By Jared Chausow
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By Jon Campbell
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She came to visit Kawane, supposedly just for a weekend, in June of 2009. But when she first saw Kawane in the Port Authority, "I held on to her and I never let go!" Jeanette says. She never went back to Indiana, and they've lived together ever since.
Hungry for a kind of stability they'd never known in a relationship, the women quickly meshed their families like a multicultural, lesbian version of the Brady Bunch, but on a smaller scale. Kawane has yet to meet Jeanette's now 19-year-old son, who just finished high school (and who will be paying for college by working as a professional mixed martial arts cage fighter), but they are heading to Washington State soon to introduce him to his stepsister.
When Don't Ask, Don't Tell is officially ended in September, Jeanette wants to re-enlist and demand base housing for her wife and their daughter. She tears up describing a situation in the hospital in which she and Kawane were briefly kept apart until they threatened to get a lawyer, her face twitching with rage.
"That's part of the reason I am so excited to get married," she says.
"I'll always be here for you," Jeanette reassures Kawane. "I ain't ever letting you go."
"And I'll always be here for you," Kawane says, turning and looking into her eyes. "Always."
Kevin and Howard met nearly a decade ago, in a support group for HIV-positive men with visual impairment.
Kevin, a Texas native who came to New York and worked as a flight attendant in the '80s, had the first symptoms of vision loss in 1996, while working for Continental.
"I kept batting around my face," he says, "and my friend said, 'What are you doing?' And I said, 'I'm swatting that damn fly away,' and she said, 'Uh, there's no fly here.'"
The "floating spots" he saw were the first symptoms of cytomegalovirus retinitis, also known as CMV. "Most people carry CMV in their bodies, but your immune system can fight it off," Kevin explains.
But Kevin's immune system had been compromised for some time. He had been diagnosed with HIV in 1991.
In the '90s, Kevin says, the life span for someone with a CMV diagnosis was about 18 months. The disease "typically manifests in the retina, as it does with me, or systematically, in your spine and nervous system, which is what my late partner had," he says.
The good news for Kevin was that, through oral medication, time-released implants injected directly into his eyes, and about a dozen surgeries, he's been able to stay alive and retain some vision. (It didn't hurt having doctors "who were well connected and could get me on drugs—some which were in trials, some which were in pre-trial clinical studies—who would say to me, 'The rabbit hasn't died yet. Do you want to give this a try?' ")
Kevin's doctors were able to slow down the virus, but not stop it altogether. For years, every time his doctors saw him, "they assumed it was the last time they'd ever see me."
By 1999, Kevin had lost all vision in his left eye. When he last drove a car the year before, he did so by following the taillights of the vehicle in front of him. His only vision left was 20/40 in his right eye (which, "strangely enough, is good enough to legally drive" in New Jersey).
Three years earlier, Kevin's former partner, David, lost his life when CMV attacked his nervous system, not just his eyes.
During a brief stint at New York Hospital, when "David made me promise I wouldn't let him die in the hospital," Kevin stayed overnight with David in his room, sometimes even curling up in bed with him.
"The staff there was great" and treated them "as if we were married," Kevin says. Before David was admitted, they had gone to a legal workshop to learn how to give Kevin whatever limited rights he could have about choices regarding David's life. Still, Kevin knew they were not married, and he was fully aware that if David's family argued over medical decisions, or fought his promise "not to let David be buried in North Carolina," he'd end up in court and would probably lose. (Fortunately they didn't interfere, and Kevin and a friend took care of David in his apartment until the very end.)
Howard's visual impairment is completely different, and has nothing to do with AIDS: He was born this way. "Both of my parents were carriers of a rare genetic defect, which I was lucky enough to get," he says, even though his brother didn't. His parents were kind of hippies, and when he was about four years old, "they started noticing I was bumping into walls" and finally got him checked out.
"Remember biology from school?" he asks. "There are cones and rods in your eyes. Cones are for day vision and color vision, and rods are for night vision and peripheral vision. And I don't have any cones," he says.
Sitting in a dimly lit room at dusk, he says, "I see really well right now, when the rods are working and I don't see any bright light at all." By seeing "well," his vision is 20/200, at best. It's colorless, like "watching a black-and-white movie."