DOMA, and the first gay couple I ever met

Today I want to talk about the first same-sex couple I ever encountered. That is, the first same-sex couple I knowingly encountered — as I was a theater kid growing up with theater people in the semi-rural areas of Arkansas and Mississippi, I have no doubt that there were more same-sex couples that just weren’t comfortable being known as such in the 1970s.They were a male couple. One was tall and slender, serious and introspective. He was fond of the finer, quieter pursuits: he read books, liked very healthy foods, collected things and catalogued them meticulously — just as meticulously as he cleaned their shared home. He noticed the most mundane things and found beauty in them — the patterns on a linoleum floor, the texture of his bowl of breakfast, the sounds his pet birds made when they were happy. His voice was higher, and sometimes sounded a bit pinched.The other was shorter and a bit husky, and he loved what I thought of as “play.” He ran; he had collections that were really more like jumbles, and sometimes he wouldn’t put things away. He liked to play little jokes on his “best friend” to amuse himself, but also I think it was to make his best friend laugh, because laughter and silliness didn’t come naturally for him, and the little guy just wanted to make his  friend smile. Sometimes the jokes were even played on himself, when his friend couldn’t fail to notice. It was easy to see what was being communicated. When I heard the words to Endless Love, “I’ll be a fool for you; you know I don’t mind,” I thought immediately of these two men.

Their home was modest — just one bedroom, just one bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen — but the doors to both  were always open unless they were in use, and the home was always open to anyone who cared to drop by. They’d welcome you into their fun, and you’d feel like family within seconds. You’d be welcome to share their meal, talk about your favorite things, look at the new thing they found. They’d tell you about adventures they had, show you tiny models they’d built of circuses or houses, and they never made a kid feel less important than an adult. Everyone mattered to them, mattered deeply. They were sort of halfway between favorite uncles and playmates that felt like they were my own age sometimes. (Maybe because they insisted on being known by their first names, rather than by Mister or Sir.) Best of all, to me, they were always singing. One would start, and the other would come into the room just to sing along. It didn’t even matter what the song was about. They could sing about rain, or tadpoles, or oatmeal, or friendship — a very common theme with them — or about learning things. Sometimes they’d make up a song right on the spot.

These were grownups you could have trusted to babysit you, not the creepy sort that would make you hope your parents would stay with you or take you with them. I spent many a happy day in their company. I even made up little stories to myself when I was playing alone, about how I was at their house instead. They were best friends who got to share everything together, and never got told that it was time to go home when they were done playing, because they were already home.

They were just “the guys.” Seeing them as just “the guys” rather than as The Gays helped me see myself as just a person when I came out at the age of nineteen. That is, after I realized that they probably were, in fact, like me. Gay. A couple. Together. I knew I was supposed to look down on that and shun them, and shun myself because I was the same way, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. They weren’t “those awful perverts” talked about in hushed voices, or “evil beings with evil desires” that were talked of with excessive enunciation in church. And if they weren’t bad, then neither was I.

I thought about their relationship more closely once I realized that they were probably romantically attached, not “just” best friends. But indeed, they were best friends. The very best. Each of them had things they loved to do, loved to share with each other, and they shared even activities that one loved and the other didn’t, because they loved watching each other be happy. They talked out their problems. They never hit each other. When they yelled, it was comedy rather than verbal violence: there were no insults, ever. They were the first happy couple I knew, even though I didn’t know to call it that when I first knew them, and they were the model for every relationship I wanted to have, and they still are. When I was in a relationship that wasn’t like theirs, I knew it was time to move on.

One day, they moved on too. I wasn’t there when it happened — I was already an adult, and I’d lost touch, but resumed my acquaintanceship with each of them almost immediately when I found out that they were living apart. I cried at the news. If their friendship, their relationship, had ended, what hope was there for any other relationship? They were so perfectly matched! What had gone wrong?

Well… it was people. People talking about their relationship. Making assumptions about it, making comments about it. I guess the pressure got to be a bit much. They were such good people, but gossip is such an ugly thing, because even if it’s true, it’s truth being uttered with hatred beneath it. Snide whispers, making their beautiful love sound like something nasty and dirty and secret. I felt sick to my stomach, sick to my bones, when I heard people speaking in such a tone of voice about these men, this couple I’d looked up to for years, hoping to find something like what they had. It made me too sad to see them apart, even though they promised they were still best friends, and I couldn’t be around them when they looked so… amputated, I suppose, each without his other half right nearby. It was a dark, horrible time, no matter the smiles they put on and no matter how cheerful I know everyone tried to be about it.

I wasn’t there when they got back together, either, but it made me so joyful that I couldn’t stay away any longer. Seeing them back together was like seeing the sun shining through rain, making rainbows everywhere. I know that’s such a cliché, but truly, if you saw it, you felt it: the world was beautiful again and nothing hurt.

Today I saw a picture of them. Not one in an album; my albums and shoeboxes are somehow devoid of images of them, singly or together. No, I saw them on the cover of a magazine, sharing a warm, private, loving embrace as they reacted to the news of the striking down of DOMA. Or, as I should say, the striking down of Section 3 of DOMA; the rest of the Defense of (Heterosexual) Marriage Act remains in place, so the celebration is bittersweet, but still, there is some sweetness in a partial victory. I saw their picture and immediately wanted to hug them. All I could do was cry. Mostly, the tears are happy, but not completely. We still have a long way to go before the United States will give them the right to be married, not just in New York (which is where they have resided for quite a few years now), but in the entire country. Please, when you vote, think about me. But even more, think about Bert and Ernie, the first same-sex couple I ever met, and probably one of the first that you met, too.

BertErnie

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