On my forty-fourth birthday, I entered a gay bar called “La Cage” in Des Moines, Iowa to begin my new life as a gay man. I had left my wife and family a few months before.
As the new medical director of psychiatry at a large healthcare system, I knew that I had to hide my gay life. With alimony and child support, I needed that job. It was 1986, and it was still risky to be out as a physician.
It wasn’t hard to hide my gay life, because I didn’t have any. I had only just discovered it, and it was as yet unexplored.
I chose a bar stool with no one on either side of me — as with the same care men take when choosing which urinal to use in the men’s room.
At the opposite end of the bar, playing a video game alone, sat a handsome blonde man who appeared to be in his late twenties. I found him attractive but felt super-glued to that bar stool.
My lack of experience in this new world paralyzed me. I spoke to no one except briefly to the bartender. I finished my drink and left a generous tip for him even though I had very little money to spare.
As I was about to get up, the young man I had been watching came over and sat beside me. “Hi, my name is Doug.” We shared a very heterosexual handshake.
“You from here?” I asked.
“Nope, I’m from Arizona. Just in Des Moines for a while.”
I thought, Damn! No potential here, but I don’t want to be alone tonight.
After a few minutes of the kind of conversation that was endlessly repeated in every gay bar, I steeled myself for the big question. “Want to come back to my apartment?”
This was a significant risk. So far, I had enough money to furnish my apartment only with a cooler for a refrigerator, an old oak desk, and an air mattress for a bed. The sheets on the bed popped off every time you sat down on it.
I had one piece of art. I had made monthly payments on a large watercolor of an unquestionably masculine rooster painted in shades of blue. I coveted that rooster’s attitude.
. . .
Doug and I spent that night together, and as he got dressed to leave in the morning, I asked, “Can I have your phone number?” I gave him only enough time to arrive home before I called him to ask, “Can I see you again?”
Doug planned to return to Arizona. He loved the desert, and I had sunk my roots deep in Iowa soil. As we continued to date, I kept pressing him for a commitment. Once he said to me, “If I’m here in the morning, you’ll know I’m still committed.”
I needed him to say the words he couldn’t say.
. . .
Doug — more resolute than I — understood my alimony obligations, child support, and college expenses. He also respected the time commitment I’d made to continue to be active in my daughters’ lives.
I asked Doug to accompany my daughters and me on my first vacation as a newly divorced father. My children hardly knew him at the time.
We all felt nervous about the arrangement. A few days into the vacation, one of my daughters had a disagreement with Doug.
My daughter came to me and said, “It’s just like having a stepmother!”
I felt caught between my commitment to my daughters and to Doug, and unfortunately, I failed to recognize her genuine distress.
At the same time, I was amused by my daughter’s comment, so I wanted to share it with Doug.
I laughed as I said, “Krista said, ‘It’s almost like having a stepmother.’”
Doug, less amused, responded, “I’m no fucking stepmother!”
Doug hung on in Des Moines, and he and my daughters reached a rapprochement. When unguarded, they even appeared to like each other.
. . .
Doug and I dated for a year before we moved in together.
Twenty-three years after we met, the Iowa Supreme Court found that limiting marriage to a man and a woman violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.
Over and over, we heard from friends in other parts of the country, “Iowa? Of all places?”
I knew that we loved each other, and we shared the same values of love, commitment, and family. Still, I never imagined that two people of the same sex would be able to marry. In Iowa, or anywhere else.
Doug and I had never expected to grapple with a decision about whether or not to marry. He and I can spend four hours in consideration of the paint color for a bathroom. Then we repeat the entire discussion the next day as if the first discussion never occurred.
We asked our family and friends to put our relationship on equal footing with their heterosexual marriages.
Living in a relationship outside of tradition caused us to do more soul-searching about getting married than if we’d been a heterosexual couple. We’d already resolved the essential precondition for the decision: “Are you willing to make a long-term commitment to this relationship?” We were.
For Doug and me, marriage meant asking our family, friends, and colleagues to seriously examine our relationship. We were asking them to put it on an equal footing with their heterosexual marriages.
