In tandem with the premiere of Limited Partnership (premiering on Independent Lens Monday, June 15), as well as with the imminent Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Independent Lens presents a collection of photos and essays by photographer B. Proud from her book First Comes Love, offering a glimpse into the lives of LGBTQ couples who have been in love for 10, 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years: how they met, and how their relationships have evolved as they faced challenges unique to gay relationships while also facing the day-to-day struggles typical of any long-term relationship.
Deb & Cheryl: 17 years
It all began when they were randomly paired together at a lesbian salsa dance. The connection they made that night was profound as they each shared their grief at the recent loss of a loved one — for Deb, her father and for Cheryl, her wife. The next day, each confided to a close friend or family member that she had met someone important.
“I want to be in a society that realizes that when people commit to each other, they take care of each other.”
That first year, as Cheryl worked through her grief at losing her wife, Deb treaded cautiously as she worked on being accepted by Cheryl’s children, who were 3 and 16 at the time. They co-adopted the younger child and used the occasion to hyphenate their last name. To them, sharing a last name provided a stronger picture of family to the outside world.
According to Cheryl, ”I want to be in a society that realizes that when people commit to each other, they take care of each other. That’s a benefit to the broader community. I take care of her; she takes care of me; and that’s part of being in the world. I want just the same as other people do. I feel like I have thought about what’s important about marriage an awful lot more than my straight friends… If I am someone’s sister-in-law, that is different than being Deb’s girlfriend. It is different in their head.”
Chris & ABilly: 36 years
Chris and ABilly agree that their shared experience of having been married to women has helped strengthen their relationship.
“We both very much loved our wives,” Chris adds, “and we continue to love them as people, and I think that was one of the things that attracted us to one another, that we had had that experience, and that we wanted to maintain a relationship, not a married relationship but a good relationship with our exes. And we both wanted children.”
While both share the experience of being bisexual men once in a heterosexual marriage, they come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds: ABilly is Caribbean and African-American, and Chris’s parents are French. ABilly came into the relationship with three children, two adopted and one biological child from his first marriage, and although Chris had no children with his wife, he is the biological parent of two children fathered with a lesbian couple during his years with ABilly. The couple has contact with all five children and their mothers and now have six grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
“We both very much loved our wives, and we continue to love them as people, you know, and I think that was one of the things that attracted us to one another, that we had had that experience …”
ABilly adds, “We’ve been tested in a number of ways, as a couple. You know when heterosexuals get married and they say ‘’Till death do us part, in sickness and in health,’ we have definitely been through that.” Realizing how much ABilly wanted to get married, Chris finally said yes and they were married on June 28, 2014, the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Del & Harriet: 45 years
Del and Harriet met on a hockey field in 1969. They were both physical education teachers and coaches, but it was a different era and being openly gay in the school systems was definitely not the norm.
“It was 1969. Nobody was out,” Del remembers. “You went to clubs in New York to dance but you were always afraid of being raided. You kept everything secret and circulated discretely.”
Del recalls the first day of legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, May 17th, 2004. She and Del went to the town hall in Provincetown to watch the festivities. It was an invigorating time with so many friends lined up for licenses. The crowds were joyous. Later that summer, after years of being discreet, Del and Harriet were married on the deck of their home in Truro, Cape Cod on Bastille Day, July 14, 2004.
When asked the secret for staying together for 45 years, their first answer is, “Don’t fall down the steps.”
When asked the secret for staying together for 45 years, their first answer is, “Don’t fall down the steps.” Last year, Del did exactly that — fell down a flight of stairs, breaking her hand, wrist, clavicle, nose, and neck. Harriet recalls that while the recovery has been difficult for both of them, with the support of many dear friends, they are pulling through.
David & Gary: 29 years
David and Gary met in 1985 in the housewares’ section of a department store, while each was perusing a wall of kitchen gadgets. Gary was buying a paper towel rack and David was buying a colander as a birthday gift for his one year-old nephew. Gary’s approach, “If you tell me what you’re looking for, I’ll tell you if I’ve found it” led to coffee, followed by a dinner a week later — and they’ve been together ever since.
