Maybe I Do And Maybe I Don't

Gays get the freedom to marry—and for some, the freedom not to

The good news is that his condition "is not degenerative, unlike Kevin, who wakes up every day not knowing what he's going to be able to see."

Howard, a Brooklyn native, graduated from college and began a successful corporate career at IBM and then Chase Bank. As a young adult, he was not fully out to himself, his family, or (so he thought) at work.

"Back then, you thought if you were out, you wouldn't get hired in the corporate world, and if you were hired, you wouldn't get promoted," he says. "If a promotion came up, they'd say they needed to give it to a straight person who really needed it."

Same-sex marriage supporters shielded happy couples from 
Westboro Baptist Church with rainbow umbrellas.
C.S. Muncy
Same-sex marriage supporters shielded happy couples from Westboro Baptist Church with rainbow umbrellas.

During his first years away from home, "I didn't know what AIDS was," he says. Even when he did, "I actually thought, I'm smart, I'm educated. This couldn't happen to me." In those years, "'slut' was a good word" for how he was acting, he says.

Still, having sex with a lot of people "represented freedom" from everything; he was escaping from the straight world and hiding within himself.

Then, "in 1987, I met this guy Peter, my first real lover." The seeds of his first real commitment were planted.

A few months into their relationship, "we had the same doctor, who was gay, in the West Village, who wanted us to get tested. And I asked, 'Why?' And he said, 'You need to know your status, and maybe get treatment.' But there was no treatment then, so I don't know what it was he was talking about."

When the results were in, the doctor "called us into his office and said, 'I have good news and bad news. The good news is you both have the same result. The bad news is that you're both positive.' Peter's "T-cells were down to 200, and mine were still at 900. So he had probably been infected for a long time, and had probably given it to me."

Peter and Howard went to the doctor every three months, but otherwise "kept our heads in the sand and didn't talk about it." Howard was "terrified of anybody from work finding out."

The year 1995 "would turn out to be the worst year of my life," Howard says. As Peter's health declined, they converted the ground floor of their brownstone into a hospice.

Aware that they were not legally married, they spent a great deal of time and money "making everything iron-clad," so that when Peter was gone, Howard would get the house and the life insurance. Yet when Peter died in July at the age of 35—just a month after Howard's father died, following a shockingly brief week-long cancer diagnosis—Peter's family "came in like vultures," he says. "They wanted everything in the house."

The trouble started before Peter was even gone, Howard says. "Peter was in the apartment, basically dying. His mother would drive in . . . from Greenport And one day she said, 'Can I see his will?' And I said, 'OK'. And she's reading it saying, 'Fuck! Shit! I don't fucking believe this!' And I said, 'Is there a problem?' And she said, 'Yeah. I'm not in this!' And I said, 'Well, he's not dead yet. He's right over there! If you have any issues, you need to resolve this now. I am not going to deal with this later.' "

When he was gone, Howard said to Peter's mother, "What about all those Thanksgivings and Christmases? Didn't you understand we were just like a married couple? The only thing was that we couldn't get married.

"Apparently, [Peter's family] didn't believe it."

Because of all the legal groundwork they'd laid, Howard got to keep what Peter left him. But a grieving widower he was not—at least in the eyes of the law and family.

"At the funeral, the only thing I was allowed to do was pay for it," he says. The funeral director made it clear to him in planning the service, "they weren't going to listen to anything I had to say. They were only going to listen to the mother."

An odd benefit of the funeral for Howard: Even though "I thought I wasn't out at work, so many of my employees, and my boss, came to the service. You always think you're keeping it secret, but everyone knows."

Marriage wasn't possible back then, but Howard wonders how it would have affected things. "It's like Larry Kramer says about The Normal Heart. If we'd had marriage back then, or full equality, maybe more of us would have survived this?"

But there was little time for political activism, according to Kevin. "For me," he says of the years after his David died, when he was dealing with blindness and nausea and diarrhea and vomiting, "I just kept focusing on the crisis of the day. How am I going to survive the next eye surgery? I just had to stay alive, until something that could keep me alive came onto the market."

To hear Kevin tell it, as sick as he got, he didn't really have time to mourn either the physical abilities or the loved ones he was losing, let alone worry about civil-rights equality. "I just kept coming back to that 'Bring out yer dead!' scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail," he says quietly. "It's like, 'I'm not quite dead yet.' "

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