While the LGBT community continues to battle discriminatory legislation in Indiana and states contemplating similar such laws, it gives me some measure of comfort to know that this month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the long-raging debate over same gender marriage. For some, the court’s eventual decision will be solely intellectual, but for me, that verdict will be extremely personal, and it is my every hope that marriage equality will be the resulting law of the land in all 50 states. After almost 12 years together and raising two children, my partner Russ Noe and I were legally wed in California on June 7, 2014. That moment was a lifetime in the making and as the gold wedding band slid onto my finger, I was fully cognizant of all that it meant, both legally and emotionally… For as it happens, in my recent history, I’ve experienced inequity more fully than most.
One fall day in September 2001, I lost almost everything I held dear when I stumbled upon an email not intended for me. In it, I learned that my then-partner of six years, “Rob,” had broken the commitments we’d made and that, in fact, I’d been lied to from the start of our relationship. As that email glowed onscreen, I remember looking over to where our infant son lay sleeping, wondering what our collective future held. Rob and I had created a life together, had a commitment ceremony, bought a house, and adopted a child… I’d given up my career to be a stay-at-home dad, only to soon discover that while I was the primary caregiver, with a stronger emotional bond to our son than Rob, I had no legal parental rights whatsoever. Should Rob so choose, he could lawfully banish me from my child’s life.
I couldn’t imagine losing my son, nor how devastating that might be for him emotionally. He was my touchstone, and I vowed that somehow I would find a way for us to remain together.
I was urged by my attorney not to confront Rob about all I’d discovered and instead wait until my rights were settled, as I was then undergoing a process known as a second parent adoption. And so I returned home, plastered a smile on my face, and attempted to act as if everything were fine. I went about my daily life, taking care of our house and son, though I was tormented and wracked with fear inside. During this period, I even went with Rob to one of his therapy sessions, only to hear the therapist say that the only issues in our relationship were my doubts about Rob’s faithfulness, and that Rob was a moral and ethical human being. For one hour I sat, boiling inside, unable to stand up for myself and all that I’d discovered to be true.
Rob and I had stood in front of our family and friends, declaring our love and commitment toward one another. We called each other “husbands” and combined our finances, which were intended to be shared 50/50. We acted like a married couple and built our life like other married couples, but we didn’t have the same legal protections and benefits as our peers. This discrepancy became even more pronounced as time passed.
After two months of silence, unable to confront Rob, a court case in California placed all second parent adoptions–including mine–on hold, determining them to be incompatible with state law. To clarify this confusion, the California State Supreme Court would have to eventually rule on the legality of second parent adoptions, which could take months. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to remain silent indefinitely, I finally confronted Rob about all I’d discovered. In the process though, in order to ensure my rights were established, I pretended to give him hope that our relationship could be salvaged. I told him that we should take time apart and live separately, to see if we could mend the rift and find a way forward together as we had intended, as a family. In other words, in my attempt to hold onto my son, I became a liar, just like Rob.
We sold our house, and on the day it closed escrow, Rob went to the bank and took out the proceeds, leaving me what he alone determined to be “fair.” I had no choice but to live with that, and any other crumbs he offered, as I had no legal recourse. In the eyes of the court, we were no more than roommates, and I couldn’t afford to rock the boat until my parental rights were firmly established.
Eventually, a court date for my adoption was established. Even as Rob stood next to me in the court room, I waited, breathlessly, afraid he would halt the proceedings and take away this child whom I loved so dearly. At last, the judge signed the paperwork and the adoption was complete. After walking to my car, I sat in the front seat, holding my son and crying uncontrollably, grateful to no longer be afraid and for the ordeal to finally be over.
I had been in a similar emotional state before, in 1995, when my partner Shane Sawick died of complications from AIDS. In that situation, I endured months of anxiety, not to mention the physical and emotional toll of being a daily caregiver, but I did so all with the knowledge of how his story would play out. I knew that the end would come and I knew what it entailed. Still, when it did, it was agonizing.
At the time, I thought that never again would I experience anything as painful, but the prospect of losing my son and the months of uncertainty and turmoil that provoked proved far worse to my psyche.
It took me a long time to fully work through my anger and learn to trust again. Moving forward wasn’t easy, but I did it, with the support of my son and those I loved. That journey led me to Russ and the subsequent adoption of a second son.
Almost one year ago, as the sun shone brightly on a beautiful June day, Russ and I stepped out into our garden wedding ceremony, walking behind our sons, who served as best men. They each had written notes about the importance of family which they read to our assembled guests. Russ and I shared our vows, which we’d also written, publicly proclaiming our promises and commitment to the life we had crafted. At the end of the ceremony, as Russ slipped the gold wedding ring onto my finger, all the emotions and moments of my life seared through me, reminding me of the road I’ve traveled, the battles fought, and the promise of things to come.
