Sunday, June 25, 2017

An anniversary to remember

Looking back on a relationship 
many said shouldn't be
On June 20 Stew and I celebrated our forty-fifth anniversary. That's four decades plus five more years that we have been together. It's been quite a run for a relationship that initially was condemned by preachers, ignored by legislators and scorned by most everyone else, as if the whole world were intent on making a hash of it.

Despite the external flak, though, the relationship has survived for pretty much the same reasons heterosexual marriages survive: A mutual commitment by the two partners as someone famously said, "for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health." Plus many, many more "etceteras."

For the most part it has been exhilarating ride with some occasional bumps. Indeed, at times we questioned whether the effort was worth it or even if we could survive as a couple at all. Ultimately the answer was yes on both counts.

Our relationship remained nothing but a private affair until we were formally married in Stow, Mass. —marriage license, church ceremony and all—on September 28, 2013.

Thank you, Barack Obama; U.S. Supreme Court, particularly Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for his eloquent write-up of the majority decision recognizing same-sex unions; and for the thousands of lawyers, judges and activists who made same-sex marriage possible throughout the U.S. two years later.

Memento of a memorable anniversary
Our anniversary date of June 20, 1972 is really arbitrary. It marks when Stew and I took off to live in Chicago, after two years of graduate school at Indiana University's main campus in Bloomington, an idyllic enclave of open-heartedness in an otherwise very conservative, closed-minded state.

At IU, which even then had an officially sanctioned gay students group, I began learning how to be comfortable with myself and other gay people.

Stew and I bought a small brick bungalow on a half-acre thirty miles outside of Chicago, where we fantasized we were just another couple starting their life together—an Ozzie and Harriet except for the matching private parts—even as reality insistently pounded at our door.

The only neighbor who would speak to us in a neighborly way was Henry Patterman, an old widower next door who either out kindness, loneliness or obliviousness to the obvious, effectively embraced us with a "hey I don't care if you're gay" attitude. We returned his friendship with our company.

But the wife of  the couple who lived next to Henry was so outwardly hostile that she warned her sons to stay away from us, as if we were roving pedophiles or homosexuality was as communicable as chicken pox.  She demonstrated the venom and irrationality of homophobia though we later found out she was hardly its only practitioner.

In retrospect, maybe we gardened or renovated the house a bit too much and that blew our cover. Otherwise our lives were thoroughly scandal-free, borderline boring.

During those first four years we began learning the intricacies of a relationship, each of us being quite different yet remarkably similar sorts. Stew is smarter than me but his brain is tilted in the direction of mathematics and finance, while mine tended toward the faggier fields of art, writing and, yes, gardening along with a few other Martha Stewart-ish skills (though we always paid our taxes).

But Stew and I both like animals—hence our current herd of five dogs and two cats—with Stew going to the extreme of walking the dogs to the basement and checking everyone in for the night. Every night.

He feeds another herd of six or seven Spanish-barking dogs who hang out outside the gate of our ranch, and briefly converses with them, neither side understanding a thing but everyone walking away a bit happier for the effort.

Ultimately, I've found that relationships, gay or straight, may resemble two overlapping circles, with the area in the middle becoming the glue that holds the two people together.

Should the circles overlap too much, life can get stifling and the partners resentful. Not enough and the relationship eventually strains and withers from a lack of commonality.

Managing that balance has been a work in progress since Stew and I got together, with the circles drifting closer or farther apart over the years. This balance requires honesty, flexibility and constancy.
We bought a house in Chicago from a gay realtor who steered us toward a ramshackle three-flat in the vicinity of Belmont Avenue and Halsted Street, which not long after our arrival became the epicenter of the city's gay neighborhood.

Many of our neighbors, we noticed right away, also seemed to be interested in more or less lavish renovations of Victorian homes, and tending their tiny city gardens. Hanging baskets of impatiens or geraniums were de rigueur.

Boys Town. Homo Central. The starting point of the annual Gay Pride Parade, which eventually developed into a raucous to-do attracting more than two hundred thousand people, including the mayor and governor down to straight yuppie couples, their kids and Labrador Retrievers in tow and of course, representatives of the Chicago branch of the order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,

Inside this cozy ghetto life was comfortable and protected, providing all sorts of social needs from bars and restaurants, to Wrigley Field and gay-friendly churches and garden shops.

