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A Ceremony That Was Anything But Private


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Rodney King helped shed new light on the issue of police brutality, but I want to ask if there's also something we can learn from Rodney King's struggle with alcohol. That's my "Can I Just Tell You?" essay, and it's just ahead.

But first, it is June, the traditional start of the wedding season. And for most couples, the big day can be accompanied by some butterflies, and maybe a little last-minute drama.

But for one couple from Brooklyn, the drama came in the form of international headlines. Dr. Emma Benn and Nicole Dennis married in Brooklyn, New York, earlier this year, but it was their ceremony in Jamaica that made headlines. The two traveled to the island where Nicole was born and originally, it was meant to be a small, private ceremony. But when news of their same-gender ceremony went public, the accolades - and the backlash - went viral. They've been called everything from brave and beautiful, to abnormal and unacceptable.

Here to tell us more are Dr. Emma Benn and Nicole Dennis-Benn. Nicole wrote about their wedding for Ebony magazine online. Welcome to the program, and congratulations.

DR. EMMA BENN: Yes, thank you.

NICOLE DENNIS-BENN: Thank you. Thanks for having us. Yes.

MARTIN: You know, I have to ask how you met. So who wants to tell me?

DENNIS-BENN: All right. So I'll start. This is Nicole. I met Emma at Columbia University. I had just started as a project manager for a research project, and she was a doctoral student in biostatistics. And we happened to just come across each other. She actually was at this conference right at the school, and spoke up. And I really was interested to know who this woman was. And she was so intelligent. And it took me two weeks to actually approach her, and I did.

MARTIN: So you saw her first?


MARTIN: OK. Well, when did you realize, then - Dr. Benn, I'll go to you for this. When did you realize it was something special?

BENN: I think, really, on our first date. It was - you know, I don't even know if we call it a first date because we were supposed to be meeting to talk about research interests. But - I think - once we started talking a bit more, we kind of extended that into a lot of other things, not just research interests. And I knew it was something special then.

MARTIN: How long have you been together?

BENN: About four years.

MARTIN: About four years. And so when did you decide that it was time to make it permanent?

DENNIS-BENN: The second anniversary. That was two years ago. I actually proposed to Emma, and it was just history after that. She said yes and I knew, actually, from the beginning, that I wanted her to be my wife. But it took me two years to actually make that commitment because first, we were saying, you know, we wanted to live together and see how things worked out - all these things before making that actual commitment.

MARTIN: But it's also true that you live in New York. And I - isn't it true, same-sex marriage only became legal in New York about a year...

BENN: Right.

MARTIN: ...about a year ago. Right?

BENN: Yes. We had planned that we would go to D.C. and get married. That was our initial plan, but then the laws got passed and we said, why not do it in New York? Right.

MARTIN: Which is where you live, sure. So how did the idea of going to Jamaica for the private - I don't want to call it re-enactment, but for another ceremony; kind of having the destination wedding. Was that always part of the plan?

DENNIS-BENN: No. Actually, we were planning to get married in Brooklyn, just having all of our family and friends celebrate with us at our favorite restaurant. However, it took a turn when I spoke to a friend of mine, who suggested Jamaica. You know, off the back, she just said, why not get married in Jamaica? And at the time, I was - honestly - skeptical. And she was like, no, but you have private villas in Jamaica where you can get married. It would be private. You know, it would be like, in somebody's backyard.

And so I actually loved the idea, given that we have been going back and forth to Jamaica for the past year - like, two years before then. And so I was just like, all right. Why not?

MARTIN: When did you realize that this was going to be the first lesbian wedding in Jamaica? And maybe - I'm not quite sure if it's the first same-sex wedding, period.

BENN: I don't think that - you know, we assumed that, you know - we know gay folk - lesbian folk in Jamaica, and we figured that there had to have been commitment ceremonies done in kind of private settings. So, you know, I guess the media has played it out as the first lesbian wedding. I think what happened was, ours was the first one that anyone heard about because it got leaked to the papers.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about what some are calling Jamaica's first lesbian wedding. Our guests are the bride and bride - Emma Benn and her wife, Nicole Dennis-Benn. The two were wed on the island last month.