Gary travels widely designing botanical gardens. He published his first book in 2010, and recalls with great delight the time he spent designing Enchanted Woods, a children’s “fairy-tale” garden for the H. F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, during which he was encouraged to access his “inner fairy.” David, who is also widely published, is a professor at the University of Toronto, where he teaches in Media Studies and Information Policy.
David laughingly recalls that to have their common-law status recognized, they had to have a notarized affidavit affirming their “conjugal relationship.”
Living as a gay couple in Canada, they explain, is different from being a gay couple in the United States. Entering Canada, they can approach the customs officer together because they are a legally recognized couple. But for years, when entering the U.S., they would approach Customs separately because their relationship of more than 25 years was not acknowledged legally. Although same-sex marriage was an option for them in Canada, they chose to be what is known as “common law spouses” — a legally recognized status that enjoys full spousal benefits. David laughingly recalls that to have their common-law status recognized, they had to have a notarized affidavit affirming their “conjugal relationship.”
Things changed for David and Gary with the fall of the Defense of Marriage Act in the United States. With the option to have their relationship legally recognized in their home country, they married in New York City on their 28th anniversary in 2013.
Byllye & Ngina: 25 years
Byllye and Ngina met in Atlanta in 1989, while working for causes pertaining to women’s health. Byllye was the founder and executive director of the National Black Women’s Health Project, and Ngina was the director of the Health Promotion Resource Center and on the teaching faculty at Morehouse School of Medicine.
“What makes the relationship work beautifully is the coming together of our two separate and complete energies and then what emerges from that is the essence of who we are.”
The first seven years were, they agree, “huge adjustment years” and a bit of a struggle. Ngina came into the relationship with “nuclear weapons guarding her boundaries,” which Byllye was determined to disarm one by one. During a tumultuous seventh year, they turned to therapy to solidify the relationship.
“What makes the relationship work beautifully is the coming together of our two separate and complete energies and then what emerges from that is the essence of who we are,” Byllye says. “There is no reason to be with someone if they don’t add something to your life.” Ngina believes that strong relationships require active attention and that love is the energy that fuels that activity. “Byllye and I have been in like and in love, right from the beginning. Our relationship is almost always glowing. We have a fire of love that envelopes, supports and raises up our friendship.”
Edrie & Jan: 55 years
Edrie and Jan met when Edrie was a student and Jan was on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, and wisely waited for Edrie’s graduation before pursuing romance.
In their early years together, Jan took a position teaching physical education at the University of Nevada, Reno, while Edrie was enrolled in a master’s program at UCLA. When Edrie landed a job at the same university, they went skiing in the Sierras and had fun hitting the shows, casinos, and restaurants in Reno.
“By the 50th year, there better be depth. The joy in it just amplifies; the deeper you go, the fuller you feel and the more meaningful the moments. I mean, it’s just a wonderful thing, but you have to go through some stuff to get to the depths.”
Their next adventure took them east to Philadelphia. Hired by Temple University, Edrie did an impressive job of creating a dance department there and retired after 30 years. Jan, who has an Ed.D. in the History and Philosophy of Education, eventually landed comfortably at East Stroudsburg University, teaching physical education and directing a master’s program that included such courses as Sports Sociology and Women in Sport. Jan retired from East Stroudsburg after 29 years.
Asked for her words of wisdom about how to stay together for more than 50 years, Edrie says, “By the 50th year, there better be depth. The joy in it just amplifies; the deeper you go, the fuller you feel and the more meaningful the moments. I mean, it’s just a wonderful thing, but you have to go through some stuff to get to the depths. If you’re not willing to challenge some of your inadequacies or some of your feelings or some of the ways in which you’re insecure or whatever, if you’re not willing to challenge them, chances are you’re going to dead end right there.”
