Commitment, fast and cheap

A local wedding chapel has opened its doors to anyone—gays included—seeking commitment ceremonies

Chapel of the Bells offers committment ceremonies for gay couples.

Chapel of the Bells offers committment ceremonies for gay couples.

Photo by David Robert

No, he’s not related to Larry Flynt. George Flint is the director and mouthpiece of the Nevada Brothel Association and a savvy Reno businessman. The difference between Flynt and Flint is a bit more than a vowel.

Flint, 68, is also a licensed minister and owner of Chapel of the Bells. Two nudes adorn his dim basement office. A replica of Ingres’s “Un Odalisque” hides the back wall; a Men’s Club girlie calendar hangs on the other. This month is Alana.

These days, Flint’s the spokesman for a new taboo.

“Maybe it’s a little bit like the car dealer who’s been selling American cars for years and finally decides that maybe he ought to take on a line of Japanese cars,” he says of the same-sex commitment ceremonies Chapel of the Bells began offering this year.

Commitment ceremonies were added to the repertoire of services just two months after the November election that featured the victorious Question 2. The referendum warranted a state constitutional amendment specifying that only marriages between a man and a woman be recognized in Nevada. Although Question 2 passed, the initiative helped to bring discussions of gay issues into the open.

But whether it had passed or not, Flint says, Question 2 played no part in his deciding to offer commitment ceremonies. It was based on “the fact that—candidly—I needed to increase my cash flow.” He doubts he would have even considered the ceremonies if the wedding business hadn’t shrunk by more than half in the last 20 years.

During the chapel heyday in the late 1970s, about 50,000 weddings took place per year in Washoe county. Last year, 20,000. During those same two decades, the number of weddings in Las Vegas nearly tripled.

“The correlation is, once again, the city of Reno has its head up its ass,” Flint says. “Reno doesn’t compete with Las Vegas and doesn’t even try to.” While tourists from lesser towns like Lodi, Stockton and Alturas still visit Reno to tie the quickie knot, those who live near a major airport now choose Vegas instead.

Flint once pondered legal concerns over the ceremonies, but they diminished along with heterosexual business.

“I thought to myself, ‘Now wait a minute, George. Maybe you’re unduly concerned here.’

“Because, if a man came in here—and this is a little crude—if a man came in here with his cocker spaniel or his Great Dane and said to me, ‘George, my dog and I are really good buddies. Would you mind saying a prayer of blessing over us’ – you know what? I’d do it.”

Blessing a same-sex couple is no different in that it carries no weight of law. And just to make sure, the committed couple signs a disclaimer in the presence of two witnesses that they understand as much.

And, for the sake of political correctness, Chapel of the Bells is offering ceremonies to everybody, not just gays. In fact, the first ceremony saw two straight women pledge their friendship to one another. The doors are open to seniors on social security who would lose half their income if they got married, and canines of every color and creed.

The chapel is proceeding cautiously. “Not everyone is tolerant,” says Audrey Sarber, 25, six-year partner of Flint’s granddaughter. “We don’t want to scare away business.” Because of legal matters concerning ordained ministers, the five ceremonies to date have been performed by Sarber, one of the few employees who is not ordained.

Though the Metropolitan Community Church of the Sierras and the Universal Unitarian Fellowship have offered commitment ceremonies for years, Flint lists the advantages Chapel of the Bells has over churches–open longer hours, more days of the week, and probably cheaper.

Reno residents Paul Cain and Kurt Jacobowitz-Cain recall their ceremony at a Metropolitan church more than a decade ago. They “cut corners, pinched pennies,” and whittled the price down to about $500. Commitment ceremonies at Chapel of the Bells start at $75 and go up, depending on the number of guests and extras, such as a video of the ceremony.

As a result of the ceremonies, despite their lower cost, two local gay publications recently condemned Flint for exploiting their community.

“So what—he’s making a buck,” says Bob Fulkerson, a prominent gay activist and executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “That’s how America works.”

Two weeks ago, Fulkerson called Flint and asked him if he would donate one percent of the earnings from commitment ceremonies to A Rainbow Place, Reno’s gay and lesbian community center.

Flint volunteered 10 percent.

“It shows tremendous growth for our culture,” Fulkerson says, “and for George as a person.”

George Flint is a talker; keep in mind he’s a lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Association. But he’s more than words.

“In deed and action, he has been nothing but tolerant, accepting and open-minded,” says Sarber, referring to her relationship with Flint’s granddaughter. Flint and his wife gave the couple a crystal candy dish for Christmas and a card addressed to both of them.

Flint, however, disagrees with one of those words: “You tolerate cigarette smoke, you tolerate a noisy neighbor or a dog that barks all night. So it’s not toleration. I think we all have a better understanding—or maybe understanding is just another form of maturity.

“Something very ironic I’ve seen within the gay community that I think is something we could all learn from—I’m seeing a more genuine affection, a more genuine form of dedication, and a more genuine form of support between the couples we’ve had ceremonies for than I see among a lot of the heterosexual couples that come in here.”

Flint admits that 30 years ago he might’ve been troubled by the idea of same-sex relationships. The photographs framed above topless Alana show Flint and his wife at this point, the peak of their lives, heyday of the chapels. “We all go through transitions,” he says.

The question remains how the issue will stand in 30 years. In a land of casinos and brothels where Question 2 passed by two-thirds, Flint is not sure if the situation will unfold or unravel. He has said of the brothels, “One day there won’t be a George Flint to stick up for them.”

One thing’s certain: As his wedding chapel stretches its bounds, he may have to stick up for it, too.