Gregory Dennis: When gay love blooms later in life
Dan and I met during a draft counseling session at Middlebury College. We were both freshmen — first-year pups — and at that point he hadn’t even turned 18.
As with every young American man of that time, we were facing the prospect of being drafted and sent off to kill people. Individuals and families whom we had never met and who lived thousands of miles away on the other side of the planet.
I came to draft counseling sessions because I had been deeply influenced by my own antipathy to the Vietnamese War and war in general. Through the Society of Friends (Quakers), I had also found a more formalized expression of my beliefs, and I knew I wouldn’t ever be wearing a military uniform. Even if it meant I had to go to jail.
By comparison, Dan was there on a fact-finding mission. We knew that college would keep us out of the draft for awhile (a grossly unfair situation, but that’s another column). He wanted to know what might come next.
Unlike the rest of us there that night, Dan was a Republican. Coming to hear about resisting the draft was just his way to get educated.
Dan and I soon became such good friends that I found his puzzling political affiliation to be just a minor annoyance. As if he insisted on parting his hair on the wrong side. He was from a Wall Street family, I reasoned. A genetic Republican.
A couple of years after college, he and I were having one of those whimsical conversations, about what we would do if we knew the world would end in 24 hours.
I knew right away what my answer was. “I’d want to spend 24 hours making love with my girlfriend,” I said.
Dan thought about it for moment, and then announced that he would want to spend those last hours “reading a good book.”
Which, if our conversation had occurred within a novel, would be called foreshadowing.
Many years later, Dan realized he was gay.
But in the mid-1970s, we barely knew anybody who was gay. We barely knew what it meant to be gay. And it almost never occurred to young men like Dan — who was raised in a large Catholic family — that they themselves might be gay.
A few years after the “we might be dead in 24 hours” talk, Dan married a woman from this hometown in New Jersey. They lived the Manhattan high life and had two wonderful daughters. They moved to North Carolina so he could work at Outward Bound, then to Northern California so he could help run the company that his wife’s father had founded.
Soon after the move to California, however, his once-happy marriage cratered.
It took several years after the divorce for Dan to see a deeper truth about himself: He wanted to live on a different point of the romantic compass. As he told me during a long walk when I was visiting him in San Francisco, “I’ve figured out that I want to start dating men.”
Even in the gay-friendly Bay Area, that’s the start of a long, lonely journey at age 45.
Dan was temporarily unemployed, his wife had left him, his young daughters were in danger of being crushed in the divorce, and he was trying to figure out his new sexual identity. He knew about as much of the gay world as he did about Mars.
Dan “came out” to just a few of us ahead of our 25th college reunion, in 1999. But he told classmates who knew about his transition that he wasn’t yet ready to say anything publicly.
Nonetheless, he was put on the spot by a classmate, who was not in the know, during a public panel at reunion weekend. Why, our classmate wanted to know, had Dan just said he would never get married again?
Dan demurred. But those of us who knew his circumstances understood what was going on. We recognized that gay men would never be able to marry. We were certain that we would never see same-sex marriage in our lifetimes.
Nonetheless, there would always be love. And a few years later, along came Geoff.
He and Dan had met on Match.com. They’d only been dating for a few weeks when I was in town and joined them for a hike in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco.
I could see right away that Geoff was a keeper: cute, smart, feet on the ground. A native Vermonter who lived in Silicon Valley, a father of boys and a man who had himself come out of the closet in midlife.
Their relationship soon blossomed into love, the kind of big actions and small kindnesses that one provides for a life partner. A slow uniting of their families, Dan’s and Geoff’s children.
Somewhere in there, too, the tide turned on how our society perceived gay people: We saw them not as unnatural, but as the ordinary people they are. Not as unworthy of legal protections, but as entitled as straight people are to the safe harbor of love relationships that are publicly honored.
Forced by a far-seeing decision of its Supreme Court, Vermont became the first state to honor civil unions on a par with marriage, in 2000. Then we were the first to legalize same-sex marriage through legislative action — when Democrats, Progressives and even a few Republicans formed a two-thirds majority to repudiate then-Gov. Jim Douglas’s veto of marriage equality.
A ceremony last week on the State House lawn in Montpelier marked the unveiling of a historic marker to commemorate these milestones.
Last week also saw the marriage of Dan and Geoff.
In a ceremony in the Marin Headlands overlooking a Pacific Ocean that reflected the cloudless blue sky above, 120 of their best friends watched as Dan and Geoff were joined in matrimony.
One of the groom’s mothers, who lives in Vermont and is in her mid-80’s, was wheeled uphill to the ceremony in something that looked like the go-carts that astronauts used on the surface of the moon. A bagpiper played, and a couple of drones, cameras on board, circled overhead.
One of the officiants read a portion of the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, that made marriage equality the law of our land:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
It is true that our country faces many challenges, and that bigotry is one of them. But it also part of the abiding hope of the American experiment that tolerance — and love — can win the day.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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