Photographer Karen Pike specializes in weddings, and she’s exceptionally good at capturing the intimate details of a bride and groom’s walk down the aisle. She uses her well-honed skills as a former photojournalist to shoot the spontaneous, romantic moments that make a couple’s day: the bride hiking up her train to keep it from trailing in the dirt; a wedding party dressed to the nines, holding hands for a run across a field; and lots of in-the-moment matrimonial smooches.
Pike loves to shoot weddings, but recording heterosexual nuptials held a certain irony for her until earlier this month, when the Vermont legislature voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Pike is a lesbian, and though she and her partner, Gillian Pieper, have been together for eight years and had a civil-union ceremony in 2002, she says the CU doesn’t adequately reflect the nature of their relationship. Nor does it give them sufficient legal protection.
“I want to get married so I don’t have to call Gillian my ‘partner,’” Pike says. “I don’t play tennis. We’re not in business together. She’s my wife. Maybe ‘spouse’ is the best word, but I should be able to call her whatever I want.”
On February 6, Pike was at the Statehouse with camera in hand to photograph activists who turned up for “Queer Visibility Day” to pressure lawmakers and the governor to enact gay-marriage legislation. Though she wasn’t representing a news organization, Pike wanted to document the event for posterity. The stories gays and lesbians told as they explained to the governor why they wanted to get married made her cry. She recalls how two women in particular, who had been together for 45 years and had raised children, spoke of longing to display images of their own wedding day on the wall beside those of their siblings’ and parents’ nuptials. A 17-year-old boy begged the governor not to take away his dream of marrying someday. Pike chafed at these individuals’ sense of humiliation; at gays and lesbians having to ask the government for permission to honor a long-term personal commitment.
“It was discouraging to see what little effect they were having on the governor,” she says. “I lost a lot of confidence in him as a leader that day.”
Pike continued to document the public hearings and the political machinations leading up to lawmakers’ override of the governor’s veto. Right after the House vote tally, she sent a text message to Pieper: “Will u marry me?” Pieper’s teasing response: “I need a little romance first.” Looks like tradition will trump all as the couple negotiates the rules of engagement.
Pike says she doesn’t know whether they’ll concoct a grand plan or go with a simple ceremony, but making it official is vitally important to her. Gay and lesbian couples want the opportunity to proclaim their union to friends and family, eat cake, throw bouquets and go off on a honeymoon just like straight couples do every day, she declares.
They also want someone to record the Big Day. Pike says 20 percent of the nuptials she shoots are civil unions. She’s looking forward to September 1, when same-sex marriage becomes law, and the distinction between gay and straight matrimony disappears.
“I’m really proud of Vermont,” Pike says. “I’m hoping this means more people will come to Vermont and get married.”
Some aspects of her work most likely won’t change, though. Pike says many of her gay and lesbian clients, particularly those from out of state, make a secret of their unions — and the photo documentation of their nuptials — because they’re not “out” at work, or in the larger community.
Of course, same-sex couples who trek to Vermont to tie the knot will still lack legal recourse in most of the country. So why go to the trouble and expense of celebrating their love in another state?
Pike believes the motivation is plain and simple: “When you’re a minority and you feel persecuted against, you grab what you can. You take what they’ll give you.”
Once upon a time, Karen Pike was straight, or at least she thought she was. She had a successful career as a photojournalist, working her way up the food chain from the now-defunct Miami News to the Tampa Tribune, the Boston Herald and finally the Burlington Free Press. She started at the Burlington daily in 1988 and became the photo editor in 1995. There she met a man who became her husband, fellow photog Adam Riesner, and they had two kids. In 2001, at the age of 40, she came out as a lesbian.
“We may have stayed married forever if I hadn’t met Gillian,” Pike says. “The bells and fireworks went off. She was a true catalyst.
“In true Karen Pike fashion, I came out to everyone I know at once,” she recalls. “It’s funny how, when I came out, [the memory of] every woman I’d had a crush on through childhood came back to me. I suppressed all that to live my suburban life. I met a nice Jewish boy and raised a family.”
Pike was married to Riesner for 10 years. She calls her ex-husband “the male equivalent of me” and counts him as a close friend; he lives near her home in Hinesburg and “coparents” their son and daughter. Pike is also helping Pieper raise a son from a previous relationship, along with Pieper’s former partner, who now lives across the road from the couple.
If it sounds complicated, it is. For Pike, the chestnut “It takes a village to raise a child” is a touchstone. As she puts it, “Things don’t have to be easy to be great.”
Shortly after she met Pieper, Pike left the Free Press to make a living freelancing and shooting weddings, in large part because she wanted to spend more time with her kids. The grind of working for a daily newspaper had taken a toll, and she found she enjoyed snapping pictures of happy people. These days, she comes home from wedding shoots beaming. “I wake up, I take pictures, and they pay me,” Pike says. “It’s the greatest job in the world.”
In 2005, she took on another gig, this one unpaid. Pike didn’t set out to battle the Bush administration, but that’s what happened when Margaret Spellings, then-head of the Department of Education, pulled the plug on a segment of the PBS-funded kids’ TV show “Arthur” featuring a little girl named Emma who has two moms. The segment was part of a series called “Postcards from Buster,” in which the goofy cartoon bunny visits different kinds of families, including evangelical, orthodox Jewish and Muslim ones. When Buster goes to Vermont to learn about making maple syrup, he meets Emma, who, in a live-action clip, shows the cartoon character her favorite picture, a shot of her mom — Pike — and Pieper.
Spellings denounced the episode, calling it inappropriate and the women’s relationship a “lifestyle,” Pike recalls.
“She totally picked on the wrong lesbian, because I know people in the newspaper business,” she goes on. The day after Spellings made her statements, Pike and Pieper appeared on “Good Morning America” decrying her reaction. Media outlets all over the country picked up their story.
“I’m not an activist, but you get backed into a corner and you have to fight,” Pike says. “I had to show my kids our civil rights were worth fighting for.”
The experience changed Pike and her family; what had been personal became public. Her kids became activists, too, and appeared on a half-dozen TV shows. As chair of the Outright Vermont board, Pike spoke out as a proponent of gay and lesbian rights.
“Gov. Douglas is now calling us a ‘distraction,’” Pike fumes. “Here we are four years later and they’re still calling us ‘inappropriate,’ and there’s no way I was going to sit back and watch that again.”
Now that same-sex marriage has been legalized in Vermont, Pike is relaxing a bit and focusing on a new project. In the Flynn Avenue studio she shares with fellow photographer Jeff Clarke, she’s aiming to start a sideline as a pet photographer. Pike has already produced a prototype tote bag with an image of her dog, Greta, for Winooski-based Flashbags.
Friends keep asking Pike if she’ll assemble a photo book that chronicles the fight for same-sex marriage in Vermont. She doesn’t know yet. But for the record, she’s got it all on file.