On The Shore On The shore — 03 January 2015
From the Archives: For Better or Worse

 

Editor’s note: This first-person essay by Steve Friess on his wedding with Jim Richter first appeared as a cover story in the Sun Sentinel’s Sunday magazine, Sunshine, in June 2000. It generated considerable response from readers at the time – many pro, many con. (See more on that in this month’s First Words column, “Love’s Labours Found,’’ at http://www.cityandshore.com/). We offer a reprise of the story here from the archives, as the legal stay on same-sex marriage is scheduled to expire – which, barring an appeal, could mean the first legal weddings may begin in Florida as early as Jan. 6.

By Steve Friess

I tried as hard as I could not to look.

Keep your eyes on Jim’s face, my brain told me. Look at the rabbi if you want. Or stare down at your feet. Just don’t look.

You have to look, my heart insisted. Look now, or forever hold your peace.

So, as my new sister-in-law read from Ecclesiastes, my head turned. And I saw. And I smiled. And new tears formed in my eyes. And I probably gasped. At least that’s what Jim told me later, although the video replay offers no evidence of that.

There they all were, almost every single person I ever knew, ever loved, ever hoped would witness this.

Our seven nephews and nieces? Check, and not fidgeting too much. My 85-year-old grandfather? Present and grinning. The girl everybody assumed, back in our high school days, would be standing today in Jim’s place? Here, with her fiance. Ninety people filled row after row of white wooden folding chairs. Some held hands and some held handkerchiefs. They seemed completely unaffected by the high Arizona desert we’d lured them into, despite beads of sweat on almost every forehead. They looked soothed by the trickle from the fast-moving Oak Creek beside us and the buzz of cicadas hidden in looming, lush cottonwood trees.

And, most of all, everyone appeared oblivious to just how radical an event this was. Revolutionaries in cocktail dresses and tuxedos, all of them.

They did what people do at weddings: They watched us. Their eyes stared straight ahead as the rabbi commanded their attention to an orchid-decked chuppah where he administered vows for James Robert Richter and Steven Ira Friess. They chuckled when we fumbled with our wedding bands, emitted “awws” as we sealed our commitment with a lingering kiss and applauded with gusto when we both stomped glasses to mark the end of the ceremony.

It was all so natural. So comfortable. So easy.

Surprisingly easy. There is a moment after the Jewish wedding ceremony when the couple steal away for time alone before joining the reception revelry. My groom and I snuck up a short hill, hid behind a row of cabins at the rustic resort in Sedona, Ariz., and gazed back down to see our guests mingling.

And together we smiled. And fresh tears surfaced again. And without question, we both gasped.

“How?” Jim asked, shaking his head and fixing my perpetually crooked bow tie. “What did we do right here? How did this happen?”

It is a long story.

***

BEING GAY, ODDLY, was much harder for me than it was for Jim.

Odd, that is, because he is the good Catholic boy from the South Side of Chicago, the former altar boy whose family visits the parish church every Sunday.

And yet he accepted his sexual orientation with a matter-of-fact calm you might find in a kid from a liberal San Francisco clan. It may not have been so simple for the rest of the Richter family, but Jim found his gayness simply an intriguing but mostly inconsequential aspect of his identity. His intuitive mother wondered one day when he was 21. She asked, he told. She offered no religious condemnations, so he felt no need to disassociate from his faith. Life continued.

My process was longer, more dramatic. I am the youngest of four children raised Jewish in the lap of Long Island luxury. To my mind, the Judaism of my upbringing was a cultural habit, a bond between generations and a cause for family gatherings to fulfill annual traditions. Rarely was it presented as a guiding set of moral principles, and never did I hear a foul word about homosexuality in the context of God.

No, my poor image of gays and lesbians came from the media, which is the only place I ever saw them during the 1980s. What I saw typically – a swishy, sissy portrayal used for comic relief – disgusted me so much that I hoped the tug of gay attraction would pass as my hair-twirling phase did. I didn’t want to be so ridiculed; I’d just spent my pre-adolescent life absorbing merciless, unceasing barbs from my peers for my hearing disability. As a teen, I just wanted to be normal, if not cool.