Well, I was interested in whether you had any trepidation. And I don't want to exaggerate the realities, but I don't want to not mention that there have been what we would call hate crimes directed at same-gender-loving couples, you know, elsewhere in the Caribbean. But in Jamaica, there had been some, you know, rather well-reported attacks on people who are either believed to have been gay, or who were in relationships with - and so I just wondered if - in fact, there's a whole book, published last year, of stories around this issue by a Caribbean editor, who told us that there were, in fact, authors who he wanted to include in his collection of literature around the gay and lesbian experience, but who did not want to be associated with it because they were afraid of what it would do to their careers; or they were afraid, really, of violence. And so I just want to ask, were you scared?

DENNIS-BENN: To be honest with you, I was afraid at first. And I just felt it was so unfair to be running away, and not facing reality. And I feel that for me, knowing that - like, I have friends there who are lesbians and gays, who live on the island. And yes, they are afraid, for the most part, for their lives if they actually enter certain parts of the Caribbean. However, there are areas in Jamaica where you are safe as a lesbian, or a gay individual.

And that's why Emma had mentioned earlier that there were ceremonies, you know, in people's backyards. I actually know people right now who are engaged, who are in same-sex relationships, in the country. And as a matter of class - and I think that's not spoken about a lot when talking about Jamaica because you have to note like, where you live is actually a very important part to the coming-out process as well; and how much - educated you are, the exposure. All these things are factors as well.

MARTIN: So Nicole, when did you realize that your wedding ceremony was going to cause a stir? I understand that you did have a little bit of trouble actually finding a place willing to host you.

DENNIS-BENN: Right. I actually knew it was going to be a stir when - when actually, I started calling these places. And one person told me, well - you know - it's great that we're having a wedding, but you guys can't be outside. We want you in the underground; like, we want you inside so nobody can see what's going on. And so when I heard that, first, I was like, oh my gosh. But I wasn't surprised because it's Jamaica. But at the same time, it made me wonder if I should have just stuck to Brooklyn, and just have our ceremony here. But then a part of me - the other side of me, which is, I think, maybe - I don't know if it's a rebellious side; I don't know what it was. But I was like, well, I'm just as worthy as a Jamaican as well. That's my home, so why can't I have a wedding there? And I just felt like - I just went forward, you know. Emma and I, we just went forward with it.

MARTIN: Dr. Benn, what do you think about that? What was going through your mind at that time?

BENN: After kind of hearing their idea that we needed to do it inside, I think that that rejection did affect me. I will even say that after a point, I gave up calling places because I just - after a while - didn't want to confront that rejection. But Nicole kind of kept going. I mean, she even called a place and they told us, you know, maybe you should do it at Hedonism. And Nicole was like - you know - no. I want to have a wedding, you know.

MARTIN: Hedonism is a what? A hotel for...

BENN: It's a resort.

MARTIN: A resort for...

BENN: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: How would we describe this?

BENN: Adults only.

MARTIN: Adults only...

DENNIS-BENN: Right. Known for - well, the events are based around - you know, um...

MARTIN: Hedonism.



MARTIN: And you were like, no, I don't think so.

DENNIS-BENN: Right. Because honestly, I wanted to see our wedding as more than that. You know, people look at - or same-sex union, as sexualized, and it's more than that. And I feel like, by referring us to Hedonism, it's saying that well, it's already a kinky fantasy of getting married; like, these little gay girls. And I feel like that's not who we are, you know, so...

BENN: Yeah. And Nicole saw on Facebook - one of her friends posted pictures of her wedding. And her friend's straight, you know. But Nicole was like, oh, that looks like a great place. It was at Silver Sands Villas. And so Nicole called them up and was very honest; every time she called a place, she was very, very honest. And they said, we're cool. So I was surprised but, you know, we still had some fears, even in choosing our vendors; making sure that even our caterer was OK with us. But we went there a month before our wedding, just to kind of visit. And it seemed like it would be fine.

