Last month I treated you all to a decidedly non-political personal celebration on the occasion of the eleventh anniversary of my relationship with my partner, TrapperSF. That seemed to go over well. Thanks to all of you who provided the congratulatory messages in response to it.
In the interest of keeping that first diary strictly on the personal level I did not note that our current relationship has not been legalized in any way, shape or form, apart from the ownership of a joint checking account and an enormous orange cat who is the actual ruler of the household.
While I was writing that diary it occurred to me that there was another one I perhaps ought to be writing...also a memoir, though of a time further in the past, and with just a touch more political content. Given that today is Valentine's Day and given that the Illinois State Senate is poised to vote on marriage equality, a brief look at the trajectory of love seems pertinent.
Beyond the fold (or the sleeping orange tabby, if you prefer), I'll tell you a bit more about my prior relationship and how that relationship became a small part of history.
I met my late partner Mario in October 1986, just a couple of weeks after I moved to San Francisco from Washington, DC. Unlike my prior relationship, which wasn't very healthy, beginning suddenly and ending precipitously after countless "break-ups" that never actually occurred, my relationship with Mario developed very gradually. At the outset we were casual acquaintances. Our first date, which I didn't know was actually a date, consisted of a movie that he asked me to see with him. It's entirely coincidental that our initial movie date took place on Valentine's Day of 1987. We went to a matinee showing of "The Black Widow" in which Sigourney Weaver had the title role.
Mario was cute; there was no doubt about it. Not so attractive as to provoke intimidation or obsession but certainly nice to look at. He had a bit of a baby-face, which let me to believe him when, upon our initial meeting, he told me he was a year younger than I was (he was not). While driving him home afterwards I recall rather clearly that I gave some thought as to whether or not I was "capital-A-attracted" to him or not, but the speculation didn't last long.
We began seeing movies on a regular basis, almost always a Saturday or Sunday matinee (low-risk kinds of things). Each of us was only recently out of long and turbulent relationships. I'd been with my ex, Bob for about six years; he'd been with his for fourteen. Neither of us was particularly anxious to jump right into something else. Mario was the one who broke the ice by telling me he was attracted to me. It was rather sweet; I was caught off guard and quite taken aback. It took me several weeks to decide how to respond, but eventually I admitted that the attraction was a mutual one.
I've mentioned in other diaries that Mario was a former IV-drug user and alcoholic; he began attending AA meetings in the mid-1970's but his success there had been distinctly limited. He later noted that this was both the reason he and his previous partner stayed together for so long and the reason they eventually broke up. Inconsistent sobriety makes it tough to make decisions and stick with them until perhaps someone just gets fed up. He was doing better by the time we met but he still had his moments of relapse, on of them during the course of our initial casual dating. Suddenly being unable to reach him by phone I realized how much he had grown on me and when he got back on track after a few days I announced my intentions and once he got back on track our relationship turned into a serious one. We finally managed our first kiss.
Now it's time to go back in time a bit for a history lesson, before proceeding onwards.
Back in 1982, San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, who replaced Harvey Milk on the city's Board of Supervisor when Milk was assassinated, successfully obtained approval of the nation's first domestic partner ordinance. Unfortunately it was vetoed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein. I was not a San Franciscan back then. The information I'm able to obtain suggests that she'd been pressured by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco into making that move. As a result San Francisco was not in the forefront when it came to the recognition of same-sex relationships. That honor fell to the City of West Hollywood which approved their own domestic partner ordinance in 1985. West Hollywood was undoubtedly helped out there; not only was it a small city, it was also brand new, having been incorporated the previous year; it is estimated that West Hollywood's population is perhaps 40% LGBT. Their original city council was mainly gay or lesbian. Nobody was going to to object.
