From Stonewall to marriage equality to now — and everywhere in between.

Written by David Biele (he|him), Youth Program Manager at Center on Halsted

Two years after Martha P. Johnson threw “the shot glass heard ‘round the world” starting the Stonewall Riots and 25 miles west of the Greenwich Village, I was born at Morristown General Hospital. As kid growing up in the 1970s and 80s, gay marriage was inconceivable to me in the truest sense of the word — I could not conceive, picture, or formulate the idea of it in my mind. I came of age in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when being gay seemed to equal an early death and televangelists like Jerry Falwell proclaimed the disease God’s wrath on homosexuals on a daily basis. So the idea of two guys or two gals getting hitched was a bridge too far for me. When I came out as a senior in high school, I remember hoping to find someone to love and spend my life with, but the thought that any church or state would recognize, allow, or support our relationship didn’t enter my head at all — not even as an impossibility.

As a result, the whole time I was growing up and well into my 30s, the institution of marriage seemed completely beyond the scope of what it meant to be gay. I couldn’t see any part of it applying to me. Even the language of marriage didn’t feel right for the relationships I imagined. In my mind, I would never have a “fiancé” to whom I became “engaged.” I would never have a “wedding” where I would be “married” to my “husband” before leaving on a “honeymoon.” Those words seemed not just incongruous with my life, but ludicrous, and even laughable.

The institution of marriage remained out of bounds for me and all LGBTQ Americans through my early 30s largely due to the hard work of lawmakers down in in Washington, who made it clear that our lives and loves were unacceptable to straight society. Laws like the Defense of Marriage Act, policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Supreme Court decisions like Bowers v. Hardwick made it seem to me that our government would never recognize the relationships of its queer citizens.

However, ever so slowly but with gathering momentum, I could see the wall “protecting” the institution of marriage beginning to crack. Hawaii’s Supreme Court shocked the world by legalizing marriage equality in 1993 and it remained legal there until 1999. In 2000 Vermont legalized “civil unions” for LGBTQ couples, recognizing our relationships but making it clear they did not deserve to be called “marriages.” In 2003 Massachusetts legalized same sex marriage, although this was not quite an earth-shaking event to me because it was, well, Massachusetts.

That same year, I was at Sidetrack drinking slushies and watching show tunes at the video bar when the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas overturning anti-sodomy laws nationwide was announced. Immediately after the announcement, the VJ played the video of “Everybody Rejoice” from the Broadway musical “The Wiz.” As Diana Ross and Michael Jackson kicked up their heels in the Land of Oz, I whooped it up with the other queens in attendance. We stood on stools and danced on the bar. Everybody rejoiced. Indeed, it was a “brand new day”.

As my 30s progressed, it became clear that the times they were a-changin’. And quickly. A few short years later, as a high school US history teacher in CPS, I was holding a classroom currents events discussion, when one of my students declared a little defensively, “I know I’m in the minority here, but I’m AGAINST gay marriage!” That was when I realized that the tipping point had been reached. I may have been a teacher of history, but on that day, I saw the future.

In 2006 I met the man I would eventually marry. Kevin Heffernan. He was a fellow member of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus and we fell in love during rehearsals for CGMC’s “The 10 Commandments.” During a Labor Day weekend trip to New York City in 2007, I proposed to Kevin from the top of the Empire State Building. We didn’t set a date at first because same sex marriage still wasn’t legal in Illinois — or most of the world either. Only four countries on Earth allowed it at that time: the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada. In the US, no state had followed Massachusetts’ lead. In fact, 19 states approved amendments to their state constitutions banning same sex marriage in response to its legalization in Massachusetts, including California’s infamous Prop 8.

Chicagoans through and through, Kevin and I both wanted to get hitched in our hometown, so we decided to delay our wedding until we could be married legally in the Windy City. However, in January 2008, I proposed to Kevin that we add our names to the Cook County Domestic Partnership Registry, which had opened to LGBTQ couples five years before. The registry brought no official rights or privileges with it, but it would officially acknowledge our relationship’s existence, which was something, at least. Kevin again said yes.

So, on February 21, 2008, Kevin and I met at the Cook County Clerk’s downtown office at 118 North Clark Street (lower level) to officially document our relationship with the county. After waiting in an unnecessarily long line in the city’s windowless offices under the busy streets of Chicago’s Loop, filling out several bureaucratic forms, and providing identification documents, we were given a receipt for our payment and papers certifying our registration. It was about as romantic as picking up a driver’s license from the DMV!

Eventually 2008 became 2009, and although Illinois still had not legalized marriage equality, five more states had, including one nearby — Iowa. That spring, Kevin and I learned that there was going to be a National Equality March in Washington, DC on October 11 calling for, among other things, Marriage Equality. That changed everything. We decided to make a weekend-long wedding celebration. We would get married in Iowa on Friday, celebrate with my family in Maryland on Saturday, and then march with 300,000 other homos and allies in support of marriage equality nationwide on Sunday. The idea perfectly suited my romantic heart and flair for the dramatic. For the next few months we prepared.