So I fought it, but it became impossible to deny. One high-school afternoon, I watched six gay men on Donahue tell their miserable tales. Five were spurned by their families; the sixth was in electroshock therapy in a vain hope of “converting back.” At the hour’s end, I stared into a bathroom mirror with tears streaming down my face and a steak knife pointed at my chest. That was me, I thought. I am that. Everybody will hate me.

Fortunately, I lacked the guts to do myself any harm. Unfortunately, it took me another four years to realize I was perfectly normal.

This epiphany came in my second year at Northwestern University near Chicago, on Yom Kippur. As I contemplated my sins of the prior year during the closing services for the Jewish day of atonement, I came to the startling realization that my most significant transgression had been the fact that I had become a chronic liar.

And I counted the ways. I lied to my straight friends by ogling pretty women with them in order to “pass.” I lied to gay people by avoiding their presence and disparaging them to my straight friends. I lied to women by pretending to want to date them, occasionally leaving them questioning what they’d done to cause my rejection. I lied to my parents, with whom a comfortable conversation seemed a distant memory because I chose to hide my internal hell.

But as I heard the mournful, earnest voice of our campus rabbi leading our repentance ceremony in Hebrew that evening, I realized I’d lied chiefly and most destructively to myself. I had alienated everybody I cared about. I was more alone than I ever had been.

Jewish law requires us to perform some form of penance to repair damage done by sins, and to me this meant that I would have to tell. If they all knew, maybe they would understand, and perhaps then they could forgive my lies. But would they be able to embrace me?

Suddenly, that question seemed irrelevant. They don’t embrace me now, I thought. What’s to lose?

But it wasn’t quite that easy, no matter how forceful my logic felt. I saw a gay therapist, attended a coming-out support group and eventually confided through letters to friends in other cities who couldn’t reject me to my face. None did so in writing, either.

Their encouragement led me to show my face at a gay campus dance, where I encountered people I knew from the school newspaper and my dorm. I begged them to keep my secret, but some didn’t and the sky failed to fall. Still, to take back control, I set about to reveal myself before someone else did, first telling trusted on-campus friends, then some childhood friends during that summer vacation, and, in one final stop before the main event of my parents, I tried the act out on my aunt.

I was batting 1.000. Not a single listener told me to get lost. One even came out right back at me.

For a time, despite all of this progress, I continued to cling to the hope that perhaps one truly awful sexual encounter with a man would turn me off for good, or maybe one perfect moment with a girl would make all of this stress and fear disappear. Neither happened, and I came to understand that most unfathomable part about homosexuality: It’s not about sex.

No, it’s not. It’s an intangible, deeply rooted emotional and physical attraction to people of your own gender that comes freely and easily when unimpeded by societal pressure and condemnation, something that can be ignored only at great psychological costs. Few people who are gay can even recall their first gay thought, just as straight people may not remember their first heterosexual fantasies. That’s because it’s neither a choice nor a biological error; it just is.

With this epiphany, I asked my father to dinner on Christmas Eve in 1992. I’d planned this moment for months, returning to my hometown of Syosset, N.Y., for my winter break knowing I’d have my father’s ear because Mom would be at my grandmother’s in Fort Lauderdale that week. Other gay men often express surprise that I told Dad first, since it’s a cliché in the gay world that “mothers always know” and always understand better. In my family, though, we tend to confide in my father, who knows best how Mom will react.

I sat across the table from my father with my mouth open, the critical words failing to emit, finding it hard to breathe. Then I saw the fear in his eyes as he impatiently waited to hear some truly horrible confession, that I’d gotten someone pregnant, I’d contracted a disease, I’d committed a crime, I’d flunked out of school, I’d…

“I’m gay,” I blurted.

I stared at him the way a kid stares after he drops a water balloon, cowering so he’s not seen but unable to resist watching the splat.

There came no splat. Just a few quiet moments that seemed likely to last into 1993. “I knew that,” he finally answered, almost flippantly.

I let out a huge breath, exhaling as if I’d been under water for 20 years. A seven-hour conversation ensued, taking us from the dinner table to our den at home where all the great issues and problems were considered and resolved. There was much to catch up on for a father and his son who hadn’t spoken honestly in at least a decade.

This time, though, resolution was elusive. My father’s initial reaction made me think I was home free, and for the most part I was.