Despite that early setback the SF Board of Supervisors tried again to pass a domestic partner ordinance and in 1989 it succeeded. By this time the City's mayor was the decidedly more gay-friendly Art Agnos who approved the legislation. Notwithstanding San Francisco's decades-long reputation as a gay mecca, not everyone in San Francisco is entirely accepting of sexual minorities opponents of equality. Back in the 80's, the unenlightened wielded far more power than they do today. The domestic partner ordinance was placed on the ballot. Many people, here and elsewhere, expected that the effort to overturn the ordinance would be unsuccessful and it's possible that they would have been correct had it not been for the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which struck three weeks before Election Day.
Although nobody openly suggested that the quake (which actually did far more damage to other cities than to San Francisco) was some sort of divine retribution for San Francisco's supposed transgression, opponents of the domestic partner ordinance were able to use the quake and the need to focus on recovery efforts as an excuse. It was claimed that the city shouldn't be focusing energy and money on "social engineering" when it needed to devote its attention to rebuilding or replacing what had been destroyed in the quake. It's unclear how much this argument held sway, how much was the fault of the gay community's lack of preparation for a battle that probably only became real at the last minute, and how much was simply a matter of lingering conservatism. The outcome was that the domestic partnership ordinance was overturned by a relatively narrow margin, 50.5% to 49.5%. So we did the same thing that the citizens of Maine did more recently. We went back to the voters the following year. And this time we won convincingly with almost 55% of the vote in our favor. The ordinance was scheduled to take effect on February 14, 1991.
Domestic partnership ordinances like the one San Francisco instituted back then now seem quaint, if not downright retrogressive. As we've seen in states like Rhode Island, Delaware and New Jersey, offering LGBT citizens something less than full marriage equality when marriage equality is available elsewhere is simply not going to fly. But in its time, San Francisco's law was quite forward-looking even though the bundle of rights it offered was extraordinarily limited.
Throughout this period of time my relationship with Mario moved along with the occasional setback. In 1989 I decided to have a birthday party for myself, which Mario catered (he was a trained chef). We took a vacation together the following month...a drive down the California coast to Big Sur, the Hearst Castle, Santa Barbara and San Diego with a stop at Disneyland on the way home. Mario had lived in and around Santa Barbara from the mid-70's to the early 80's so spending time there was a treat for him.
Our relationship took a final detour the following January. Some people find the occasional use of drugs and alcohol to be amusing; some find that mild intoxication makes them more sociable. Mario was not one of those people. He was very depressed about his HIV status and while his health had been okay up to that point he was still very pessimistic about what might happen to him in the future. This precipitated that final relapse which was a pretty scary one for both of us. He had himself admitted to an in-patient treatment program. When he graduated six months later, we decided it was time to move in together. For this move we actually had to get the approval of the head of his treatment program, who was more than happy to give after he'd determined that Mario would be moving into a safe, alcohol and drug free environment. We found a lovely upstairs flat in the Castro and set up housekeeping in October 1990. We were pretty darned happy, even if our roof sometimes leaked.
The following month, San Francisco's domestic partnership ordinance was reinstated by ballot measure. As the day for its implementation approached quite a few of our friends decided that they wanted to "legalize" their relationships. We were undecided through the period before the official date. Like many men (gay or straight) we were perhaps just a wee bit fearful of commitment...Mario probably a bit more so than I. On the other hand, given the limited scope of the law I don't think I worried too much about biting off more than I could chew. And hell...we were both on the verge of turning forty. Time to settle down already, right?
One the morning of Valentine's Day we woke up and got ready for work. I don't recall exactly what pushed us over the line though I suspect it was a call from one or another of our friends either gleefully announcing their engagement with commitment ceremony to follow later the same day, or whether someone we knew had asked us just what we intended to do ourselves. Furthermore, I'd known I was HIV-positive since 1985; Mario had tested positive as well in 1988 and his immune system was already significantly impaired such that he began taking HIV medication immediately afterwards. Our friends were dying on a regular basis and we had no way of knowing how much time remained for either of us. We did wait until the last minute though; I think I may have called him from work and asked him if he wanted to take the plunge with me that day.
