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BOSTON (Reuters) - As same-sex marriage stalls in California and a U.S. recession looms, Massachusetts and Connecticut are carving out an economic niche for gay and lesbian weddings -- and the spending that comes with them.
While many Americans are postponing weddings as the economy weakens, gay and lesbian couples like Angela Fischer and Tami Schmidt who planned to marry in California are turning to New England instead, a prospect that economists say could have a multimillion-dollar benefit on tourism.
"We had made plans to marry in California but we scrapped that," said Fischer.
Angered by California's November 4 vote to end legal same-sex marriage, Fischer and Schmidt of Phoenix, Arizona, married 16 days later at a United Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut. Afterward, they held a reception with friends at a local restaurant and spent a week at a hotel.
"California's loss will be Connecticut's and Massachusetts' gain economically," said M.V. Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts' Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies.
She doubts the bad economy will slow the weddings.
"My sense is that gay people are aware that they can't take the right to marriage for granted -- that it could be taken away. To that extent, people may not wait to get married. They may just have cheaper weddings," she said.
She led a study released in July that said over the next three years about 32,200 same-sex couples would travel from other states to marry in Massachusetts, which became the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage in 2004.
That would translate into 330 jobs and a $111 million boost to the state's economy, the study projects.
She expects a similar benefit over the same period for Connecticut, which legalized gay marriage on November 12. But spending could be higher in both states after California's recent ban on same-sex marriage, she added.
"We take all the hundreds of millions that would have been spent in California, if those folks decide to get married and go to Massachusetts and Connecticut instead, those states will get even more than we had originally estimated," she said.
Another destination for U.S. couples is Canada, where same-sex marriages are legal.
While all Americans are curbing spending, gay and lesbians are tightening their belts less than heterosexual couples, said Bob Witeck, chief executive of Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing research firm that specializes in the gay market.
Among his findings: gay men have fewer children, bear a smaller financial burden from families and are less likely to worry about savings. Lesbian women were also cutting back less in areas such as spending on restaurants, he found.
"There are some signals that as the pain is spread, it's uneven. Gay people are going to be feeling it but maybe not in the same capacity as larger households," he said.
The power of the so-called pink-dollar is well documented. The nation's estimated 15.7 million gay men and lesbians, about 5 percent of the population, are responsible for $724 billion in annual spending, according to Witeck-Combs and Packaged Facts, a division of Marketresearch.com.
That number is growing. Individuals age 18 or older who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are projected to reach 16.3 million in three years, spending $835 billion annually -- a figure that translates into $51,200 per person a year, the Witeck/Packaged Facts study shows.
Audra Weisel, a pastry chef in Avon, Connecticut, hopes for a slice of that, after at least 66 marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples since November 12, when a judge legalized gay weddings following an October ruling by the state's top court.
"Lots of couples went out and got their licenses and now they are just planning. As a vendor we're sitting around waiting," said Weisel.
The U.S. Census estimates Connecticut had 7,386 same-sex couples in 2000. About half of those, or 3,693, will marry in the first three years, predicts a study by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Joe Marfuggi, president of Riverfront Recapture Inc, has taken out advertisements in gay publications in a bid to attract same-sex weddings to a waterfront reception hall on the Connecticut River in Hartford.
"Right now with the way the economy is, people are putting a lot of spending decisions on hold, but we want people to know that our facility is there and that it is welcoming," he said.
Across the state line, there's been no slowdown of same-sex weddings at the Old Mill on the Falls Bed and Breakfast in Hatfield, Massachusetts. "We continue to do a number of gay weddings big and small," said owner Ted Jarrett.
More than 11,000 gay men and lesbians have wed in Massachusetts since the state's highest court ruled in 2003 that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, paving the way for the first gay weddings in 2004.
That equals about, 1,500 a year, or 4 percent of all state marriages, in 2006 and 2007. Only two states -- New York and Rhode Island -- recognize marriages on gay couples performed in Massachusetts or Connecticut, a factor that could limit the number of marriages by out-of-state gay couples.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who helped to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts and Connecticut, wants to change that by expanding gay marriage to New England's four other states by 2012. Three of those -- Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire -- already offer same-sex couples some form of legal recognition.