After 55 years they are still full of love, full of life, and enjoy having fun. After a few months in one location, they pack up their car and their two cats and drive up or down the east coast to another home where they settle into the comfort of a new and refreshing environment.
John & Stuart: 27 years
John, an attorney, and Stuart, a policy analyst with UC San Francisco’s Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, are politically driven comrades. They met at a small political house party, during the race for Congress between Harry Britt, Harvey Milk’s successor on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and a then relatively unknown newcomer, Nancy Pelosi. John had just moved to San Francisco, and when his friends left the party, he boldly decided to stay in hope of forming new friendships. Minutes later, the host of the party introduced him to Stuart. Just a few days later, Stuart told a friend, “I’ve met my future husband.”
John knew it was true love, too, when he called the day after they met and invited Stuart to accompany him to the candidate’s debate, and he said yes.
“One of the joys of our wedding day was to have my mom and dad there to witness the next generation in our family being able to legally wed.”
John and Stuart’s bent for politics drew them naturally into the struggle for marriage equality. Stuart’s parents are an interracial couple. His mother is Chinese-American, and his father, is English-Irish American. Stuart’s parents were only able to marry in California, because the California Supreme Court in 1948 led the nation by overturning the state’s ban on interracial couples’ marrying. Sixty years later, John and Stuart were parties to the lawsuit in which the California Supreme Court held that the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional. Stuart remembers, “One of the joys of our wedding day was to have my mom and dad there to witness the next generation in our family being able to legally wed.”
Ruth & Kelly: 25 years
When they met, 25 years ago, Kelly was “attracted to her immediately. She was strong and self-confident.” Quipped Ruth, “I thought she was cute. I fell hard and quick.” Ruth has been a wheelchair user since a car accident in high school, but the couple had far more important things to discuss in terms of their relationship.
“We’re committed even though we’re not recognized,” said Ruth. “I’ve worked over the years to say we’re just as legitimate as my six siblings who were married in the Catholic Church and are acknowledged. To find somebody in your life that you can share a relationship with and keep it going with is probably one of the most sacred things that can happen. And I think it’s a unique thing and it’s a lot of work. We are committed to the relationship. I know a lot of folks who have walked away from long-term relationships for no other reason than they just weren’t committed.”
“To find somebody in your life that you can share a relationship with and keep it going with is probably one of the most sacred things that can happen.”
When asked if their families were supportive of their relationship, the answers were mixed. Like many couples, their parents and siblings accept them as individuals but not as a couple or as spouses. Ruth and Kelly were undecided about what to do for their 20th anniversary. Ruth remembered, “Kelly was really into our 20th anniversary. ‘We’ve got to do something.’ And then when we really started to think about it, it was like…we’re not even sure your family will come when I die much less will they come for our 20th. So we’re not doing it…we’re getting hardwood floors instead.”
From the start, their relationship was never expected to last but a few years, let alone 25. David and Jack met in 1989 in Philadelphia, through a mutual friend and AIDS activist shortly after each was diagnosed with a fairly misunderstood and often fatal disease — HIV/AIDS.
Above and beyond the normal pitfalls and struggles faced by any couple, Jack and David have been fighting to survive for the entire duration of their relationship. When they began their union, the powerful drug cocktails were non-existent. David, who had never been in a long-term relationship, was resigned to the fact that he was not going to live very long. Jack remembers, “When we first met, we were mushy and we talked about how we would like to grow old together but didn’t expect to.” David adds, “We passed our expiration date and somehow did get to be old, looking forward to getting older.”
“When we first met, we were mushy and we talked about how we would like to grow old together but didn’t expect to.”
As David explains, “AIDS has impacted every aspect of our lives together because [of] the way we’ve chosen to take care of ourselves, the way we’ve chosen to deal with the disease, to eat, to live, to arrange our lifestyle, the amount of stress in our lives. How we cook, how we eat — it’s there all the time.”
