fashion. Ms. Morgan, 33, is a security guard and “Doctor Who” fanatic.
Ms. Milchtein continues cooking for anyone who shows up to join them, and during coronavirus quarantine, her warm meals were picked up at their doorsteps. They’ve welcomed strangers for holiday gatherings, birthdays, potlucks and a clothing swap. “We do this as a form of community building,” Ms. Morgan said. “You’d have people from different backgrounds coming together.”
Although they share love and hospitality with people they don’t know, they say they can’t do the same with their parents. “My parents are traditional Jamaican people who are very religious,” Ms. Morgan said. “They’re just not accepting.” She explained that they view her orientation as a phase that will pass when she’s ready to marry a man. Ms. Milchtein said that it’s clear how much Ms. Morgan’s parents love their daughter, so she feels confused by their inability to accept the couple.
Ms. Milchtein said, “My parents don’t talk to me for other reasons.” She said that her sexuality isn’t the primary cause of tension within her own family’s dynamics. She said that her father abused her for years before she entered foster care at age 16. As the oldest of 15 children, she still has relationships with some of her siblings and family members. But her grandmother, who she and Ms. Morgan have visited on numerous occasions, always told Ms. Milchtein that she would not attend her wedding if she married outside the faith.
The couple was engaged in August 2019 after many conversations about marriage. They bought simple rings together and planned to officially make the commitment together during a vacation in Mexico, but Ms. Morgan couldn’t wait. While the pair was visiting Lake Michigan she asked, “Can we, you know, do that thing?” and proposed. Still, they hadn’t finalized the details of their wedding.
Ms. Morgan suggested they elope in Las Vegas or at a courthouse because she didn’t believe anyone would share the day with them. But Ms. Milchtein knew that even if traditional family and friends wouldn’t attend, she wanted their wedding to reflect the way they have cultivated community with strangers. She envisioned a “a big, queer wedding in New York.”
Ms. Morgan expressed a preference for a simple, smaller affair, and Covid-19 seemed to eliminate the possibility of hosting the “biggest, queerest” wedding of the year – until the pair decided to go virtual.
They limited the in-person guest list to zero, obliging Ms. Morgan’s request for intimacy, but also livestreamed the event and invited everyone to the “Biggest, Queerest Wedding of the Year.” Nearly 10,000 people expressed interest, or indicated they were going to watch the wedding after it was posted as a public event on Facebook. The pair chose Indianapolis because it’s known as the elopement capital of the Midwest, confident in the city’s ability to accommodate their micro-wedding, then turned again to online queer communities to find vendors, an officiant and a venue.
The couple were married Aug. 29 in the private backyard of an Airbnb house overlooking a wooded area on White River at the edge of the city. A slide show of pictures welcomed guests from around the world who waited 15 minutes for the ceremony to begin because of technical difficulties. L.S. Quinn, a Universal Life minister, gathered with the brides at a large tree stump that helped them maintain social distancing and acted as a space to lay bouquets, rings, and written vows for quick access during the ceremony. About 1,600 viewers shared blessings and gratitude in the comments section of the live feed. Ms. Milchtein’s vows included, “Today is our ultimate compromise: a wedding with no one, yet with everyone, present.”
The public event offered a way for family members who are less supportive to tune in to the livestream “without compromising their values or announcing their R.S.V.P.,” Ms. Milchtein said.
“I know my parents know what I’m up to,” she said. “They have the opportunity to watch should they choose to.” Ms. Milchtein, who is not in contact with her parents, did speak with her grandmother after the wedding, “She said to me in Russian that she even began to cry – that she almost shed a tear. It doesn’t translate perfectly. She said that we looked beautiful.”
As a style influencer, Ms. Milchtein had a simple dress in mind before her partner threw a wrench in her plans. Ms. Morgan said, “I’m very much a button-down shirt and slacks kind of person – male-fitting clothes. That’s how I feel comfortable.” But after trying on a wedding dress Ms. Milchtein saved from a previous photo shoot, Ms. Morgan announced, “I’ll just wear this!”
Ms. Morgan eventually chose a glamorous white ball gown with lace sleeves paired with a sparkling belt from the Laine London Company. This Black-owned business also supplied her with a shiny tiara. “It’s a special day,” she said. “I wanted to try something new.”
Ms. Milchtein’s sleeveless white gown was complemented by handcrafted earrings from Twigs & Honey that dangled in front of a floor-length veil also from Laine London.
After vows were exchanged, the couple cut a small cake and watched videos recorded by loved ones. The first message came from a friend who was once a stranger in their living room, and they were touched by her mention of their important role in the community.
The couple registered for gifts after supporters continued to ask for the link to a registry. Their apartment is now littered with stacks of boxes from senders as far away as Australia. Ms. Milchtein is excited for cookware and a spice rack. She explained, “I’ve never had good, quality dishes that match. It’s a dream kitchen.”
Ms. Morgan was sent “Doctor Who” memorabilia that the couple plan to use in a themed guest room. Someone sent a gift card with a quote from the series that Ms. Milchtein secretly included in the ceremony as a surprise to her new wife. It read, “Hold hands. That’s what you’re meant to do. Keep doing that and don’t let go. That’s the secret.”
The couple had enough curried goat and rum cake, traditional Jamaican dishes, to share with others. “We shared with homeless people,” Ms. Morgan said. “There were a bunch of people together, and we asked them if they wanted food and gave them what they needed, which felt good to do.”
Ms. Milchtein noted that 2020 could have gone differently for the couple. She lost her job as a customer service manager at a collision repair shop in April, and Ms. Morgan’s industry has been suffering during quarantine. They explained that their giving and hospitable nature comes from gratitude for the support they’ve received in the past.
“If I can share what I love with other people and in the process create lifelong relationships, that’s a gift to me,” Ms. Milchtein said.
When reflecting on the importance of online communities, she said, “These queer spaces have given me so much but they also gave me her. She wouldn’t have found me if there wasn’t this space where I could share about myself.”
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