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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Write to Marry Day: My Story

I've been overwhelmed with my real job lately, not to mention a bad cold, so I've not blogged here in several weeks. Which is no great loss to the world, as I can't keep up with the professional bloggers anyway, especially with all the election-campaign stories coming out so fast and furious these days. But today I found a good reason to take a little time to make another post here in the Blue Truck: Write to Marry Day.

All gay people should understand how absolutely vital it is that California’s Proposition 8 go down in defeat next Tuesday; this is the big, fat turning point in our struggle for equal rights and the equal protection of the laws. If the California Supreme Court’s beautifully well-reasoned ruling on the constitutional issue is allowed to stand, many other states will follow suit. If it is overturned by the hateful forces promoting Prop 8, our struggle may be set back for another generation. That must not happen; happiness, security, and dignity must not be denied to millions of gay people, as it has been for most of my life. The changing legal and social landscape for gays may not benefit me much at this late stage of my life, but it’s high time the old laws and old attitudes changed, forever; changed for good.

In support of Write to Marry Day, all I know to do is share my particular story to show why equal marriage is so important to me; it’s not just a pretty phrase, a nice idea. It’s a fundamental right that bears directly on not only matters of love, but also money, property, inheritance, taxes, pensions, rights and responsibilities – all the real-world practical matters that give love a place to root itself, bloom, and grow. It’s not an abstract idea: it’s concrete protection for everyone who loves another of the same gender.

Here’s my story, for what it’s worth to anyone; a very small and perhaps insignificant story in the scheme of the universe, but part of the bigger picture of equal rights for all queer people.

In 1998, my late partner Cody and I met online and from the first time we talked, we both recognized something very special in each other. Though we lived a thousand miles apart, we carried on a year-long courtship by computer and telephone, running up some truly huge long-distance bills with our daily talks. We visited back and forth in person several times, too.

Finally we felt ready to take the big leap and make the big commitment – for life. We spoke the marriage service to each other; at that time, gay marriage and civil unions were still not on the radar for us Southern boys. But we felt secure making our vows privately; we were both in our 40’s and we both had loved and lost before. We meant all that we promised.

Because he had a family, a business, and a house, and I had none of those things, I made the move to be with him in a little Texas town far out on the prairie, population 5,000. All of my family was dead and gone by this time, but one side was Texan, so it wasn’t a huge culture shock, and I’d lived in small towns before. Though I gave up a secure civil-service job, a decent paycheck, and significant seniority, I was happy to love and be loved, to have a home to come back to each night, not just an empty apartment. And the moment I arrived and walked through the door, the very first thing Cody did was hand me a key to the house, saying “This is your home.” And from that moment, it was, and I knew it was worth all I’d left behind to be here with the man I loved, the man who loved me.

Over the next five years, we had our ups and downs like any couple, but on balance the good outweighed the bad; and we were very happy together, living a quiet, respectable life like any of our neighbors, paying our bills, paying our taxes, volunteering in community projects, keeping the grass cut and the shades drawn at night. Because my husband was the organist at the local Methodist Church, we were even in church every Sunday. Just like all the straight couples in town, old and young. And after church each week, we ate a big dinner with his parents at a local restaurant, and for every single holiday we were front and center at his sister’s house, bringing our share of cookery and goodies to share with the whole family, and his sister's crowd of children and grandchildren.

It was a good life: quiet, predictable, far from the madding crowd. Secure—I thought. Though time and again over those five years, I warned him that we really, really needed to make wills and other legal documents. I’d already made him the beneficiary of all my life insurance and pension plans. But he was an artist, not an accountant; he would always reply, “I’m working on it, just give me a little time.” But he never did get around to changing his life insurance or doing any of the other legal necessities to protect me in case something happened to him. Not that we could imagine any such tragedy actually occurring; and as he repeatedly assured me, “Oh my family loves you; they would never be unkind to you.” And they themselves all said to my face, “Oh we love you, you’re part of our family.” Right.

I was deeply skeptical; I had already seen what happened in my own family when my father had died without a will, back when I was in high school. And Cody had been brusquely disregarded and overwhelmed by the cruelty of his first partner’s family when he had died, ten years before. But Cody kept assuring me nothing like that could ever happen with his own family; and of course we couldn’t bear to think fate would part us, not after having taken so long to find each other and create a loving life and home together.

