Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fifty Years Together: A Riposte to Election Day's Dark Side & Inaugural Myopia...

View North

Several winters ago, my wife and I took our year old son for a long weekend, and escaped the Midwest to New York City, my old home town. A highlight of the visit was reconnecting with old family friends, Frank and Pat, an elderly couple who’ve known me since birth. They were, at that time, 85 and 78 years old respectively, and had been together nearly 50 years, most of which they lived in a Greenwich Village high-rise apartment overlooking NYU and Washington Square, with a stunning Manhattan skyline all around them (the photo above is from their window looking north; photos below from the same NY trip). After visiting for a while in their apartment, they drove us down to Ground Zero to view the progress on the site since my wife and I had last been there as Red Cross volunteers after 9/11. Sitting in the back seat of their old Cadillac as we headed downtown, they picked on each other as older couples often do over who drives better and about what was the best route to their destination.

“Hurry up and make that light!!! Geez, Frank, you drive so slooowly!”

“And if you were driving on these lousy pot-holed streets,” Pat would respond, “We’d have four flat tires and a broken axle.” With good-hearted smiles, they’d both roll their eyes. Underlying the bickering, their affection was clear.

Frank and Pat are both men.

Frank is a World War II veteran. He joined the army in 1942 and served his country with distinction. After the war, he attended the Sorbonne in Paris on the GI bill and returned to the U.S. to become a teacher. In those days, teachers in his home state of Maine earned $2,000 a year so he went to California where teachers made double that. After a year, however, the death of his father brought him back East where he stayed to help his widowed mother. Following her death, he moved to New York where he worked as a manager in the same company, a loyal employee for forty years.

Pat, meanwhile, is a singer who at 78 still performs regularly in weddings, funerals, and leads the choir in a local church. Now 82, he still does all that. Because it was Easter week and Pat had choir obligations on Thursday, Good Friday, and, of course, Easter Sunday, he had to leave us to rehearse. Frank offered to baby-sit for our son, allowing us a few hours in the city without a stroller, which, as we revisited Times Square at rush hour, was no small gift. Frank offered to baby-sit as much out of his own grandfatherly instincts as out of any generosity towards us. He doted on the baby like the sweetest grandfather one could imagine as he’d doted on me over forty years earlier. I only wish he lived closer so he could be the Great Uncle Frank I know he’d be to all our children.

As the senseless crusade against gay marriage creeps on, like spikes in the Ebola Virus, as abominations like Prop 8 and the Arkansas ban on adoption by unmarried couples erode our American democracy, I think often of Frank and Pat. I don't get how anyone could see people like Frank and Pat as a threat to the institutions of marriage and family. They represent among the best role models I’ve ever known when I think of values like love, commitment, and, yes, marriage. It saddened me then, it saddens and angers me now to contemplate the barriers these two would face if they were young men today, wanting to commit themselves through marriage. Frank and Pat have much to offer many straight couples who may, say, read the bible and have children, but are terrible spouses and awful parents. Marriage, in my book, is about love and commitment, something a lot of us heterosexuals screw up. Marriage is not about exclusion based on whom you love.

Frank and Pat don’t use the word gay to refer to themselves nor can I imagine they ever considered marriage. And though they’ve lived in tolerant communities in Paris and New York, they have always been closeted to the outside world, keeping a low profile when it comes to their relationship. As long as I’ve known them, they’ve kept separate bedrooms and they refer to themselves, at this point, as really good, old friends. Out of respect for their privacy, I include no pictures of them here. And the names are pseudonyms.

I left New York inspired and grateful to have these wonderful human beings in my life who have given so much to their country, their church, their community, each other … and to me personally. To honor all they’ve given, my personal commitment to social justice will always include making this world a place that’s safe, inclusive, and respectful of all people including those who may love differently than I do.

Shepherd Fairly's Anti-Prop 8 poster

Dawn n Ez, NY, 2004

D n D, w. 86th st

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