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Maybe I Do And Maybe I Don't

Maybe I Do And Maybe I Don't

Kevin Beauchamp, 49, and Howard Orlick, 50, are both legally blind. Kevin is thin and wiry; his vision loss is degenerative, and eventually he'll go completely blind. For now, he sees a little through one eye, making out shapes when there is enough contrast. With the aid of adaptive software, he's able to read modified text when he's not too tired.

Howard is broad and muscular. Because of a genetic condition, he sees nothing in daylight. The sun's light acts on him like snow blindness. But at night, he has some vision. During the day, Kevin's dwindling vision is enough for him to get by with a cane. But at night, it's Howard who guides Kevin as they walk together.

For nine years, they've been together, relying on each other to get down the street and up steps and around corners, so that they could do what had been a major part of their forties—protesting for the right of gay couples to marry.

They carried a banner together in the National Equality March in D.C. (Howard admits that he worried about falling in a manhole.) And Kevin was arrested last March while participating in a demonstration that shut down the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street at rush hour, even though police didn't seem interested in cuffing a blind man carrying a white cane.

"The cops looked at me and passed me right by," Kevin says, laughing as he adds, "Of course, I didn't know that at the time."

The NYPD officers handcuffed Kevin only after another of the protesters complained, "He's with us! Arrest him, too!"

Both men have been hard at work fighting for gay rights in their forties. They each buried previous partners in their thirties.

Howard says that when his late partner, Peter, died, his family didn't treat him like a widower, even though "we were just like a married couple—the only thing was that we couldn't get married."

Both men have been through so much, both before they met and since they became a couple. Both have fought tirelessly for gay rights. And both celebrated with much of the rest of New York when this state adopted marriage equality.

Finally, Kevin and Howard could get married legally.

But now, they realize, they don't want to.

A month passed between Governor Andrew Cuomo's signing of the Marriage Equality Act into law and the first same-sex marriages in New York. During that time, while Kevin and Howard talked about their ambivalence toward marriage, other couples couldn't wait to get hitched, and were determined to do it the very first day it would be legal to do so.

Jeanette Coleman, a Southern Baptist from Texas, is a woman of mixed white and Native American roots. Her faith derives both from Christianity and the Cherokee tribe, of which she says her grandfather was the last "legitimate" chief (chosen by a "test of courage, not by an election"). Though not a small woman, she is dwarfed (in physical size, if not presence) by her partner, Kawane Harris, an African-American health care worker from Brooklyn.

Sitting next to Kawane in the apartment they share with their daughter in the housing projects adjacent to Lincoln Center, Jeanette shed tears while talking about how she can't "wait until the day when nobody can't tell me that this beautiful woman is not my wife." In every way that Kevin and Howard are squeamish about marrying, Jeanette and Kawane are confident.

It was a long and rough road that brought them to each other, especially for Jeanette, who was shunned when she came out by the church that was so important to her. "People literally turned their backs on me" when they saw her on the street, she says.

Like Kawane, she'd had a child during a brief relationship with a man. But she was struggling with substance abuse, and gave her son to her parents to raise when he was five.

Enlisting in the United States Army, Jeanette would serve as one of the first women in combat in the first Gulf War and become a sergeant, second class. But while she was working in military intelligence in 2001, she "was outed to my commanding officer, by an ex who wouldn't accept it when I wouldn't get back together with her." She was discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, six years shy of retirement.

Kawane also has a child, a 13-year-old daughter she had when she was "bisexual, doing the usual thing: trying to hide my sexuality from my family. The only relationship I ever had with a man was with my daughter's father. And that ended before she was even born."

They met when Jeanette "saw her on MySpace. I cyber-stalked her for a year."

"You didn't cyber-stalk me!"

"Yes, I did! When I see something that I want, I get it," Jeanette says. She kept messaging Kawane for a year, until she finally wrote back to her.

 

The first time they finally talked on the phone, they gabbed for hours. Jeanette was living in Indiana and working in an auto-parts store.

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."

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."

