My sister Betsy and her partner Sue got married today. They had been together for 14 years, but the wedding was a spontaneous thing. They were getting ready for work, getting the kids ready for summer day camp, the usual routine. Then they heard that the court struck down the gay marriage ban. Betsy said they were in the kitchen together laughing at something silly my nephew Willard said when little Peggy heard the news. The kitchen got real still. Then Sue burst into tears. Betsy grabbed hold of Sue. Willard started fist pumping in the air. And Peggy started jumping up and down.
The scene lasted for a few minutes then they moved on, just like the newscast in the background. Betsy said she and Sue kept looking at each other and smiling.
Finally, though, Peggy said real loud, “So are you gonna get married or what?”
Betsy giggled. Then Sue. Then they both started crying between their giggles. Peggy and her brother started clapping and chanting, “Marry! Marry! Marry!”
Betsy said she and Sue looked at each other with deep, unspoken emotions.
Right then and there, they decided. No work that day. No day camp. The kids started running around, going bananas. Willard said he’d even wear the tie he hated. Peggy dashed outside to cut some hydrangeas from the backyard. “I’m gonna be the flower girl!” she proclaimed.
Betsy called me first. “Can you come?” she asked. Hell yeah, I told her.
I was the first one Betsy came out to. It was pretty rough in our family. Our other four siblings reacted in various degrees of alright. Our parents took a bit longer. They didn’t reject her, but they didn’t necessarily go out of their way to be supportive. I called it passive hostility. It took a near tragedy to change that. We almost lost Sue-Sis – that what I call her – in an awful car accident. She’s fine now, just a slight limp when she walks too much. But it was a bad thing.
Betsy, calm, methodical Betsy was near hysterical. None of us had ever seen her in that state before. But it was Sue-Sis’s family that really changed things. Sue grew up in California, though her family, ironically, was originally from out this way. Anyway, Sue’s parents came rushing out after they heard. Now I’m sure you’ve heard stories about how families freeze out a gay or lesbian partner during a crisis. Uh-uh. That’s not what happened. Sue’s folks spent nearly as much time with Betsy as they did with their own. They cooked for her. They took care of the kids. They spent time with all of us. They treated all of us as their own.
I remember sitting with my mom one evening. We were watching one of the late shows. Dad had already gone to bed. We talked. First, she called Sue ‘Sue-Sis’ like I always did. Then she said what beautiful parents she had. Then she just started weeping gently. I went to the sofa and sat next to her. The next morning, my dad said to me, “Sue comes from a very strong family. Very strong family. God bless them.”
It took a near tragedy, but I think they finally began to understand what this “gay stuff” was all about. That it really wasn’t about anything, except folks loving each other like they should.
Needless to say, my parents were all exciting when they heard of Betsy and Sue-Sis’s plan to marry. Dad called Sue-Sis’s parents in California. “You got Skype?” He wanted them to see it live. He had come full circle and was all Mr. P-FLAG. For a wedding suit he wore his “Straight, not narrow” t-shirt. It was too much.
The county clerk’s office was a joyous mob scene. We thought we’d be early, but a whole bunch of people missed work that morning. It was the perfect summer day. A June wedding day.
And the bigots came, too. There were only a handful of them as we filed into the county building, no more than 6, I think. But they were loud. More than that, they were full of fear. You could see it etched across their faces. They enclosed their souls behind barbed wire.
This one man in particular seemed really bent out of shape, stiff as a board and mad as hell. He kept going after this guy ahead of us in line. He shouted “You’re a fool! Satan’s fool! Satan will have his way with you!” Peggy giggled. I don’t know if he heard my niece mocking him, but he seemed to lay a glare on all of us as we strolled by. Only I seemed to notice. I think Betsy and Sue-Sis could only see each other.
It was a total party inside. Folks talked loud and proud. I heard Etta James singing “At Last” from a dozen different smart phones. The staff at the office had a couple of tables set up with punch and wedding cake. It was too much. Dad caught it all on his phone. I loved when the crowd started spontaneously shouting and clapping, and then settled back into its din of chaotic happiness.
During one of those lulls between shouts, that little man came inside, the one that glared at us, the one that yelled “Satan’s fool” over and over. I saw him scanning the crowd, real slowly. I got scared. Shit, I thought, this kook has a gun. I kept my eye on him, but no weapon appeared.
He finally pushed his way through the crowd and passed all of us until he got to the guy he gave grief to outside. Then all the harsh melted from his face. He said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you like that. I couldn’t help myself. You look so much like Jerry. Your name isn’t Jerry, is it?”
The man looked at him tentatively, and said no.
“No, of course not. That was a long time ago. I loved Jerry. God, I loved him so!”
He totally broke down. I mean totally. He just collapsed on the floor and wailed.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry to all of you! I’m so sorry!”
Sue-Sis whispered to me about him. Apparently he was the local leader of one of those anti-gay marriage groups. I probably saw him in the news and ignored him. Boy, what a coming out. Usually these guys get outed by some escort they hired. And then there was the case of this congressman. He got outed while running out of a bathhouse that was on fire. The TV cameras caught him, wearing only a towel.
The fire that destroyed this guy’s closet was one of his own making. It had probably been smoldering in his gut for years. It just took one face, a likeness from the past, to spark it.
The atmosphere of love and joy in the crowded space caused something amazing to happen. Folks went to the man and helped him up. Someone brought over a chair for him to sit on. Another brought him water. He stopped crying, but was visibly moved by the tender attention he received from total strangers.
“I have to go to him,” I said to Sue-Sis. She nodded. That gave me the courage I needed. I went to the table with the wedding cake, took a piece, and then brought it over to him. He thanked me.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“When did you last see Jerry?”
“High school. We were in high school together, long time ago. It was so long ago. All morning I was thinking about him, after the court decision came down.”
Steve sat at his computer for a long while and googled Jerry’s name. It was the first time he had the courage to do even that, he said. But then his group called about the picket. He thought of not going, wanting to stay at his computer, to find Jerry’s picture somewhere in cyberspace.
“Seeing that man there, I don’t know.” He sort of chuckled to himself. “There’s no way he could have been Jerry. Jerry is my age.” He chuckled again. “No, he’s not Jerry.”
I told him about my sister and Sue-Sis, about their kids, about my dad skyping Sue-Sis’s family back in California. He seemed overwhelmed, but a gentle kindness outlined his face. Barbed wire no longer surrounded his soul.
“Steve, if Jerry were here, would you ask him to marry you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I could do that just yet.”
“What if he asked you?”
Steve’s face turned longingly back to the man he thought was Jerry, now exchanging vows with his soon-to-be husband. He said nothing.
I took off my ring. It was not an important ring or a special ring. I actually found it on the ground a year ago and it fit, so I kept wearing it. This seemed like a good time to pass it on, so I gave it to Steve.
“Here,” I said, “in case you find Jerry and change you mind, alright?”
He took it from me, then held my hand in both of his.
I went back to my group. We would be up soon. Dad reached Sue-Sis’s family and we all shouted into his iPhone at them. The crowd echoed our shouting. When the shouts softened to the din again, I looked back towards Steve. He began nibbling the cake I gave him. A bit of the frosting stuck to his nose. He didn’t seem to mind.