Well. One day, between midnight and morning, the unthinkable suddenly happened and our happy little world disappeared: my darling man died of a completely unexpected heart attack, age 54. And just as suddenly, his sweet, loving, accepting family turned sour and menacing, just as I’d feared. I woke the next morning to find myself alone in a homophobic small town, without friends, without family, without help, without any recourse to the laws. As far as the laws of the great Lone Star State were concerned, I was no more than a stranger living in Cody’s house – for it was in his name only. And as a local attorney informed me, Texas law would allow the family to evict me in only three days’ time. The law was utterly indifferent to my protection, as if I were a wild beast.

So were the townspeople; a few were genuinely sympathetic and a couple of folks even brought me some platters of food, as the Southern custom is. But so many at the viewing, at the funeral, and even at the graveside service, ignored me as if I were not there – pretended not to notice my presence, did not shake my hand, look me in the eye, offer a single word of condolence. Walked between me and my husband’s open grave, passing by not 12 inches away from me, and didn’t even glance at me – all those good Christian people. What contempt. They knew who I was; for more than five years, Cody and I had done everything together in this tiny town, where he had lived his entire life. Of course we didn’t hold hands or kiss or do anything “shocking”; we wore jeans and flannel shirts and cowboy boots like everyone else, we fit in, we did the whole Uncle Tom routine, as I realize now. We were “good,” we “behaved,” we didn’t “flaunt” ourselves.

But everyone knew. And after all that, my reward was to be – despised, sneered at, ignored, cold-shouldered. Yet none of them would have behaved that way at the funeral of the lowest dope dealer or wife beater in town. It was a real Damascus Road experience for me, standing there by his casket, and at his grave. The scales fell from my eyes. I'd always thought that somehow if people knew me, knew us, up close, they would understand and accept. But this is the South, my beautiful, terrible, tragic native land: I should have known better.

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, his family started in on me with the accusations and the grievances and the demands. Had we been a straight couple, the laws of Texas would have given all of Cody’s assets, including the house, to me when he died without a will. But because I was a man, not a woman, I was entitled to nothing whatsoever, not a cup or a pencil or a shirt button, not even the little dog. And his family could walk in at any moment and cart off anything they pleased, claiming it was Cody’s, even my own furniture and clothes – if I called the police, who do you think they would believe: me, the queer outsider, or them, the good, Christian, long-time local residents? The handwriting on the wall was very plain.

Though it wasn't really about the money, the house, the car, all that: the little house was all paid for, but it was a small house in a tiny town. Cody's estate was not large, we were at the lower range of the middle class. What it was about was protection for me, left all alone suddenly in the middle of nowhere, in a place where I didn't belong anymore. Protection; dignity; respect. That's what it was and is all about, and that's what was completely lacking. His family were already coming in the house while I was at work, though they promised with straight faces they would never do that, and combing through our things, and indeed took some things without asking. One morning his car was suddenly gone from the driveway, taken off to be sold. How long would it be till I came home from work one day to find a padlock on the door?

The spite, the malice, the contempt grew from day to day. By force of will, I had held myself together through all the making of funeral arrangements, that long, stunned first day of grief. When we finally got to see Cody lying in his casket in a private viewing, I suddenly broke down, couldn't control myself for a couple of minutes, crying and sobbing. His parents, his sister and brother in law, their adult children and spouses, eight close relatives were all right there around me. And not one of them moved to comfort me, embrace me, lay a hand on my shoulder, or say a single kind word. Not one of them.

I asked very politely if I could put my husband's wedding ring on his finger, after the funeral, at the very last moment before the casket was closed so no one else would see. They refused me, point blank.

We had never worn our rings, being "good boys" and not wanting to "embarrass" the family. I started wearing mine, now that he was dead; what could it matter now? But I was ordered not to wear that ring. Of course, I kept on wearing it.

I was ordered not to cry at his funeral. Of course, I behaved with all the dignity I could muster--but because it was the right thing to do, not because of them. When I couldn't help weeping, I covered my face with my hand; but not because of them.

The Sunday after he was buried, I asked the preacher at our church to let me thank the congregation from the pulpit for their kindness to me and "my wonderful Cody." The family weren't there that day, but before the day was out I got a blistering phone call, reprimanding me for making a public statement of affection like that, and ordering me never to do such a thing again in "their town." Which apparently they thought they owned.

You can see that this situation could not last. Cody had been treated the same way after his first partner died; and so have many other gay Texans. This, and much worse than this, is typical, not unusual, for Texas families--the very same ones who are so proud to be Christians and Americans, as their church signs all say.