When the big day came, we road tripped it out to Davenport, Iowa, in a two car mini-caravan carrying four of our closest Chicago friends, Kevin’s goddaughter, and my dog Shayna. I won’t go into details, but anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to hear that the trip was not without mishap and delay, or that we made it to our wedding site with little time to spare. When we arrived, we found the Justice of the Peace sitting on a bench, pen in his hand with a black three ring binder across his lap. He told us proudly that this was his first same sex marriage — although I probably would have figured it out when I realized he had been sitting there editing the pre-written script for the ceremony, crossing out words like “wife,” “woman,” and “she/her/hers” and replacing them with “married partner” “man” and “he/him/his.” I thought to myself, “There’s the proof, literally in black and white. It’s a whole new world.” I was so excited and happy to be entering it with Kevin by my side.

As the Justice of the Peace started speaking and the ceremony began, I started to lose it. We had been rushing all day. This was the first time since getting up in the morning that I had the chance to stop and drink it all in. I was actually getting married. You see, until that moment I had been under the mistaken impression that this wasn’t our real wedding. As crazy as that sounds to me today, although I knew that after that day, in the eyes of the State of Iowa and a handful of other states, we would be officially married, in my head, I still saw our real wedding as the one we would have back home in Chicago once marriage equality came to the Land of Lincoln.

Now, with the clarity of hindsight, I know that my blindness was understandable. For most of my life, I had lived in a world where LGBTQ relationships existed outside the boundaries and structures of church and state, both of which had refused to recognize or sanction the love queer folk felt. Throughout history laws had been enacted, policies established, judicial decisions handed down, treaties signed and amendments passed at all levels of government that invalidated, marginalized, or denied the existence of our relationships. Since our government wouldn’t legitimize the love we felt for each other, it was up to use to do so. To us, our relationships were real not because they had received some sort of official sanction from a government or religion, but because we said they were real. No church or state married us, we married ourselves.

So, as Kevin and I had prepared for this day — filling out the paperwork, providing documentation, paying fees, etc. etc. — the fact that our union was going to be officially recognized by the state of Iowa had meant little to me. I had never looked to the government to legitimize my relationships, why would I do so now? The love and commitment Kevin and I felt for each other made our relationship real, not some piece of paper given to us by a state in which neither of us lived or knew much about.

But as I stood there in my freshly pressed suit holding hands with the man I loved listening to the justice of the peace, it began to dawn on me how real all this actually was. It all came to a head when Kevin slipped the ring onto my finger and said his vows. With one simple, precise, and tiny motion, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place, and the picture was complete. No longer did I feel separate from and unequal to an institution whose doors had been closed to me for most of my life. I looked down at my hand resting in his, saw the rings on our fingers, felt the warmth of his touch, and suddenly it all came home to me.

Five and a half years later, on June 26, 2015 the US Supreme Court announced its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing marriage equality in all 50 states. Immediately after the announcement, my Facebook news feed was filled with posts of joy, excitement and hope. Suddenly, rainbow flags were everywhere — even the White House. Millions of people came together that weekend in Pride Parades across the nation to celebrate the victory.

Kevin and I had been hoping for this day for a long time, and since our earliest days together, we had worked hard to make it a reality. We had marched together, chanted together, and attended rallies, protests, and parades together all in service of this day. We had sung with the chorus outside the Illinois Statehouse, protested Prop 8 on the streets of the Loop, drowned out hate-mongering religious zealots at Chicago’s Gay Games, and lived our lives openly and honestly as a same-sex married couple. All to do our part for marriage equality.

Now victory was here. Love had won. Never again would the right to marry be denied to couples like us. Never again would two guys or two gals be told that their love wasn’t equal, or worse, didn’t exist at all. I had dreamed this seemingly impossible dream for such a long time, and now it actually had come true. And yet, although this was a glorious day of jubilation for so many of my queer siblings and our allies, it was not for me. You see, two months before the decision, on April 25, 2015, Kevin had passed away from esophageal cancer. After nine years of fighting hand in hand for marriage equality, in his fight against cancer, Kevin came up two months too short. On the day of the Supreme Court’s decision, I was no longer Kevin’s husband, but his widower, and so no celebration or pride parade or rainbow-colored White House could change the fact that on that historic day all I felt was sad, disappointed, and oh so alone.

Two years after Kevin’s death I took a job as the youth program manager at the Center on Halsted, which enabled this former history teacher to once again see the future. Whether it’s through a 13-year old trans girl coming for an intake accompanied by their uncertain but supportive parent, or a 19 year old pansexual college student rejecting traditional binary notions of gender and sexuality, or a 23 year old straight identifying ally who doesn’t understand all the fuss over pronouns and bathrooms — every day I see proof that the world into which I was born is not the world in which I live today. Although it’s not a perfect world, I can say without a moment’s hesitation that it’s a better world. And I’m proud that it’s a world that I, in my own small way and alongside so many people I don’t know and have never met, people who came before I was born and people who will continue coming after I die, helped create.

And as long as all of us keep doing our part, no matter if we touch the lives of millions or just the people on our street, it will continue getting better. Kevin may not be here enjoying it with me, but I know, wherever he is, he is glad I am living it — that we are all living it. It’s been fifty years since that rag tag army of drag queens, trans folk, street hustlers, and homos exploded out of the Stonewall Inn and onto the streets to make the history we celebrate today. Who knows what walls we will tear down next? I, for one, can’t wait to see.

Center on Halsted is the Midwest’s largest community center dedicated to advancing the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Movement.

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