At the time I worked in the Civic Center, only a block or so from San Francisco City Hall. Mario worked downtown but got off from work earlier than I did. We agreed to meet at the City Hall steps (I'd passed by during my lunch break as couples entered and exited) at around 4:30. Although there the domestic partnership ordinance mandated an official registry, as far as I can recall nothing similar to a marriage license was to be offered...except on that day. We were among the final few couples to arrive in time to become domestic partners that day.
During the process we were given a small pamphlet which I seem to have misplaced, unfortunately, over the ensuing 22 years. One of the interesting aspects of that pamphlets is that while it did document certain specific rights and benefits, they were few, far between and rather minimal. Given the concern with the effects of HIV and AIDS at the time there was a fair amount of emphasis given to obligations to care for one's partner in the case that the partner were unable to care for himself or herself. There was even the suggestion that that responsibility could be litigated over if need be. Mario always loved the idea of being "taken care of" and he told me when he was tickled by the idea of being able to sue me for support.
For the most part however, the guidelines were filled with limitations, caveats, "perhapses" and "maybes." Nobody really knew what legal effect a registered domestic partnership would have, whether the purported benefits held any real weight, whether they'd stand up in court. One thing that was abundantly clear is that the effect of our partnership was limited to the City and County of San Francisco. A trip to visit his family in the Antioch (an hour east of San Francisco) or my parents in Walnut Creek (a bit closer) would void any legal liability either of us had for the other's well-being. Despite all that it was a step, a small step, in the right direction albeit one that has been overtaken by subsequent events.
We were happy to have that piece of paper, which still sits, framed, on one of my bookcases. I'm glad we did what we did when we did it. Thirteen months later Mario suffered his first hospitalization due to an AIDS-related opportunistic infection; less than nine months after that he passed away. During his hospitalizations I was lucky that I never encountered any difficulties visiting him; in fact the hospital where he stayed was gracious in providing visitation rights to anyone designated by the patient at any hour of the day or night. It helped that that particular hospital was (and is) located at the edge of the Castro District, close enough to where we lived that I could walk it if necessary.
After Mario became ill he gave me power of attorney for his finances and for his healthcare. We were lucky in that his parents fully supported this move and were in general extremely supportive of our relationship. Not every gay couple was that lucky back then or, for that matter, today, in states that don't provide at least some legal recognition for same-sex relationships.
Once he became ill Mario left his job on permanent disability which provided him with enough income to help out with the basic household expenses. We did receive a grant from the AIDS Emergency Fund for a one-time partial rent payment (it arrived, ironically, the day after he passed away). Still there were medical bills and other loose ends left over after he died. As executor of his estate I had to prioritize what bills to pay and which ones to ignore. I certainly paid what I could but Mario was not a high wage-earner; there wasn't much left over after the checks stopped coming and not all of the bills could be paid. I had to file his final federal and state income taxes. At least one return resulted in an outstanding balance. I have to confess I felt a certain sort of glee in being able to accompany the return with a letter stating that all of the funds from his estate had been disbursed. Had we been legally married I'd have happily paid the outstanding balances of all of his debts. But that was not a possibility then, nor (thanks to Prop 8) would it be now.
I loved Mario. He loved me. If we'd been able to get married, we'd have done it. Not every relationship can or should result in marriage but I know its something Mario would have wanted for us if it had been available. It might not have kept him alive any longer than our actual situation did but it would have provided a level of comfort, recognition and, yes, responsibility we both understood and would have been willing to undertake.
Each relationship is different. Would Trapper and I get married to day if we could? Probably not. This is a different situation from the one Mario and I were in. Because of DOMA, us getting married would actually be a very poor decision from a practical perspective. As for becoming domestic partners, that was yesterday's advance. As the courts have determined over and over again, a domestic partnership is not a marriage no matter how much some would like it to be. As nobody seems to want to observe in public, were DOMA to be overturned tomorrow it would not help those couples in domestic partnerships or civil unions not one bit. Because they aren't married.
To end on a bit more personal and intimate note, many folks seem to think that the move towards marriage equality is something that's come about since the late 1990's or later but I can assure you it was on my mind even in 1991 when Mario and I and hundreds of other gay and lesbian couples took that first small step towards equality.