But his acknowledgment that he knew I’m gay wasn’t the same as acceptance, and I would learn many times over in coming years that well-meaning people say what they think is appropriate but not necessarily what they feel.

Dad wavered between betraying his true, somewhat disgusted, emotions and offering me the comfort he felt duty-bound to provide. First he’d confess he had avoided gay people as friends and clients his whole life, that the whole thing made him uncomfortable. Then he’d insist I’d done nothing wrong and that nobody deserved any blame because “it’s probably all genetics anyway.” He even “outed” two of his first cousins to me to prove this thing might be in the genes.

At one point he wondered aloud what exactly it was that gay men do with one another, but I asked him if he really wanted me to answer. He emitted a rare laugh, then withdrew the question.

Later he told me he believed that this “will make it harder for us to have a close relationship in the future,” but it was my turn to chuckle. He clearly had no idea how far apart we’d already become.

Eventually, the night passed. On Christmas morning, spooning through pink grapefruits, we strategized about when to inform Mom. Dad asked me to hold off until the day after my youngest sister’s wedding in March, hoping to avoid any upset that might detract from the event. I agreed to this reasonable request; I didn’t mind three months to recover from this first exhausting experience.

I had but one ultimatum: I would be out to both of my parents by April 25. That was the day of the largest gay civil-rights march in history to date, and I intended to be able to say that my parents knew I was walking the streets of Washington, D.C., that day.

Then, a problem. A blizzard postponed the wedding to April 18, a Sunday, and I had important exams at school that Monday. I wouldn’t be able to stay in New York, and my father continued to insist I still not reveal myself before the nuptials.

Thus, we compromised. I handed a letter to my father on my sister’s wedding day and instructed him to give it to Mom that Monday evening. I’d be expecting her call.

At the scheduled time, the phone rang. It was my father, informing me that Mom wished to speak to me. Yet next I heard not a voice, for she was barely capable of speech, but wheezing and sniffling. My mother was in hysterics.

“Ma, Ma,” I cooed to her, my own cheeks now drenched in tears. “Mommy, I love you. I love you so much.”

She continued to bawl. She kept trying to say my name, but she couldn’t get all the syllables out. I didn’t know what to do, how to behave, why my father was allowing this to go on for so long. My brain registered only one thought. I said, “I’m so sorry, Mommy. So sorry.”

With that, Mom suddenly hushed. “No,” she rasped, finally able to speak. “You say you’re sorry when you do something wrong. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

I recall nothing else of that night, except a lot more crying. My mother would cry every day for the rest of the week, during which time I would come out to almost every other relative at my father’s direction.

But contrary to that aforementioned bit of gay conventional wisdom, mothers don’t always know. Mine had no idea. It had never entered the realm of possibility to her, and she later would describe the news as a punch in the gut. Still, she was able to gather herself at the height of her meltdown and realize the broader truth here. She said, “You haven’t done anything wrong.” And that has made all of the difference.

***

I ATTENDED MY March on Washington, a 20-year-old leading three reporters and a photographer from my student newspaper – pretending all the while I was capable of being an objective, uninvolved presiding editor.

On the day before the march, we arrived to cover the story of the mammoth AIDS Quilt being laid out on the Mall before the Washington Monument. The concept of being among so many gay people so overwhelmed me that I broke away from my group to scour the Quilt on my own and to recall the importance of avoiding HIV. Up until that time, I didn’t worry much about AIDS because I didn’t think anyone I knew would care if I died. Now I felt obligated to honor the immense love my family had afforded me by resolving not to act recklessly.

As unified as I felt with “my people,” I was lonely, too. That’s why when I spotted a collection of vaguely familiar college students from a university south of Chicago, I ambled over. I knew none of them by name, although they recognized me, too, from a gay student conference we’d all attended months earlier. We introduced ourselves, and then I blurted out what I’d been dying to tell someone that day: “I came out to my mother five days ago.”

Jim Richter, then 22, found this awfully forward. The tall, round-faced boy with a smattering of sun freckles and brown eyes wasn’t the type to offer such intimate information about himself to perfect strangers.

“Oh, really,” he said hesitantly, “good for you.”

Neither of us knows what happened to the other folks in Jim’s party. They fell away at that moment, and the two of us walked aimlessly around the Mall alone. He was fascinated and somewhat shocked by my ability to reveal inner details of myself; I was amused by his need to be so strait-laced and private. He told me he aspired to be a doctor; I promised to become a famous writer. He couldn’t stop talking about family; neither could I.