But from outside the news grew more threatening. Latter-day Torquemadas such Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—with the Republican Party providing political cover—launched a rageful campaign against gay people, cynically using this toxic dynamic to build their congregations, fortunes and political base.

We were reminded of this when we found someone's blood, later identified as that of a gay man who was beaten nearly to a pulp, smeared on the back gate of our house. Was he trying to get into our backyard to escape his attackers?

Inside the ghetto, too, promiscuity, alcohol and drugs—and later the AIDS epidemic—cast a pall on everyone, including Stew and me. Young friends were dying and no one seemed to know what to do.

For our part it's not an exaggeration to say that joining Alcoholics Anonymous thirty-plus years ago saved our relationship and possibly our lives. As an added life enhancer, we also quit smoking shortly afterward.

To celebrate our forty-fifth Stew came up with the splendid idea of spending a week in Santa Fe, N.M., and we wandered around town and to nearby Taos and Los Alamos, in a rented Ford Mustang convertible. We visited our friend Roger, who five years ago lost his partner to AIDS, and who introduced us to his long-time friend Vesta.

As a memento of this anniversary, Stew bought a beautiful piece of Navajo pottery.

Forty-five years after launching our life together the changes in society around us have been amazing. There is no reason to argue at the Avis counter over the family discount, whisper at the hotel reception desk that we really want one king-size bed, or feel awkward at introducing Stew to strangers as my husband.

More than a husband, partner, lover or whatever you want to call him, Stew has turned out to be a hell of  a good friend—the best anyone could hope for—a man I trust and love even if he snores too much and oddly, is not that interested in gardening.


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13 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your 45th anniversary. It's a lovely story.

    Sra. Cuevas and I just celebrated our 49th last Wednesday, in CDMX.

    ¡Viva la vida!

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

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    1. Congratulations! Where are you headed for the 50th? Paris is nice in May, I hear.

      Al

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  2. Congratulations on your 45th, and I wish you many, many more years together. What a beautiful tribute to your relationship, to love, to commitment, to enduring. I dare say not many nowadays will see this milestone. You both are so blessed. Abrazos, and thank you for sharing this.

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    1. Thank you Barbara for your good wishes. We feel fortunate too.

      Al

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  3. Congratulations to you both, and may the two of you look forward to many more happy years!

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  4. Your beautiful writing touched my heart so much that I sit here writing with tears in my eyes. Bless you both. It's wonderful to know you both. Congrats on surviving 45 years.......I'm envious.
    It would have been my 56th anniversary on June 24th.

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    1. Hon, the ball is still in play. I'm sure there a good-looking older gent out there, with lots of money, looking for a catch like you.

      al

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  5. Felicidades! 45 years is a note-worthy achievement for ANY couple today. My in-laws were married 62 years, but I never envied their relationship. Spousal Unit and I have been together 24 years and sober for 27, and I am filled with gratitude every day for these precious gifts.

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    1. Sobriety makes everything better, I've found. Or as they keep reminding us in AA, "there's no problem so large that drinking can't make worse."(Or words to that effect) Congratulations on your sobriety and your marriage.

      al

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  6. I like the overlapping circles analogy and find it fitting in my life, too.
    re: alcohol abuse: where you suggesting a link between it and the stress of living as an American gay man?
    Dana Jennings

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful question. In my post I was talking about alcohol abuse in my own life and I hesitate to stretch that to the experience of gay men in general.

      However it isn't too much of a stretch to suggest, at least anecdotally, there might have been a connection between alcohol abuse and our life in the gay ghetto of Chicago. When we moved there in 1978 the center of gay life and socialization were the bars. That's how you "connected." Later on, I don't know if in response to a communal recognition of the problem of substance abuse or simply the result of the gay community maturing and diversifying, many other organizations sprouted, from gay soccer clubs, gay glee clubs, gay... everything, including an exponential growth in the number of gay meetings of Alcoholic Anonymous. I hope I've answered your question. If not, write again.

      al

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  7. Congratulations, even if a bit belated. What a beautiful, wonderful post.

    Saludos y un gran abrazo,

    Kim G
    Redding, CA

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