It meant asking people to examine their own barriers to approval. It said, “You can no longer pretend we’re just roommates who sleep in the same bed.”
We were ready to state our love and commitment publicly.
We were about to plow new prairie in Iowa.
. . .
Though Doug had been a fundamental part of the lives of my grandchildren their entire lives, thoughts about the potential impact on my granddaughters slowly eroded my wedding planning excitement.
I had once overheard one of my granddaughters say when they visited, “I didn’t know grown men slept together.” But that was the only comment I ever heard from them.
I worried they would be taunted when they returned to school in their small, conservative Ohio town when they told their friends their grandpa had just married a man.
I called my daughter, Krista, to discuss my concerns. “Will you be coming to the wedding?”
She responded, “Of course. We all want to come to the wedding.”
“What will you tell the girls?”
“We’ll tell them that two people who love each other very much are getting married.” I was ashamed at how much I can underestimate my children.
. . .
Krista called my three granddaughters together and announced, “You know we’re going to Iowa soon.”
“We’re going because Grandpa and Doug are getting married.”
One granddaughter responded, “Oh? Who are they marrying?”
“They’re marrying each other.”
After a beat, my granddaughter said, “That’s weird.”
She thought for a while longer, and then she added, “Will there be cake?”
In a child’s mind, the only thing that mattered about this weird wedding was, “Will there be cake?”
The only thing that mattered about this weird wedding was, “Will there be cake?”
For the wedding, we decided to have cupcakes instead of the traditional wedding cake. At the wedding my granddaughter said, “Cupcakes! Best idea ever. I had five of them.”
I responded, “Perhaps that’s the reason there weren’t any left for me.”
. . .
The question about procreation did not escape my granddaughters. Before the trip to Iowa for our wedding, Krista had “the talk” about sexuality with them.
On the way to the wedding, it was all still very new to them. On the long drive to Iowa, the girls in the back seat were unusually quiet, except for some whispering.
Then came, “Mom……..” Every question a parent dreads begins precisely like that.
“Mom… Do you really have to do that every time you want to have a baby?”
“Yes, sweetheart, that’s the way it happens.”
A long and dangerous silence followed.
Then, “Will Grandpa and Doug be doing that?”
Thinking quickly, their mother responded, “No. They don’t want children.”
. . .
Unsurprisingly, one relative asked, “Who will be the bride?” She had no experiential framework upon which to build an understanding of same-sex marriage. But just a few months earlier, neither did Doug nor I.
Those of us who are gay have resolved many of the issues regarding the nature of our relationships. Still, we often forget that others are just beginning to examine the essential meanings of same-sex marriages.
. . .
Coming out as a mature gay man is complicated and never-ending.
As Doug placed the wedding band on my finger, I realized that my coming-out process was starting all over again. I knew that a shiny, new wedding band would be evident to my patients who were always asking, “How’s your wife?” Coming out as a mature gay man is complicated and never-ending.
After the ceremony, Doug’s brother and best man gave me a hug and said, “Brother-in-law, welcome to the family.”
Shortly after the wedding, I received a note from my cousin Jerry, the family genealogist. He wrote, “I need all of Doug’s information so I can get him included in our family history.”
Marriage changes the line in the family tree from a dotted line to a solid one.
. . .
My former wife, Lynn, and I have reconciled our differences and have given each other the gift of forgiveness even when we didn’t deserve it.
She, Doug, my daughters and their husbands, and our grandchildren frequently spend holidays and celebratory events together. This did not happen immediately or simply. But now Doug is simply a bonus grandpa.
This accommodation required that all of us examine our inner contradictions, remove partitions within our brains, and smooth out the frictions both within and between us.
. . .
Gay marriage can be legislated, but understanding, tolerance, and acceptance cannot be.
Legislation and judges’ decisions do not dismantle stereotypes and prejudices; that only happens when others begin to understand the essential meaning of gay relationships.
I don’t believe every gay couple needs to marry, but I do think that every gay couple deserves the right to make their own choice about it.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love and is republished here with permission from the author.
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