William (Bill) E. Kelly
San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez (who is associate publisher of LGBTQ San Diego County News) approached me about a potential series of articles highlighting the real-life multicultural and intergenerational perspectives and experiences of same-sex love relationships. Nicole asked if I would talk about my own journey with my husband, Bob, over the past four decades. Hoping my reflections will encourage others to open up and share their own rich stories of love and commitment, I agreed. So, here I go….
Comparing my experiences with others is not the objective. Recalling the journey we began a lifetime ago is intended for those on or yet to take that journey. It is a reminder that the vigilance and proactive efforts of decades past are as necessary today as they were then. Protecting the rights and freedoms won through the sacrifices of others are not a permanent guarantee. Without continued proactive vigilance they can be quickly lost.
The journey of love has no universal road map or guide book. Bob and I began ours in Chicago on a snowy Friday, Jan. 5, 1979. We were to celebrate our eight-month anniversary dinner as a couple and commit to each other without ceremony. We would excitedly discuss where we would live, finances, expectations, dreams and the years ahead of us. But we were in for a stark reality check. That very day, Bob’s employer informed him that he would be spending the next two years working at their branches in Rome and Milan, Italy. For many same-sex American “newlyweds” today, that news would be challenging but exciting. It would be a rare, once-in-a-life-time opportunity — a prolonged honeymoon. The employer would pay to move them, provide housing and assist the spouse with finding a job. But in 1979, even a hint of our relationship would get Bob and I fired on the spot. We could not afford and dare not let on with either of our employers the difficult decisions this forced on us. Forty-one years ago, the doors to the dank dark closets were kept tightly closed and we dare not let others see us just as we truly were: a loving, dedicated and committed same-sex couple in pursuit of happiness.
In those years, societal views and treatment of such relationships, sexual fluidly, sexuality and sex in general were most acutely hostile and threatening. Survival meant living dual lives and faking heterosexuality. Our true selves could not be acknowledged except by night and/or behind closed doors. Ours was the era of code words and signals, gay ghettos, back alley bars without windows, bar raids, assaults, insults and arrests. Avoiding bullying, beatings, discrimination, jail, job loss and careers denied required absolute discretion and secrecy. It was much more common to be disowned and rejected by heterosexual counterparts, i.e. family, neighbors, teachers, co-workers, pious religious leaders and “friends” could toss you aside like yesterday’s garbage.
Bob was going to be 7,000 miles away. Email capabilities, cell phones or computerized social networks had not been invented. Expensive employer-paid visits between us would not be offered. Communications would consist of a rare and very expensive phone call requiring a long-distance operator to arrange. I would wait for hours to get a call from an operator on my landline telling me a connection had been made. It meant we could hear a few echoing, stammering words from each other. If not lost, stolen or damaged in transit, letters and packages would take up to six weeks to arrive. But our best hope to keep our fire burning was the daily letters, cards and voice-recorded cassette tapes we sent each other, all of them still neatly preserved in notebooks and on more than 160 hours of cassette tape recordings. (Display in the LGBT history exhibit.)
When Bob arrived at the restaurant that January night, the conversation quickly became a somber discussion of what was to come. I would learn Bob had 24 hours to accept or reject the offer. He had focused on international trade and business and earned business and international business degrees from two of the most prestigious schools, Stanford University and the University of Chicago. He had even learned Italian and spent a year as an exchange student at a high school in Italy. His entire life he had prepared for this opportunity — but what about us?
When he asked me what he should do, everything in me wanted to tell him I couldn‘t promise I would be there when he returned or that the love we were feeling would survive the test. Yet I knew I needed to support him. He needed to accept the assignment. The risk of words of resentment expressed in the heat of some future disagreement such as “I gave all that up for you!” was a threat. We couldn’t risk a cloud like that hanging over us just waiting to rain on our parade.
My dearest friends grimace when I tell them that gay or straight, the intensity of sexual pleasure is never as intense as that first few minutes, hours, weeks, months or years. Whether as men and/or women who feel love, it is an initial attraction of sexual and emotional chemistry that brings you together. That said, chemistry is frequently mistaken for true love of heart, body and soul. The simple and beautiful truth is that love survives the trials and tests of time only with determination, devotion and dedication. True love and what one feels in their heart, mind and soul only intensifies with time. It is the superglue that cements you and enables you to defy anything or anyone that would break you.
In closing, love is something to be treasured, protected and allowed to live aloud otherwise hate will surely devour it. Our seven secrets and reflections for (and on) living our 41-year love relationship:
- Physical appearances excite and are a key to initial attraction but looks fade, so be sure you choose someone who speaks to the heart and soul of who you are and shares your values.
- Seek someone that keeps life interesting. (We found that we were opposite in so many ways other than our core values but complimented each other. I often say that if it were not for Bob, I would spin out of control and if it weren’t for me, he would have cobwebs covering him. It is an exaggeration of the reality that holds much truth and is the superglue that creates our unbreakable bond.)
- Talk about anything and everything truthfully without judgement.
- Your special someone’s objectionable behaviors must be overshadowed by why you love them.
- Always say good morning and good night with a kiss.
- Accept that many of the disagreements you have today will be the same ones you have in the years ahead. The good news is that you will begin to laugh before the pot boils over because you know how they will always end.
- Most of all, be aware that once you say or do anything, it cannot just be erased.