DENNIS-BENN: They were well-receptive. They knew that we were getting married. I even had the one woman - she asked, oh, it's great that you guys are doing a double wedding. And, you know, we had to tell her, well no, it's actually - we're getting married to each other.


DENNIS-BENN: And she just simply laughed and said oh, wow - you know - I'd love to be a part of that, you know. And so they were really open.

BENN: Yeah. Even at our wedding, a lot of staff came out to take pictures, to - they were excited.

MARTIN: So how did it go viral like this? How did it become like, this big to-do? Was it - Nicole, was it when you decided to write about it on the Ebony magazine website - which, for those who don't know, is a traditional - a legacy African-American publication. Was it when you decided to write about it? Or were people already writing about it so you figured, you know what? Let me get ahead of this train and put my own stamp on it, and tell people what it's like for me.

DENNIS-BENN: Yeah. That was exactly it. Somebody - there was - like, somebody leaked the news somewhere because honestly, we thought it was a private ceremony. It was beautiful. You know, the staff came out, people that we - our friends, our family were there. Then, on Friday...

MARTIN: This was on...

DENNIS-BENN: The Friday we came back - the Friday we came back from our honeymoon, the Jamaica Gleaner had published something about it, saying two...

BENN: Yeah, this was June 1st.

DENNIS-BENN: Right - two women got married, and they had their nuptials at Silver Sands. One was American; one was Jamaican. In fact, they described my wife as foreign. And immediately, I was like, oh my gosh, if they're going to write about this, they're going to make it as a caricature or like, you know, two people - like, too torrid; I don't know. I felt like if I didn't write about it, it wouldn't have gotten told the way I wanted it to be told.

MARTIN: On a more personal level, though, do I have it right that neither of your mothers attended the ceremony? Is that true?

BENN: Yeah, that's true.


MARTIN: Was that hard for you?

BENN: Yeah. That's been really difficult, you know. To see the world talking about it, you know - people were telling us that our wedding was being published in - you know, things about it was - were being published in Quebec; you know, we were getting South Africans writing to us. You know, to see it kind of reaching the consciousness of the African Diaspora, and seeing people evolving; but also seeing people just willing to talk about it - I don't care which side you're on, just willing to talk about it - and then for our own mothers to kind of say, you know - I talked to my mom the other day and I was like, hey, it's in quite a few articles. And she was like, well - you know - I don't know why you informed me of this.


BENN: You know, so I think it - it's tough.


BENN: I think it's really, really tough. And I think it's just - it's a conflict that we go through. I think...

MARTIN: Are they otherwise accepting of your relationship; they just couldn't accept the wedding aspect of it? Or is it just in general, they're just struggling - they're both struggling?

DENNIS-BENN: They're both struggling. My mother, for example, she comes to our house in Brooklyn, and she stays for weeks. And with her, the problem was the fact that the wedding, for her, was just too much. She - according to her - you know, she's this Christian woman, and the concept of two women getting married is not something that she condones. But she is supportive of the relationship. But I won't lie and say I wasn't hurt that she didn't show up. I was really hurt.

MARTIN: Well, your moms aren't here, so let me be the one to ask - kids, when?


BENN: Soon.

DENNIS-BENN: Yeah. Soon.

BENN: Within the next year or two.


MARTIN: All right.

DENNIS-BENN: Definitely.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for speaking with us. Congratulations on everything.

DENNIS-BENN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you for talking with us about this. And, you know, we'll see. You know, kids have a way of changing things for some of these relationships, right?

BENN: Yes.



MARTIN: Nicole Dennis-Benn is a writer. Her wife, Emma Benn, is a biostatistician. The two were wed last month in Jamaica and New York. And they were both kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Ladies, thank you so much for joining us.

BENN: Thank you.

DENNIS-BENN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.