We spent an hour together that Saturday afternoon, at the end of which I further stunned and intrigued my future partner by pecking his cheek before we parted. We both returned to our respective Illinois colleges a bit surprised how quickly we’d clicked and wondering if that would translate once we resumed our ordinary routines. He called me at 4 a.m. the morning he returned to his off-campus apartment, “just to see if this phone number really worked.” We talked for so long that I was late for my noon class.

For a few weeks we coasted along on the miraculous sensation of a new romance. We sat one afternoon in a coffeehouse in Chicago comparing our philosophies on our future as fathers. Both of us had already given it a great deal of thought, and both of us had determined adopting from overseas was the most reasonable, most socially appropriate way to become dads. What was so great about our genetic material, we agreed, that we need to create new life in an already overpopulated world? Was the ego kick of having a kid with my nose and eyebrows that significant?

“I don’t care if the kid is a newborn,” I said. “And I don’t even care if he’s healthy, either.”

At this moment, we realized what we had. Jim looked at me agape. His dream, he explained, had always been to raise disabled children. “I never believed anyone else would want to do it with me,” he marveled.

That made two of us.

Three months after we met, I leaned over to Jim as we lazed in his back yard in Chicago. “If you were a woman, and I proposed to marry you,” I asked, “would you say yes right now?”

The question was romantic, not literal, but Jim’s response was literal. “No.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Well, why not?”

“Steven, I hardly know you yet.”

At the time, I was startled and upset by this response. And yet, as time passed, I realized how true it was. These were the easy days of any relationship, the days when everything seemed possible and idyllic, when we were on our best behaviors, when any problem that might exist was glossed over, ignored or even viewed as cute and endearing. I’d not seen him fall into one of his dark, somber moods that could take days to pass; he’d not heard anything utterly idiotic and inappropriate fall out of my mouth as I am prone to do on occasion.

Not to mention, who would have attended that wedding?

It may not have been a question to ask at the time, but the coming years would show us that despite our families’ initial, verbal support, from both sides there was doubt, fear and perhaps some hatred.

We had our fair warnings from the beginning. Jim’s divorced mother may have known of his sexuality for a couple of years, but she nonetheless brushed by me as I sat in her living room in Chicago that first evening. As she failed even to offer me a handshake, I wondered where this terrific woman my partner raved about might be lurking and if she’d realized before that her son would date men. Maybe, I theorized, I embodied a reality she’d never acknowledged until then.

My family’s greeting wasn’t much better. I tried to tell my mother about Jim, but she shut me down. “I can’t hear about this yet,” she cried. “I’m just not ready for this.”

But my newlywed sister, Lynn, said that she was ready and told me she’d love to meet my boyfriend. Yet that summer, when she visited Chicago and we joined her for an evening out with her friends, Lynn ignored Jim entirely and shot dirty looks my way for hours. Later, in private, she growled at me: “Why do you two have to sit so close together? And what’s with all that hand-holding?”

We knew there was much work to be done, but we didn’t know anyone who could tell us what to do. So we puzzled through this period, and I came to loathe calling or visiting Jim at his mother’s house, where he lived after college. It took its toll on our relationship, too, as I badgered Jim to stand up to all of them and he refused to make a fuss.

Our smoldering situation finally burst into flames on Christmas Eve 1994, when Jim informed his family at about 6 p.m. that I would be joining them for midnight Mass. I worked until 10 p.m., and when I called to tell him I was leaving, he was in angry sobs. My presence on the random weekend evening might be tolerable, but allowing me to crash their most holy, most sacred family night was simply too much.

The harsh voice of his brother, then 21, hollering at him in the background made it hard to hear, so I asked Jim if he really wanted me to be there. “Oh, you’re coming,” he assured me sternly. “You’ll be here all right.”

Indeed I was, although nobody on earth could have envied me. The glares were never harsher, the pain in my partner’s eyes never so clear as when we walked into that church and sat down for Mass. His brother and sister refused to sit in our pew.