Jack, once a horticulturist and curator at Swarthmore College’s Scott Arboretum, and David, an artist-photographer, moved from Philadelphia to the Hudson River Valley rather abruptly to escape the stress of the city. Here they manage their lives with as little stress as possible, trying to adhere to the key strategy that “only one of them can be very sick at a time.” They both move with deliberation in everything that they do. Their home is a sanctuary to their life, not their disease.
Edie & Thea: 44 years
Edie and Thea were together for just shy of 44 years, having met in 1963 in the West Village of New York City. Edie and Thea’s paths would cross at many parties over the next two years and the scenario was always the same—the two of them dancing together for hours. Edie says, “It was like the pull of a magnet, but she was always with someone and I was not.”
One Memorial Day weekend, having heard that Thea was now single, Edie carefully planned a way to “coincidentally” bump into Thea at a friend’s home in the Hamptons. Standing next to her in the kitchen, Edie asked, “Is your dance card filled?” Thea replied, “It is now.” It was 1965.
Edie and Thea were deeply in love. They traveled together and danced together. In 1977, Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Over time, Thea went from healthy to having to walk with supports to having to use a motorized chair to only having the use of her left arm.
“It was like the pull of a magnet.”
When in 2007, Thea’s doctor gave her a particularly bad prognosis, Thea decided that it was time for them to get married. There were no real options for them in the United States, but they learned that their home state of New York would honor all legal marriages. So they loaded Thea and her chair into a van and headed for the airport and to a marriage in Canada.
When asked if she felt different after her wedding, Edie gives a resounding, “Yes! Absolutely different. There’s an additional profundity. It’s joyous and wonderful.” Thea passed away in 2009 and the United States government stepped in to tell Edie Windsor, a heartbroken widow, after being in a loving relationship for 44 years and caring for someone day in and day out, that she owed them estate taxes because her marriage was not considered valid. In her own words, “So overwhelmed with a sense of injustice and unfairness, I decided to file a lawsuit to get my money back.” She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court and won in a landmark victory heard around the world. In United States v. Windsor, the Defense of Marriage Act was declared unconstitutional with a 5-4 vote and tears of joy ran down the cheeks of couples across the country, ready to have their love finally respected.
Santiago & Pablo: 23 years
Santiago went to Venezuela in 1991 to seek alternative medical attention for HIV/AIDS because there were no suitable medications available at the time. There, he met Pablo and began to fall in love. Santiago returned to the U.S. but corresponded faithfully with Pablo, inviting him to spend Christmas in Puerto Rico with his family.
Fearing for his health, Santiago asked Pablo to come to New York to share with him what might be his last year of life and Pablo agreed. Pablo arrived with a six-month visa, which he was able to renew only once. At the end of a year, Santiago, still very much alive and in love, asked him, “Please stay?” and Pablo stayed. From that time on, he was undocumented and remained so for 20 years, staying in the shadows, never traveling, never going to visit his family, not being there when his father died.
At the end of a year, Santiago, still very much alive and in love, asked him,”Please stay?”
In 2011, the couple turned to Immigration Equality for help in gaining legal status for Pablo. They were married in Connecticut, and Pablo applied for a green card, but it was denied. In 2013, when the Defense of Marriage Act fell, life changed rapidly for Santiago and Pablo. With his newly acquired Permanent Resident Status, Pablo is now teaching at Brooklyn College and working as a tutor at City College. The couple can travel together now, and Pablo went to visit Venezuela in July 2014 to see his family for the first time in 22 years.
Diego & Jon-Ivan: 38 years
The dark Cuban, born in Havana, and the blue-eyed Southern boy, born in Tennessee, have been together for 38 years. One night, their paths crossed as they were entering and exiting a bar at the same time.
During their time in Atlanta, they were political activists, involved in controversies surrounding the Olympic games. In 1993, when the Commissioners of Cobb County, Georgia, passed a resolution that condemned the gay lifestyle and cut off funding for the arts, Diego and Jon-Ivan fought the resolution. In 1994, the Olympics organizing committee proposed Cobb County as the women’s volleyball venue. A furor arose in the gay community, which by virtue of the 1993 resolution, was not welcome in the county. Jon-Ivan, who organized the protest committee, explains, “There was an international outcry for upholding Olympic ideals of inclusion and respect for diversity. We successfully forced them to move the venue from Cobb County.”