Our rings are just simple bands, nothing fancy. But they are durable and signify the legality of our union. They are gold wedding rings, meant to last a lifetime.
This originally appeared on KerganEdwards-Stout.com. Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, was the recipient of a Next Generation Indie Book Award. His collection of short stories, Gifts Not Yet Given, was named on multiple “Best Books of the Year” lists. He is currently at work on a memoir, Never Turn Your Back on the Tide.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Brian Rzepczynski, MSW, a psychotherapist and life coach specializing in helping LGBT individuals and couples develop and maintain successful and fulfilling intimate relationships. He’s got a great podcast called “The Gay Love Coach,” where he and I talked all things LGBT parenting. Check out my interview with Brian on his new podcast!
On March 5, 1995, the day I turned 30, I admitted my then-partner Shane Sawick into the hospital. He would not come out alive, dying just two weeks later, on March 22. While AIDS was the war he battled, he was ultimately done in by a skirmish with PML (Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy), a rare but usually fatal disease, which quickly took away Shane’s ability to speak, move, or even blink at will, though his brain continued to think, and process, and feel. It was devastating to watch a loved one undergo such a debilitating experience, and yet that act, of being both lover and caregiver, thoroughly transformed me as a human being. Indeed, I would not be the husband, father, writer, or person that I am were it not for that period of crisis during which my partner and friends died. As we head towards World AIDS Day, I find it perplexing that few seem willing to embrace, or even mention, the epidemic which so greatly impacted and altered the LGBT community. What is it about that era that frightens us so?
The easy answer might be that disease and death make people uncomfortable, which, to some degree, is understandable. Prior to Shane’s death, my best friend of eight years and I were inseparable (I’ll call him Pete.) At the time, I couldn’t have imagined a better friend. Pete made me laugh, kept me company, and ushered me through my West Hollywood “coming out.” Once Shane got sick, however, Pete disappeared. He never called, or came to visit us in the hospital, despite knowing that I was there 24/7. Whenever queried by friends as to his absence, Pete would say, “Oh, you know–me and hospitals. I just don’t like the idea of sickness.”
It wasn’t until the day of Shane’s memorial that I next saw Pete. He came up, noting “Great service!,” before the next words came out of his mouth: “Wanna hit Happy Hour later?” Needless to say, I chose to end that friendship, as well as others in which people could not grasp the emotional magnitude of what had happened to me, and others like me. The depth of my experiences caused a change within, which required a new support system willing and able to tackle the “hard stuff,” no matter how unpleasant.
For some, the era of losing friends and loved ones has been difficult to revisit, due to the emotional toll taken. Many have gone to great lengths to separate themselves from the pain, moving from the most-hit urban centers to smaller, more rural towns. Others have gone into emotional hiding, losing themselves in drug or drink, or in simply shutting down, so as not to feel the ache of such loss. And some have, by necessity, focused on rebuilding their broken circle of friends.
New causes, such as marriage equality, have replaced AIDS as our community’s priority, and it is hard to argue that rallying for wedding cake isn’t more fun that protesting for HIV drugs. Still, we should not have to choose between the two.
These days, activism for many means little more than clicking “like” on a Facebook post. While thousands stepped into the streets in the aftermath of Prop 8, we’ve not seen anything on that scale for HIV/AIDS in years. At what point did we become complacent? Is having a drug that makes the disease “manageable” really all we want? What happened to a cure–or a vaccine?
Today, people still die from AIDS. While drug advancements have substantially decreased that number, it has also created the false-belief that contracting the disease is essentially meaningless. To some, taking one pill a day is an easy trade-off to having to wear condoms.
Most disturbing, however, is the sheer number to whom AIDS just doesn’t matter, having relegated it to a page in history. When I mention having lost a partner or friends, I’m most often met with a blank stare or a cursory nod, with no real emotional acknowledgement of what that time meant, and continues to mean.
During the AIDS crisis, the LGBT community rose to the occasion, stepping in to take care of our own when the government, pharmaceutical companies, and other organizations couldn’t–or wouldn’t. LGBT people exhibited incredible bravery, tackling huge monoliths with acts of daring creativity and passion. Were it not for our take-no-prisoners approach, we would not have the HIV drugs we do today.
The crisis temporarily brought together both genders, as women stepped into vacant leadership roles and helped those stricken by acting as caregivers. Today, that gender divide has returned, with little reciprocity from gay men for the causes dear to lesbians, such as breast or cervical cancer. In many ways, we’ve gone back to being strangers, with a debt left unpaid.