Jim and I checked into a Holiday Inn later because he decided he couldn’t sleep under the same roof as they. And when we arrived at his mother’s house that holiday morning, we found his siblings had opened every gift left for them but his. His mother watched all of it, obviously unsure what to say or do, and I wondered if our relationship would ever improve now that my presence had brought such dissension in her home.

The next month, Jim’s brother would write him a cruel note in which he informed Jim that he couldn’t see how Jim would ever be best man at his wedding. The guy wasn’t even dating anyone at the time.

Time passed. Lots of it. Years. Jim and I moved in together. Jim’s mother visited just once that year. Still, the tension began to subside a bit and she took more interest in me, perhaps because she realized I wasn’t going anywhere. Then again, I was. After two years at a small newspaper near Chicago, I accepted a position at a bigger paper in Las Vegas. I begged my companion to follow me there.

“Tell me again,” he asked the night before I took the job. “Why Las Vegas?” Jim had never lived but a two-hour drive from Chicago, and the concept of running across the continent seemed as utterly absurd to him as it seemed exotic to me. With this we faced the major crisis of our relationship; he decided not to come along and moved back in with his mother. We didn’t break up, but we also couldn’t imagine what could come next, from 2,000 miles apart.

I assumed his return to his mother’s home would spell our doom. She never liked me much, I wrongly believed, and now my selfish ways would unhook me from her son.

Except I believe something else, something maternal, happened: She felt his pain. On a daily basis, she saw how sad he was apart from me, and perhaps she heard the melancholy in my own voice when I called.

Surprisingly, she became part of the chorus of well-meaning voices that told Jim to hit the road. He wasn’t staying behind for any particular reason; his rejection from medical school three years earlier had cast him adrift. He worked a nondescript office job for decent pay but with no enthusiasm, wondering what to do with his life.

Nine months after I left, to the shock of even himself, he arrived at my doorstep in Las Vegas. But this time, even though we lived a four-hour plane ride and not a 45-minute drive away, it took his family just two months to come visit.

When they left, both of our names appeared on the thank-you notes.

***

AS IT HAPPENED, Jim and I didn’t have to adopt a disabled child of our own to dote on. My sister, Julie, has a young son with such severe chemical sensitivity that she moved with him and her daughter from New York to Sedona, Ariz., for the Southwest’s cleaner, healthier atmosphere.

Sedona is a tourist destination, known for its looming, radish-red rock formations, but to my recently divorced sister, it was a small-town prison. They were isolated from the rest of our family as Zachary’s health continued to yo-yo despite extreme measures to keep him from dangerous chemicals and foods that set off horrific reactions.

Sedona is also a five-hour drive from Las Vegas, and one Jim and I would become intimately familiar with as we made it once every five weekends or so. It was a grueling schedule, but my sister and her children needed this dose of family. The kids idolized us, instinctively referred to my partner as Uncle Jim and counted the days off on a calendar until we’d be back.

Still, the gay thing wasn’t quite an easy concept for children raised on Disney fairy tales. One afternoon my 4-year-old niece crawled into my lap. “Uncle Steven,” she said, “are you ever going to get married?”

Yes, I answered. I would probably marry Uncle Jim. “But who would be your wife?” she asked, giggling nervously. There would be no wife, I explained. “No, that can’t be,” she answered in shock. “There has to be a wife!”

As I tried to explain how there could not be a wife, she got up and began to sing. “Boys can’t marry boys,” she intoned with forced rhythm, “and girls can’t marry girls! Because boys have to marry girls and girls have to marry boys! And that’s the way it has to be!”

My sister appeared in the doorway, her face ashen. “Courtney,” she screeched. “You come with me.” Courtney left the room with my sister, who mouthed, “Sorry!” as she followed her daughter into the kitchen. Then, in a low, terse voice that Julie didn’t think Jim or I could hear, she said, “Uncle Steven and Uncle Jim love each other, the same way that Grandma and Grandpa love each other. Some boys do like boys, and some girls like girls, and it’s none of your business if they do. But what you just said was very hurtful to your uncles, two boys who love you very, very much. I don’t ever want to hear anything like that again, got it?”

There was some soft weeping from Courtney, who insisted she didn’t want to hurt anybody and hoped her uncles still loved her. For this she received a loving hug from Julie.

In the next room, two enormous smiles spread across the astonished faces of said uncles.

