BETHLEHEM, N.H. - If the rainbow-painted deck chairs, fluttering rainbow flag, and purple shutters don't make it clear, the Highlands Inn's toll-free number, 877-LES-B-INN, leaves no doubt as to whom this White Mountains resort caters.
Innkeeper Grace Newman began hosting commitment ceremonies at this self-proclaimed "lesbian paradise" in the 1980s. Newman says she has lost track of the number of commitment ceremonies that have happened there; she estimates about 300 couples have honeymooned at the inn after getting civil unions in Vermont or marriages in Quebec, Canada, both short drives away.
In 2008, the inn's 25th anniversary coincides with another milestone: legal recognition of civil unions by New Hampshire beginning after midnight tonight. Newman, veteran host and overseer of many a union, isn't wasting any time. Two New Hampshire couples will be joined in civil unions during the inn's annual New Year's Eve dance after the clock strikes 12.
From the North Country to the State House steps, other gay couples are making similar plans.
"It would be pretty easy to take a little break from the party and celebrate some civil unions," said Newman, who plans to get her own civil union with longtime partner Maria Doyle this September at the inn.
The law plants another rainbow-colored flag in New England, which has grown increasingly gay-friendly since neighboring Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions in 2000. It has been a quick reversal for New Hampshire, where as recently as 2004 lawmakers reacted to Massachusetts' gay marriage law by passing a ban on recognizing those unions here.
The law defines civil unions as the equivalent of marriage in all respects but name.
Beginning in 2008, five of six New England states will provide some form of legal recognition to same-sex couples: marriage in Massachusetts; civil unions in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut; domestic partnerships in Maine. Rhode Island does not allow same-sex marriages, but does not explicitly ban them, making the state one of only a few whose gay residents can legally marry in Massachusetts.
As ceremonies for gay couples go mainstream in New Hampshire, some innkeepers, hotel managers and tourism marketers are working to get some of the expected upswing in business.
"I think it can turn into another niche market for lodging properties and all of our wedding folks who provide services: photographers, florists, bakers, sleigh rides, the whole gamut," said Janice Crawford, executive director of the chamber of commerce in the Mount Washington Valley - a tourism-rich swath of ski resorts, retail outlets, and small amusement parks in northern New Hampshire.
Crawford said she started thinking about civil-union packages when the law passed this spring. The chamber already markets gay-friendly businesses on its website and will feature civil-union packages as they come available, she said. Speaking recently in her office, Crawford tossed out her pitch: "Plan your civil union ceremony around your vacation," she said. "There's plenty to do here in [the] Mount Washington Valley."
In Bradford, innkeeper Lesley Marquis said she has heard from couples who have seen her advertisement on the state tourism website for a $350 civil unions package at her Rosewood Country Inn. "Weddings are big for us. Whether it's regular couples or gay couples," she said. "Starting January, I think there are going to be a lot of people trying to do it, so I think that having it on the state site will benefit us," she said.
Marquis' first civil-union booking is from Sian Strobridge and Katie Bosse of Manchester, who are planning their ceremony to coincide with their third anniversary on Feb. 2. Strobridge and Bosse have their details set: A weekend at the inn with family and close friends; a beaded ivory gown for Sian and a tuxedo for Katie; a gourmet dinner by caterers at Canterbury Shaker Village; calla lilies for the bridal bouquet and hair and makeup appointments for Sian.
"In one aspect I see myself as a typical bride," said Strobridge, 34, who works at a Manchester retail store.
So far the couple have committed $5,000 for their civil union weekend; they plan to follow up in June with a weekend party for 200 at an apple orchard, Strobridge said. "That one we haven't even come up with a budget yet. That's going to be quite expensive," she said.
State record keepers recently distributed thousands of civil union documents to city and town clerks, who began offering the licenses for a $45 fee on Dec. 10. William Bolton, director of the state Vital Records Administration, said officials took the number of civil unions performed in Vermont in 2000 - 1,704 - and roughly doubled that for their estimate that 3,500 to 4,000 couples will get civil unions in New Hampshire in 2008. About 10,000 couples in New Hampshire marry every year, Bolton said.
While the civil unions estimate could be high - ceremonies in Vermont spiked early on before dropping significantly as other states legalized them - even conservative estimates are that civil unions will add millions to New Hampshire's economy.
A 2005 study predicted that legalizing same-sex marriage in New Hampshire would bring in an additional $630,000 a year in rooms and meals taxes in the first three years. The study, by The Williams Project on Sexual Orientation and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law, was funded by two national gay rights groups. It estimated that half the 2,703 same-sex couples counted in the 2000 census in New Hampshire would choose to marry within three years if marriage was offered to them. A subsequent study in 2006 calculated that 1,352 gay couples, each spending about $7,600 - or one-quarter of the $30,510 straight couples spend on weddings in New Hampshire - would spend more than $10.3 million on weddings if they were allowed to marry.
Given a new census estimate for 2005 of 5,500 same-sex couples in the state - more than twice the 2000 total - the spending could be even higher, said Lee Badgett, a University of Massachusetts economist and author of both studies.
"It's just a question of how much, really," she said.
Cindy Sproul is co-owner of Rainbow Wedding Network, an online wedding registry for gay brides and grooms. She says the website has recorded a noticeable increase in New Hampshire users since the company hosted a gay wedding expo in Portsmouth in October.
"The amount of registries that come through is about 25 to 40 a week, and I can tell you that more is coming from New Hampshire right now than any other area," said Sproul, who is based in North Carolina. Based on experience from her website, Sproul estimates that couples spend $15,000 on weddings in states where gay marriage is not legal, and even more - $18,000 to $20,000 - where it is. Sproul said about 65 businesses advertised at the expo, which drew more than 200 couples.