Utah is the new Las Vegas: How this conservative state became the international LGBTQ+ community’s favorite place for online weddings

Recent legal changes have attracted thousands of homosexual couples prohibited from getting married in their own countries

Zhijun (right) and Jungang during their online wedding ceremony. Zhijun holds their dog, ‘Dajuzi’, which means double happiness in Chinese.
Zhijun (right) and Jungang during their online wedding ceremony. Zhijun holds their dog, ‘Dajuzi’, which means double happiness in Chinese.Cortesía de Hu Zhijun

Hu Zhijun was frantic on June 30, 2022 as he rushed to the corner supermarket and made a few odd purchases – flowers, balloons, a cake and a bottle of wine. He then went back to his apartment in Guangzhou in southeastern China, and waited for his boyfriend, Jungang, to come home from work.

Waiting for your partner at the altar can be nerve-wracking, but it’s worse when the altar is in your living room and the only guest is your little dog. Zhijun killed time by setting up his smartphone on a tripod and creating a makeshift wedding altar. He arranged a dozen photos of the couple on a shelf so they would look good in the most important video conference of their lives. When Jungang finally got home, they put on their best suits and opened up Zoom. On the screen was Ben Frei, the deputy clerk for Utah County in the United States. After a strange but beautiful ceremony in which they wrestled with translation and technical problems, Frei declared them husband and husband – under Utah law, anyway.

More than 3,500 couples from 165 countries have been married virtually in Utah County since the state changed its laws to allow online weddings in April 2020. “This all happened by accident,” Frei told us in a Zoom call. “The idea was to facilitate weddings for American couples separated by Covid travel restrictions. It was later extended to include foreign couples.”

According to Utah County’s records, most of the foreign couples come from the Philippines (21%) and China (10%), although there has been a recent surge in couples from Russia. Many of the virtual weddings are for couples who live in countries that prohibit same-sex marriage – a perfect example of how technology can help foster civil rights around the world.

Matrimono gay entre una pareja china
Jungang and Zhijun’s living room, with photos and balloons for their virtual wedding ceremony.Cortesía de Hu Zhijun

Every day, Frei dons his magistrate’s robe and opens Zoom to officiate weddings. He congratulates the happy couples in their native languages and asks them to seal the ceremony with a kiss. “I love it,” Frei said with a smile, and admits to being pretty good at it. Co-worker Burt Harvey confirms that his colleague has a natural gift, and says they are all delighted with the unexpected demand for their service. “We have no intention of stopping the service even though the pandemic is over,” said Harvey. “What’s more, we’re going to upgrade our system so it’s faster and more efficient.”

Ben Frei, oficiante de bodas online
Ben Frei, an online wedding officiant in his Provo, Utah (USA) office.Cortesía de Utah County Clerk

Utah’s legal changes have put the city of Provo on the international map. It’s a quiet, conservative city in the American heartland, where the vast majority (88%) of its 115,000 citizens practice the Mormon faith. Provo has become an unlikely virtual Las Vegas where couples from all over the world come to get married. But instead of going to a wedding chapel dressed as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, they stand in front of a camera in their own homes – quick and inexpensive.

Oficina del condado de Utah.
The Utah County office building in Provo where the virtual weddings are officiated. Cortesía de Utah County Clerk

Hu Zhijun can vouch for the quick and inexpensive part. His 30-minute wedding cost less than $300: $70 for the marriage license; $35 for the ceremony fee; and $200 or so for their suits and his last-minute shopping. Zhijun didn’t want to spend too much on the wedding because they had some travel planned.

EL PAÍS interviewed Zhijun via a video call while he was in Connecticut (USA) attending Yale Law School. He has been an exchange student there for the past few months, researching strategies for developing LGBTQ+ organizations in China. Zhijun has led one such organization for the past eight years. He says that getting married in Utah helped his husband to quickly get a visa for a visit to the US. “He actually arrived here last week,” he said with a broad smile. But that wasn’t their main reason for getting married. “Let me tell you a story,” he said firmly. “When my husband and I went to the US consulate in China, they asked me, ‘Who is this with you?’ I was finally able to answer, ‘He’s my husband!’ That made me so happy! A lot of gay couples have to say they’re just friends when asked. I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to pretend that we’re just friends. He’s my husband, and we’re a family. That’s why I got married – because I want to tell people proudly and loudly that we’re a family.”

Ben Frei duirante una ceremonia.
Frei conducts one of the many virtual weddings he officiates every day.Cortesía de Utah County Clerk

Zhijun and Jungang’s story is typical of the more than 300 Chinese couples who have been married recently under Utah law. The news about these virtual weddings started spreading on WeChat groups and internet forums. Zhijun sent it all over the place – his mobile phone was smoking from so much use back then. He says that about 20 of his friends have taken advantage of this legal loophole to get married. It doesn’t offer them any civil rights in China, but it does when they travel abroad. Besides, it’s a nice way to celebrate their love, which is what weddings are all about, after all.

Heterosexual couples have also been using the Utah service to circumvent legal restrictions in their home countries. Israel does not recognize civil unions performed domestically, but it does recognize civil unions performed abroad. Many Israelis married in Utah and later sought legal recognition in their home country. “The Israeli government began registering all the civil unions we performed, and suddenly they had de facto civil unions in Israel,” said Burt Harvey. But the Israeli government moved to close this loophole, and the case is currently awaiting resolution in the courts.

Other couples mistakenly thought the Utah online marriages could help them circumvent US immigration regulations. Under US federal law, a marriage is not considered legitimate until it has been physically consummated, and sexting doesn’t count. An immigrant married to an American citizen can only enter the country if he or she has lived with their spouse after getting married.

When Zhijun returns to China in a few months, he will no longer be married to Jungang. In his government’s eyes, they will just be two men sharing a life and an apartment with their dog, Dajuzi (which means double happiness). But they still claim to be married. “We didn’t do it for official reasons, but for ourselves,” said Zhijun. He admits to having one small regret. “It was such a small ceremony,” – just the two of them and their dog, with Ben Frei and two mandatory witnesses on the screen. When he told his sister he was married, they both burst into tears. But he is optimistic that time will give him the wedding he really wanted. “I hope to have a physical wedding someday, with hundreds of guests. When it’s legal in China.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS