Planning a Surprise Gay Wedding in the Caribbean Isn't Easy
“Surprise… we’re getting married on Saba!” That’s what I said to my partner Neal as we headed south to wed on the Dutch island of Saba. What makes this humorous, and a tad cruel, is that Neal had been telling everyone that Canada was going to be the site of our vows. So let me explain.
In May of 2013, while in Paris celebrating Neal's 50th birthday, I decided we should elope to Saba in 2014 and be married on the 16th anniversary of our first date. The only catch was that I had no intention of telling Neal any of this.
In February 2014, I handed a form to Neal and said "Here, sign this." He asked what he was signing; I said that I needed a copy of his birth certificate. He asked, “What for?” and I said, "None of your beeswax.” He signed reluctantly.
In March I told Neal to take June 10-13 off from work. He asked, “If this is for my nephew's wedding on June 14, why do we need to take so much time off just to fly to Wisconsin for the weekend?”
“Just do it and don't ask any questions,” I answered. But suddenly a light went off over Neal's head: “Hey wait a minute...you're getting a copy of my birth certificate and now you want me to take off a week in June which just happens to also be the anniversary of when we first met — are we getting married?”
"Maybe," I was forced to admit.
Then in April I said to Neal, “I need you to meet me at Philadelphia City Hall tomorrow morning. We need to get a ‘Proof of Single Status’ at the Philadelphia Marriage Registry office.”
"But why?" he asked. “I never heard of anyone getting married in America who needs such proof.” Then the light bulb again: “Hey, are we getting married in a foreign country?"
So then came weeks of Neal saying things like: “Where are we getting married? Is it in Canada? I bet it's in Canada! Should I brush up on my French? Does this involve fresh Nova Scotian mussels or just-caught British Colombian salmon?”
“You know, it is now legal for two men to get married in Uruguay,” I said, “and you always said you wanted to eat steak in Montevideo.” Neal, who never said such a thing, was not amused.
This game went on for months, with Neal trying to guess and me not letting on. Neal, in the meantime, was convinced that we were headed to Canada (since it was in the vicinity of Wisconsin, and his nephew's wedding). I let him believe it and did not correct him when he said this to everyone he came into contact with. On a side note, getting married in the Caribbean on June 12 and then being in Wisconsin on the 14 for another wedding was a logistical nightmare: six days, eight flights, and one three-hour bus ride.
Imagine Neal's surprise when we boarded a plane in Philadelphia that was heading to North Carolina. Luckily for me in the terminal, deciphering airline codes is not one of Neal’s forte. Here is how the conversation went, 30,000 feet in the air. "Lee, why are we heading south, when Canada is north?"
"Surprise, we're not going to Canada. We're getting married on Saba." Silence...
Why was I so dead-set on getting married in Saba? Well, I have a perfectly sound answer: I always wanted to get married in Holland.
Since 2010, Saba, along with the islands of St. Eustatius and Bonaire, is no longer part of the Netherlands Antilles, but considered an actual part of The Netherlands proper.; a colony no more (or Een kolonie niet meer as we say in Dutch). Therefore, we actually were getting married in Holland. Besides it was closer and we wouldn’t have as much jet-lag.
Saba was the first Caribbean island to perform a same-sex wedding (two men on December 4, 2012). The head of the Saba marriage Registry Office, Julieta Woods, had been nothing but kind to me in my months of interaction with her. And now let's talk of all the planning I did to make this romantic adventure happen. There were all the international paperwork, plane tickets, accommodations, etc. But I also wanted to be married on the anniversary of their first date. Julieta was particularly touched by this aspect of it all. So, on this long trek to Saba, I turned to Neal and said: "I want you to be happy, but more importantly, I want you to be my husband. So, I am asking you (again): Wil je met me trouwen in Saba?" Luckily for me, Neal said "yes, since he doesn't speak any Dutch.
We stayed at the beautiful Queen's Gardens Resort in the oddly-named Saban capital of The Bottom (because it sits in the bottom of a valley). Our suite had fantastic views of the mountains and the ocean. The staff could not have been nicer or more accommodating. It was paradise. On June 11 we met with Julieta and our two witnesses (Patricia and Melissa who work in the Registry Office). We took care of the paperwork and then toured the island, spending most of the afternoon in the neighboring village of Windwardside, shopping, site-seeing, and trying to get local goats to stand still long enough for photos.
We reported back to the Registry Office the next day in our best suits to be hitched. Our two witnesses dressed up for the occasion and Julieta donned her legal robe. She wrote a beautiful service for us; we also exchanged our own vows (I recited mine in Dutch and Neal did his in English). The government of Saba also provided a photographer. The only only odd thing is that on the Dutch marriage certificate Neal is listed as Echtgenoot (Husband) and I’m listed as Echtgenote (Wife).
As we flew to Miami (to eventually end up in Madison for Neal's nephew's wedding) the U.S. Immigration Officer said "One person at a time" as we approached his station together. “Even if we're married?” I asked. The officer motioned us both forward and we happily explained that we were married in Saba just the day before. He said two things: 1) Congratulations! and 2) Where is Saba?
Not wanting to elbow in on Neal's nephew's big day, we didn't tell anyone in Madison. We kept it to ourselves and made it back to Philly, safe and sound, husband-and-husband. Once back, we sent out emails and letters and photos to friends and family, letting them know we eloped in a place they probably never heard of.
Lee Arnold is a travel writer based in Philadelphia. See more of his pictures of Saba on the following page.