Fortunately, it just so happened that by the time Cody died, I had somehow managed to accumulate a little money in a savings account. After the funeral, when the ugly, ugly confrontations and conversations with his family began, it didn’t take long for me to get the drift of where that situation was going. So I thought, better to make a clean break and leave before they got the sheriff to set me on the curb with only the clothes on my back.

So I packed up the truck with my clothes and computer and other necessary things, and with only our little dog for company – and technically, he was not my property, they could have taken him away from me too – we left in the middle of the night, in the freezing cold, driving miles and miles through the darkness to another town, another county. Just a few days before, I’d gone to sleep in our bed, in our home, thinking all was right with the world; suddenly, my little dog and I had no home – we belonged nowhere now. There was no one anywhere to take us in.

Before dawn broke, we holed up in a motel, nowhere to go, and I felt just like a homeless man with all his belongings balled up in cardboard boxes and garbage bags. I’ll never forget that feeling of being all alone, save my faithful little dog, without friends, without resources, without protection. Invisible in the eyes of the law, and at the mercy of an irrational, self-righteous bunch of Christianists.

Twenty-four hours later, I returned with a moving van and a crew of hired movers--thank God I had a little cash on hand--who in just four hours packed, stacked, and loaded all my possessions and got them out of town. I followed shortly with my own truck loaded again with the very last pieces of our life together. On the way out of town, I passed a church with a big sign out front: “A Christian Family Is A Treasure.” The irony was not lost on me.

Well to wrap up what is not, after all, a terribly dramatic story to anyone but me, I was lucky enough to find a nice little house to rent, with a big fenced yard for the little dog to play safely in; and within 10 days, we were settling in to a new home and a new life without Cody. It’s a shorter drive to my job from here, and it pays me well enough to live a quiet, modest life with a few bucks left over at the end of the month: so I have all I really need, and a few of life’s small luxuries too. For all that, I’m grateful.

Though it was a horrifying, deeply upsetting experience for me, fortunately, nothing truly terrible happened – except the realization that there is no American Dream for a gay couple in Texas; there is no life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, no equal justice under law if you are queer in the Lone Star State. They can’t lock us up anymore, thanks to the momentous ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, 2003; but as far as 3 out of 4 Texans are concerned (the number who voted for a state constitutional amendment banning all forms of gay unions in 2006; and actually 9 out of 10 in these rural counties), our relationships are no more important than a dog’s or a cow’s. They simply don’t exist, legally or socially. We gay people are lower, in their estimation, than blacks, Indians, or Mexicans – and that’s saying a lot. Trust me.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on all this since Cody died; and I am quite certain that nothing less than equal marriage will ever change this state of affairs; because people here, and anywhere else you care to mention, simply Will.Not.Respect. anything else. There is just no substitute for equal dignity and respect, and nothing less than equal marriage will bring that to pass. I remember vividly the rigidly segregated South of my childhood, the separate drinking fountains, the separate bathrooms and entrances and schools and libraries and neighborhoods, all of it. None of that would have ever changed, if the laws had not been changed first.

As it was with African-Americans, so it is with gays. Change must come; and though it may come too late to make a difference in my life, it will make a huge, huge difference in the lives of many millions of gay men and women in the generations to come. I hope I live to see the day when Texas sheds its hateful past and truly embraces the real American Dream: liberty and justice for all.


Devin Tait said...

This was such a touching story. My heart goes out to you. Thanks for sharing with us, I wish the best for you, and I truly wish so much that Proposition 8 does not pass.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment, bud. We're all counting on you CA boys to get the vote out in our favor next Tuesday!


Doorman-Priest said...

Deeply moving Russ. It makes me ashamed to be a Christian. All I can offer is "Not in my name!"

Decorina said...

A beautifully written tragic story. So sad that the self proclaimed xians can be so brutally hypocritical.

I was in CA and saw an ad for Prop 8 on TV. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The horror of their hypocritical ways.

I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. Cody sounds like a wonderful man.

Frank said...

Very sorry for your loss and for what you went through. I am not convinced that legalizing same gender marriage, will change people's hatred and prejudice. In a way it is wishful thinking; is it just another way to try fitting in? to be like straight folk? to be legitimate? To those who consider themselves morally superior, we will always be outcasts. But the legal protections of marriage are desperately needed to prevent the despicable actions of people like those you described.