***

ON OUR FIFTH ANNIVERSARY in April 1998, Jim took me for a quiet dinner at a fancy Asian restaurant in Las Vegas. The maitre d’, the waiters, even the busboys seemed to know something I didn’t.

Just after dessert, my handsome companion reached for my hand. “I called your father the other day,” Jim said. “I told him that this was our fifth year together and that I thought you were the most amazing man I had ever met. And I told him I wanted to ask you if you would marry me, and that I hoped this would be OK with him.”

I just stared. The idea of my partner asking my father for my hand was so bizarre and yet so courageous, and it had the precise intended effect: It disarmed me. As I puzzled over this amazing image, another appeared before me, that of Jim on bended knee in the middle of this crowded restaurant with a white-gold Irish klaada ring gleaming from a small, open black box.

“I expect to spend my life with you,” Jim told me, “if you’ll have me.”

I’m pretty sure I said yes. I don’t remember. I know we hugged, other diners clapped, he paid the bill, and we got in the car to race off to a show. And just as I became able to speak again, it appeared to me he was pulling up to the valet stand of the wrong casino-hotel. He insisted this was correct, then whisked me onto an elevator and plopped me out into a bar-lounge with a spectacular view of The Strip.

There I was enveloped in the applause of Las Vegas friends who had been invited here to celebrate. There were balloons and flowers, liquor and snacks, a mound of gifts. But best of all, there was a massive basket filled with dozens of congratulations cards from our friends across the country. Everybody knew this was coming (except me, the investigative reporter in the bunch), so those who couldn’t attend had been asked to send greetings.

The next morning, I called my parents. They asked how the party went, wanted to know what our plans were and how they could help out. My father seemed somewhat uneasy about the idea, even noting at one point that at “normal weddings” the bride’s family pays for everything. But my mother cut him off, reminding him that they would have paid if my bride’s family couldn’t afford to do so. Both were so appreciative of everything Jim and I had done for my sister’s family in Sedona that they were especially motivated to overcome their discomfort.

Sedona seemed the obvious setting for our wedding, which we set about planning in earnest that summer. There could be no other place, despite the considerable cost and inconvenience to every other guest, because we could not imagine the moment without my sister, Zach and Courtney there with us.

We settled for July 4, 1999, at a resort along the lush Oak Creek where we swam with the kids every few weeks. My three sisters and Jim’s sister would stand up in ivory gowns as our female attendants, while four of our closest male friends balanced them off in white tuxedos. My parents would walk me up the aisle first, while Jim would be escorted by his mother and brother. We determined that order by a coin toss.

By and large, the planning process went as it would for any other wedding. The local Hallmark store was a little weak on same-sex wedding invitations, so we found a special company on the Internet that produced our invites, thank-you notes and even small souvenir jars of jellybeans with our two-groom logo.

We opted for a traditional Jewish ceremony. My sister had befriended a Reform rabbi in Sedona whose wife and daughter have the same illness as Zachary, and this rabbi came to admire Jim and me for our devotion to the children.

Rabbi Billy’s problem with our wedding wasn’t that we are gay. He’d done gay ceremonies before for members of his New York area congregation before moving to northern Arizona. Yet he’d never performed an interfaith wedding, and though he was willing to break his streak because of his love of my family, he asked only that we keep the substance of the service true to the Old Testament. I hedged and defended my devout Catholic partner’s right to inject his faith into his wedding ceremony, but Jim agreed with the rabbi that whatever religious tradition we married in must be executed in an authentic manner.

Our only significant skirmish came when Jim and I debated who could give toasts during our reception. My father seemed a no-brainer, but when Jim suggested his family be represented by his brother, I balked. Sure, Tom and I had tacitly reconciled over the years, even to the point where he invited me to be in the family portrait a year earlier when he married. I can’t pinpoint what caused this change, other than perhaps my sheer longevity in his family and the fact that he truly was never as mean a person as he tried to be.

Still, as welcome as his newfound respect was, it didn’t quite override the fact that Tom remained responsible for the single most homophobic moment of my life. There would be a remarkable hypocrisy in having the man who tried hardest to break us up then toast our lifelong commitment.