Other communities, devastated by tragedy, have managed to turn such markers into rallying cries, and the LGBT community must find a way to do the same with AIDS. Just as the Jewish people dealt with the Holocaust, and the African American community responded to slavery and the civil rights struggle, so too must our community find a way to embrace that era, fully honoring both those we lost and what we gained.
For we did gain much. We learned that, far from being the weak and passive individuals many of us had been stereotyped, we actually had strength, passion, and guts, and we fully demonstrated that to the world. We took on “the powers that be” and created real, tangible change. We literally bloodied ourselves for the cause, and yet today, speaking of AIDS feels almost taboo.
Does that have anything to do with the disease being sexually transmitted? Having worked so hard to combat the myth that being gay is to be “sick,” did the emergence of a sexually transmitted disease take us back to a place of shame? Does that shame still linger?
To be clear, I am not remotely nostalgic for the days of the AIDS crisis. I lost too many, and it hurt too much. But at the same time, I’m thankful that I was able to play a part in helping to educate others about HIV, through my work at AIDS Project Los Angeles. I’m grateful to my dear friends who allowed me to be with them during their final days. I’m profoundly changed, for the better, for having ushered my partner Shane to his death. And I’m forever in awe of the efforts our community took to respond to the crisis in unimaginably creative and lasting, impactful ways.
I just wished others cared as well.
Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, was loosely inspired by his partner, Shane Sawick, and his experiences during the AIDS crisis. It won the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category, and was shortlisted for the Independent Literary Awards in the same category.
Accompanying a recent Huffington Post article I wrote was a photo of my family, taken by Sara + Ryan Photography. That one photo resulted in so many terrific comments and queries from readers about the duo’s work, which is primarily focused on LGBT families, that I thought it would be fun to learn more about them and their journey to their photographic specialty. Both were happy to share how they became straight allies for LGBT equality and to specialize in photographing our unique community.
Given that you are both straight, how did you come to specialize in photographing LGBT families?
Sara: My sister is gay, as well as my best friend, and both have long term partners, but we didn’t necessarily intend to specialize in LGBT families and couples, though we always knew we would be open to it. With both of these couples, however, we found that neither had ever had professional photos taken, until our sessions with them, as they felt it might be awkward to get pictures taken at a portrait studio.
So they felt more comfortable, given your relationship?
Sara: Yes, because they knew that we were completely comfortable with them being themselves. After that, we started getting a lot of referrals. Of course, we still photograph straight families as well, but most of our clientele is now in the LGBT community.
Ryan: We talked to a lot of same-sex couples who’d had previous experiences, where photographers had assured that they had experience photographing same-sex couples, only to feel that the photographer was a bit uneasy during the shoot, whether being uncomfortable personally, or in attempting to pose the couple as a traditional straight couple might be. (more…)
As the tide of marriage equality begins to turn, with same gender nuptials becoming a reality for increasing numbers of couples, along comes a perfectly-timed guide to provide insight into what elements to consider before taking such a step. Pamela Milam, MA, LPC, a counselor in Dallas, TX, has just released an essential primer for any LGBT individual considering matrimony, Premarital Counseling for Gays and Lesbians. Drawing from her many years of experience as a therapist, Milam lays out common areas of potential discord couples may experience, and shares scenarios, gleaned from her patients, which demonstrate how such issues have played out for others.
While targeted towards those considering marriage, the issues she discusses are equally applicable for anyone interested in bettering their relationships, as the book touches on such considerations as religion, sex, monogamy, open relationships, degrees of “outness,” having children, and much more. Recently, Milam graciously sat down with me to discuss the book, her personal journey, and issues within the LGBT community.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.
And you as well. I am a big fan of your novel, Songs for the New Depression, so getting the chance to chat is an added bonus!
I really appreciate that–thank you! But I want to talk about your book. After many years spent counseling individuals and couples, what prompted you to write a book–and why this one?
In my career, I’ve done plenty of premarital counseling with straight couples. I’ve listened to straight couples discuss their dating situations, their feelings about commitment, and eventually their plans for marriage. I’ve helped them understand each other better and move toward their weddings feeling stronger and more prepared for what marriage entails.
During much of that time, I was an unmarried lesbian. It was not lost on me that while I was spending many of my waking hours helping to launch and/or save heterosexual unions, I could not legally marry the person I loved most in the world.
Then, laws started changing.
Exactly. And as they did, I began receiving more and more phone calls and emails from gay and lesbian couples who were planning weddings and requesting premarital counseling. It’s a relatively new phenomenon.
That’s great that they’re seeking that out…
Yes, it is. But I knew that for me to recommend a book to a gay couple, that resource needed to be tailored specifically to their situation, as there are particular issues gay couples routinely face which straight couples do not.