Unknown said...

my sincere condolenses on those tragic events :(
i have a bf who is tied to the south (he's in Oklahoma - 1600miles away from Massachusetts) because of him being a rancher, and it's unfortunately true that things are what they are down there. i really love him so much, but unless he gets off that ranch and finds other work, i'll never get to live with him. in my case, I'm nowhere thinking of marriage, because just being with him is enough for me, but still, i fantasize about getting to live with him and be happy. and it makes me so sad sometimes that that has to stay in my head with currently no hope of becoming a reality.

but ya, fuck those Christians who think they're so damn good. they're no better than anyone else. it's just a muse they hide behind and use to their advantage thanks to the old ways, which i agree need to be banished. but at the same time, gays will never really win the equality fight, essentially everyone against the idea will just die off, leaving us to win by default.

anyways, sorry for ragging on like that. i just really sympathize with you and your story. and even though i'm only 23, i understand everything you went through. and i agree with PDeF here - i wish there had been some or any laws on your side at that time.

Craig said...

I've only now read this blog post and to say that I was both horrified, depressed and touched by it would be an understatement. Good on you for picking up your life. That part of southern culture is deeply worrying. Us gay couples in Europe, with our gay friendly laws, don't know how lucky we are.

Josh Thomas said...

All I can add is this: I downloaded the photo of you and Cody, and put it in my Romance folder. I've got hundreds of beautiful shots in there - including, now (March 2012) one called "Welcome Home, Marine" - depictions of love I look at occasionally as bedtime approaches.

I know Cody lives in your heart, until you meet again. And now, because of your writing, the two of you live in mine as well.

Russ Manley said...

Thanks for your kind thoughts, appreciate ya Josh.

June Butler said...

Only just now did I see the link to "My Story", Russ. Maybe you don't think your story is dramatic, but your tale touched my heart so that it made me cry. That's drama.

If only people could see that when two people commit to each other in love, it doesn't matter if it's two men, two women, or a man and a woman. Love is love.

Russ Manley said...

Love is love - yes, that's just the point. Thanks for reading and caring, Mimi.

Leonard said...

BIG GULP (for you and for me)! Thank you for sharing your story...I'm Leonard/Leonardo and I live in Guatemala. My partner was murdered over 13 years ago...he was from a prominent Guatemalan family...I became invisible and worse, they even lied about the time/place of the funeral mass so I would go to a different Church in a different Zone. I arrived late and stood outside in the back...same at the cemetery...a lost and mostly ignored soul amongst hundreds...I could hear the sound of the brickmasons sealing up his crypt. His family stripped me of all the things that were OURS but not in my name. I didn't exist...but, I did survive...like you, one foot in front of the other and not looking from side to side...survival miracles happen but, to tell you frankly, at the time I didn't care if I lived or died. Best to you brother, Len

Russ Manley said...

Well you too know how it feels to be the invisible man, a nobody who doesn't belong and doesn't count. Thanks for sharing that with me, Leonardo, and God bless.

JCF said...

I am very, VERY late here, Russ---but I just wanted to HONOR your (and your beloved Cody's) story.

And to think you wrote it right before PropH8. What a wild&crazy&infuriating ride it's been.

But---with the help of Judge Vaughn, and the 9th Circuit, and SCOTUS---WE WON!!!

I'm sure the victories of the past few weeks and months brought (bigger) smiles to a lot of angels in heaven---including Cody.

Peace to you. [And may we both find love again.]

Russ Manley said...

Yes, the country has moved at breathtaking speed towards equality in the last few years, though of course much work yet remains to do.

Thanks for your kind thoughts, bro, and peace to you too.

Irishman in Amsterdam. said...

Hi Russ,

Hello from Amsterdam. I have been reading your blog for a year or two now. I only got to read your story this evening.Writing this I have a tear in my eye. I grew up in Catholic Ireland as a gay teenager in the 70's. No one to talk to ,Who am I ? what am I ?...Blah Blah. All the double standard talk of the church. The priests were telling you one thing from the pulpit and practicing another if not abusing children. The world knows this story.Thank god that times have changed even in Ireland to be gay is NORMAL!!
Keep up your blog, I enjoy reading it and especially your waiting for the weekend show !! The pictures are very disturbing when wearing tight wranglers. Keep on Trucking.

Russ Manley said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Paul - glad to have you riding along in the Blue Truck.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon your blog. I don't remember how I found it. I read your story and it made me very sad for you. You have been through hell, and I admire for you how you've managed to keep on going. I started my blog years ago as a type of therapy for myself. I am late coming to your blog, but I do hope that you continue to post. You have insights to share that are good. I can tell just by reading a few of your more recent posts.


Russ Manley said...

Thanks Michael, appreciate ya.

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