My partner recognized this irony, but Jim reminded me of how much he’d already given up. The wedding was in blazing-hot July to accommodate my parents’ schedule. It was in Sedona to accommodate my sister’s problems. And it would accommodate almost every tenet of the Jewish faith to the exclusion of his own. Eventually, I assented. He wanted his brother, he could have him. How could I know it would be the highlight of the wedding?

***

A FEW MONTHS after Jim and I walked up that grassy aisle, a gay man testified before the Vermont Legislature as that body took up the issue of gay marriage. “Commitment ceremonies,” he said, “are stupid because without the legal commitment, they’re empty.”

It was at this moment when I realized how foolhardy the gay movement is to stake its world on this particular political wrangle. For on July 4 last year, despite the best efforts of the U.S. Congress and the legislatures of most states, James Robert Richter and Steven Ira Friess wed.

Before a rabbi, under a chuppah adorned with white orchids, in black tuxedoes despite 105-degree “dry” heat, along a trickling creek in northern Arizona, and in the presence of 90 relatives and friends, we married. Four generations of our families, from my 85-year-old grandfather to our infant niece, attended. Our 9- year-old nephew carried rings; our 7-year-old niece dispersed rose petals down the aisle. We exchanged bands, kissed, cut cake, danced with each other and each other’s mother.

Amid all this tradition, we did inject some camp. We blew up a New Yorker cartoon cover of two men kissing for our signing board, and we named the tables for famous gay figures. The kids ate pizza at the Tinky Winky table, for instance, while their parents enjoyed rock shrimp tartlets at the Elton John. Dad welcomed his new son-in-law with a toast full of half-funny golf and stock jokes. My 83-year-old grandmother grinned widely from the first row as I always imagined she would, playing in her lap with the same pink-bead purse I spent 27 years raiding for candy. Mom performed a show for our guests, a custom at a Friess soiree, and this time she was accompanied by the world debut of 7-year-old Courtney’s rendition of “Do Re Mi.”

Many moments produced joyful tears, but none were as poignant as when Jim’s brother took the stage. Before all those people, he acknowledged our rocky past and recalled his turning point. “I realized one day that the one thing that made my brother happy is Steve,” Tom announced. “And in lieu of being a jackass, I got to know Steve.” He demanded everybody raise their glasses for us and insisted to nobody’s objection that clearly, “the Creator smiles today.”

Nowhere in our hearts or minds did we worry that we didn’t have a contract approved by some state legislature. It was irrelevant to us. We didn’t need Bill Clinton or Jeb Bush to validate our love.

Our wedding wasn’t about legal contracts, so it was about something more. It had to be. It was about love, commitment, trust and our futures together. It was about the true intent of a marriage, about the triumph over bigotry, about becoming all that our parents raised us to be as husbands.

“Commitment ceremonies are stupid because without the legal commitment, they’re empty.”

Really? My wedding was far from empty. On so many levels, it was an intense, fulfilling, very real moment. People from 18 states and Cambodia attended. Most were straight, some were gay, some refuse to say. Those who were straight had no trouble “getting” it. Those who were gay were delightfully shocked to witness something they never expected to see in their lifetimes: Two happy families gathering with elegance and dignity to encourage and sanctify the love of two men.

Were I not involved in a seven-year relationship, I might accept the premise that a marriage without a piece of government-issued parchment and a blood test is meaningless. But my marriage contract, half in English and half in Hebrew, hangs beautifully over our sofa in Coconut Creek.

We do hope to make it “legal” one day. That would be convenient; we wouldn’t need a lawyer to set up similar death and power-of-attorney contracts. And we’ll gladly abandon the enormous tax benefits of appearing to be single in the eyes of Uncle Sam. But we’ve noticed that state-sanctioned marriage contracts are broken more than half the time. Like the right to vote, this civil right is appreciated most by those who don’t have it.

Jim toasted our wedding guests. He summoned the image of Life Is Beautiful, a film about a Jewish father and son imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The father makes a game out of the experience to make it bearable for the little boy, but the other prisoners look at them as if they are loons. The only person who understood, Jim noted, was the little boy’s mother.

“Just like the mother in the film,” Jim told our audience, “you care enough about us to understand what you see. You get it. And what you get is not complicated, not scary, not hard to grasp.” He clasped my hand, held it up to show off our grip.

“He loves me, and I love him. And you, our dear friends, love us.”

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CityandShore

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