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.' "

He smiles wanly recounting the morbid catchphrase, but the humor is clearly a way to cope with a lot of grief.

"For years, I just buried all of that," he admits.

While actually getting married is unimportant to them, the right to get married has been just as urgent for Kevin and Howard as it has been for Jeanette and Kawane. They describe listening to George W. Bush call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in his 2004 State of the Union address as a wake-up call.

"Never before, I believe, had anyone tried to take rights away in a constitutional amendment," Howard says.

Prior to that speech, when the (now openly gay) White House Political Director Ken Mehlman was trying to use gays as election bait in swing states, "marriage wasn't something that was really on our radar," Kevin says. "I didn't ever think I'd ever be able to get married, any more than I ever thought I'd be able to grow a second head."

Plus, he adds, "we came of age in the '70s and '80s. Why, as gay people, would we want to replicate the straight world?"

But once Bush threw down the gauntlet and tried to keep marriage away from them, it was war.

"When someone tells me I can't do something," Kevin stresses, "I only have one response, and it usually involves one finger on one hand."

"Just try telling me I can't do something," Jeanette says, almost matching Kevin's language word for word. "They told me I couldn't serve, and we got Don't Ask, Don't Tell repealed, and I'm going back in someday. They told me I couldn't get married and we got that repealed. Next, we're going for [the Defense of Marriage Act]."

For Jeanette's birthday, the Tuesday before the New York Senate voted on marriage equality, Kawane had planned to treat Jeanette to "something nice and romantic." Instead, they took a bus to Albany to rally for marriage and lobby senators. (Jeanette says, "It was the best birthday I've ever had.")

On the night of June 24, the day of the big vote, Jeanette was at her job at the only 24-hour Starbucks in the city, near Times Square. Her manager told her, "'Your wife is on the phone.' And he handed me the phone, and she was crying and she said, 'Baby, they passed it.' "

Then Jeanette couldn't stop crying, and "had to go to the back and sit down for a half hour. I was a mess. I wasn't good for anybody."

The two men were no less anxious. Howard was at home, following events on television. And, despite the fact that he couldn't see much of what was happening on the floor, Kevin was seated in the Senate's gallery. He'd been camped out in the Capitol for days, vigorously lobbying for marriage with the group Queer Rising.

That night, Kevin was seated just a few yards from Brian Brown, the head of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. As the 33-to-29 passing vote was announced, Kevin stood up and cheered, as Brown put his head into his hands and began to weep.

Outside the chamber, in the cacophony of the Capitol's marble hallways, Kevin called his mom.

"Kevin?" she answered. "Are you in jail?!"

"No," he yelled to assure her over the din. He just wanted his 74-year-old mother to know that, for the first time ever, all four of her children had full-marriage equality in the states in which they resided.

 

And he "enjoyed playing the blind card" as he recounted that conversation in the elevator ride down, right in the face of Brian Brown (who assumed, as many do, that the legally blind man couldn't see anything at all).

After Kevin returned from Albany to the Chelsea co-op he shares with Howard and recuperated, the question of actually marrying each other never came up until their long interview with the Voice—not even while celebrating their ninth anniversary.

"I'm not sure why we haven't discussed it," Howard admits in front of Kevin. "When you're together so long, you stop talking," he says with a smile.

"Especially with the HIV, I wonder if we should get married," Howard adds, noting that they've spent a lot of money protecting themselves legally in ways that still aren't as binding as marriage.

"I mean, this was what we were fighting for, right?" he asks rhetorically. Any worries about their family respecting their union are "the exception, not the rule," so they're not too concerned on that front. Yet an hour at City Hall could have prevented every type of problem Howard ever had with his late partner Peter's family.

And yet, it's not so simple emotionally, and it's a step they're clearly not desiring right now. "We never did this saying, 'We're going to go out and marry right away,' " Howard says. "We won the right. Now, we have the choice."

Besides: "I was waiting for Kevin to bring it up."

Kevin hears this and replies, "Really? That's interesting," without adding more.