“There was an international outcry for upholding Olympic ideals of inclusion and respect for diversity. We successfully forced them to move the venue from Cobb County.”
In 1995, the protest began anew when the Olympic committee announced they were bringing the torch relay through Cobb County. So intense was the struggle that Jon-Ivan and Diego received hate mail and even death threats on their phone. With only a fax and no computer, they waged a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week battle.
Although the first couple to register for domestic partnership in Atlanta, Diego and Jon-Ivan had talked for many years about moving to California until 1999, when they finally moved to San Francisco. Like many others, they were married during the Winter of Love in 2004, only to have that marriage overturned by the state. In 2008, they married again and their marriage is now legally recognized.
Jenny & Ottie: 18 years
Jenny, who is American, and Ottie, who is Dutch, met in the Netherlands some 15 years [before this photo was shot] while taking their toddlers to play group. Both were married to men, but a mutual attraction grew quickly. As they set out to understand their new feelings and unfamiliar emotions, their relationship was born.
After many years of living with Ottie in Holland, Jenny and Ottie determined that they needed to move to the U.S. to help her aging parents. Their paperwork was in order, or so they thought. United States immigration laws made no provision for Jenny to claim her as a partner or spouse, but Ottie’s boss was prepared to sponsor her. They were settling in.
But then the Office of Homeland Security came calling and Ottie’s permanent residency request was abruptly denied. They had filled out the incorrect paperwork.
“It’s really sad that I have to choose between the country and my family that I love and the partner that I have chosen for my life to be with. That’s just so unfair.”
Jenny and Ottie tried every channel and appealed to several government officials, but to no avail. Nineteen countries recognize and respect same-sex relationships in their immigration laws—but not the United States. Although same-sex marriage is legal in the Netherlands, only heterosexual married partners can sponsor a spouse under U.S. immigration law.
Ottie was deported, and the couple has returned to the Netherlands. There was never any doubt that Jenny would return with Ottie. “She’s my life’s partner. I love her,” Jenny explains, “It’s really sad that I have to choose between the country and my family that I love and the partner that I have chosen for my life to be with. That’s just so unfair.”
In 2012, Jenny and Ottie were married in Zoetermeer, Netherlands, and filed for Ottie’s green card as Jenny’s spouse in October 2013. Their petition has yet to be answered. Meanwhile, the 10-year ban on entering the United States that Customs and Immigration imposed on Ottie has more than five years remaining.
Bob & Rich: 59 years
Bob and Rich met in 1955 at Trinity College at freshman orientation. For these lifelong Episcopalians, the Church plays a very central part of their lives. An ordained Episcopal priest, Rich had originally intended to invest himself fully in the Church. But in 1965, a career as a full-time priest of a parish would not have included a life with Bob, the man he loved. It was made quite clear that if he wished to rise through the Church hierarchy, he would need to marry a woman. Rather than create a façade or live a lie, he chose to serve part-time at different parishes and two cathedrals, while simultaneously pursuing a career in higher education. Bob also worked for the church, serving as parish treasurer and, of course, as test audience for Rich’s sermons. For his service to the Church, Rich was installed in 1992 as an honorary canon (for life) of Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, Connecticut.
Particularly in the early years of their relationship, two men seen together frequently going to the movies or shopping together raised eyebrows. Going out to dinner could be interpreted as a business meeting, but Bob and Rich were still very cautious.
In 1967, they moved into a home that Bob designed: a two-family house, divided into two separate living spaces with separate addresses, entrances, and phone numbers that provided the necessary facade for their life together.
“In those days, I couldn’t have made emergency decisions as ‘next of kin.’”
As a priest, Rich buried Bob’s brother, parents, and grandmother, but had to conceal his emotions as Bob’s partner and lover. When he visited Bob in a hospital after surgery, he put on a clerical collar in order to gain access to Bob’s room. He could only show the emotions of priest to parishioner. Rich lamented, “In those days, I couldn’t have made emergency decisions as ‘next of kin.’”
For 53 years they shared a wonderful life together fueled by their love and devotion but protected by no vows or laws. In 2009, Bob and Rich were legally married in Trinity College Chapel in Connecticut, back where they first met on that first day of freshman orientation.
Lisa & Drew: 16 years
On January 1, 2012, Lisa and Drew were the first couple to have their civil union solemnized in the State of Delaware — in front of 400 of their friends and family as well as state legislators, complete with a sermon delivered by the U.S. Senator Chris Coons and a standing ovation from the congregation at Trinity Episcopal Church. Their vision, hard work, and fortitude in the face of adversity helped to pass SB30, the bill providing for civil unions in the First State, and then HB75, mandating full marriage equality.
Both accomplished attorneys, they met at a conference, and then found themselves working for the same law firm. Lisa is president of Equality Delaware and was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Drew, who served as executive director of the Delaware ACLU for nine years, and executive director of the Criminal Justice Council for the State of Delaware, for three years, is now a policy advisor to Delaware Governor Jack Markell. Over the past 10 years, both women have faced bouts with cancer, but even that challenge could not stop their pursuit of the greater good. The experience did make them all too aware of how frightening it is to live in a place where their relationship was not recognized — particularly when a hostile nurse refused to let Lisa stay in Drew’s hospital room.
The experience did make them all too aware of how frightening it is to live in a place where their relationship was not recognized — particularly when a hostile nurse refused to let Lisa stay in Drew’s hospital room.
Lisa and Drew’s stories are humorous and heart-wrenching by turns. In one, a parent from their son’s preschool called to complain that her husband had a problem with David’s having two moms. As Drew recalls, her heart nearly jumped out of her chest as the mother continued, explaining that her son wanted “two moms” as well — and her husband was jealous.
Tony & Richard: 40 years
The story of Filipino American Richard Adams and Australian Tony Sullivan’s incredible journey together is told in Limited Partnership. They met in Los Angeles in 1971 at a bar called The Closet, and quickly fell in love. In April 1975, thanks to a courageous county clerk in Boulder, CO, became one of the first same-sex couples in the world to be legally married. Richard immediately filed for a green card for Tony based on their marriage. But unlike most heterosexual married couples who easily file petitions and obtain green cards, Richard received a denial letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service stating, “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” They were not entirely surprised by or unprepared for the flak aimed at them in the mid-70s for this.
“We both had been involved in the anti-war movement, we were very aware of what happened to people who took a stand against the government.”
“We both had been involved in the anti-war movement, we were very aware of what happened to people who took a stand against the government,” Tony told Independent Lens. “We also belonged to the generation of ‘peace, love, and happiness’ and the generation that helped stop a war. So we expected some opposition. But we also wanted to stay together and were aware of the discriminatory immigration laws which stopped gay people from coming in to the country.”
The couple persevered for decades, through legal battles — they initiated the first federal lawsuit seeking equal treatment for a same-sex marriage in U.S. history — and through the AIDS era, all alongside the stress caused by being men without a country, as Tony’s illegal status forced them to leave the U.S. for a time, with barely any money between them. They took a much delayed honeymoon in an abandoned farmhouse in Ireland, near the Northern Ireland border. They went to Mexico, which became their point of entry to sneak back into the United States. Through it all, and through Richard’s terminal illness, their sense of humor and their strong sense of devotion to each other kept them going. Now, even with Richard gone, the memory and presence of their relationship remains very much alive, through Tony’s stories and through the film Limited Partnership.
The above photos and text (except “Tony & Richard”) are excerpts from the book: First Comes Love: Portraits of Enduring LGBTQ Couples © B. Proud 2014
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