It turns out that although same-sex couples now have 1,324 new legal benefits in New York State, there are actually some big economic incentives for Kevin and Howard not to wed. Kevin receives state insurance for his disabilities, and marrying Howard would end that. While it would allow Kevin to go onto Howard's insurance plan, the co-payments for the drugs and procedures he needs could be prohibitive.

This is exactly the kind of conundrum cohabitating straight couples of certain means have had to face from time to time.

Another financial disincentive: Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, a New York marriage would not allow them to file joint federal tax returns, or to bequeath their Social Security to each other.

They entered the week leading into same-sex marriage Sunday vacationing on Fire Island, as ambivalent as ever. They did not break previous plans they had with friends on July 24 in order to watch people get married or counter protesters from Westboro Baptist Church near City Hall.

And, despite the fact that you can just walk down the street right now and stumble upon people getting married, they have not attended a single wedding since the Marriage Equality Act went into effect.

Four days before what they hoped would be their big celebration, there was no ambivalence in Jeanette and Kawane's household. They'd entered the city's lottery for a slot to be wed the first day the law went into effect, a Sunday, when offices would be opened specially.

On Thursday—just a day after their bachelorette party—they got a personal call from a city clerk telling them that they'd won a place.

The fact that everyone had won the lottery (823 couples applied for 764 slots, and the city vowed to accommodate them all) only made Jeanette happier.

"People have waited long enough," she says.

On that muggy Sunday morning, after Jeanette and Kawane received their marriage license without incident from the Manhattan Marriage Bureau, they waited outside on a bench in the oppressive July humidity. Kawane, taller than life, was wearing a white zoot suit, Jeanette a white dress that showed off her dream-catcher tattoo (an homage to her late Cherokee Chief grandfather).

Smoking a cigarette, Jeanette couldn't help but feel the euphoria of just about everyone—gay and straight—camped out in the circus that was Foley Square that day. Yet her feet hurt in her heels, and she grew impatient waiting for their minister to show up after Sunday service.

"Come on!" she said at one point. "I'm ready to get married already!"

She perked up when her "maid of honor," Lieutenant Dan Choi, arrived in his dress uniform. With their Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharge connection, "it means so much to me to have him here," she said, her lips quivering.

When the minister, Reverend Pat of Metropolitan Community Church, arrived, everything happened quickly. A crush of media descended upon them. Vows were exchanged quickly.

And after they finally kissed, Jeanette screamed toward the heavens, "We're married!"

For Kevin Beauchamp and Howard Orlick, it's not important that they get married in order for anyone to validate their relationship right now. For Kawane Harris and Jeanette Harris ("If straight people change their name, so can I"), it is important.

 

This is not to say that either couple loves or cares about each other more than the other. It's just that, for the first time ever, they both have a choice in how to express that love and commitment. Like straight people, they have a choice about the less sexy economic and legal consequences marriage will bring them, too.

And they've made the choice that works for them for now.

Jeanette and Kawane may have committed their lives to each other in civil matrimony on July 24, as hundreds of other same-sex couples did that day. There is no data to predict whether their chance of making it to the grave without getting divorced are any better or worse than the 50-50 odds straight couples face.

But despite not wedding, Kevin and Howard appear no less committed, and they seem as in it for the long haul with each other as they were when Kevin took care of his dying David and Howard took care of his dying Peter—till death did they part.

In fact, if you want a glimpse of how much Kevin and Howard care for one another, listen to them talk about each other's lost loves, which they do so intimately you can almost imagine the four men sitting in a room together, even though that never happened. Howard speaks passionately about the homophobia David faced from his family. Kevin talks indignantly about the pain of Peter's last days, as if he had been there to witness it.

And when you're listening to this, look into these blind men's eyes. Notice the twinkle that appears when they discuss the man their beloved loved, years before they even knew of each other's existence.

You will see that it reveals the same glimmer of love that Jeanette's and Kawane's eyes get when one talks about the child the other gave birth to, years before they even knew each other existed.

sthrasher@villagevoice.com       

C.S. Muncy

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