By Randolfe Wicker
I would be a hypocrite if I didn't confess to having been involved in two marriages in my life. The first one was a "legally entangled" affair orchestrated by a liberal heterosexual lawyer.
It was an eight-year affair. We met in 1964. We planned on moving to Los Angeles but I stayed in NYC while he finished school. By 1967, he had graduated but my hobby of issuing slogan buttons had turned into a budding business venture.
It was my business. I had about three thousand dollars left of an inheritance from that (to all but me) great American benefactor, a “Great Uncle” I barely knew. My lawyer, past president of the local ACLU or Democratic Club, or both, thought that we should “be joined” in this (my) quest.
Well, to make a long story short, since we were “legally entangled” through joint ownership of the corporation, I ultimately had to “buy him out”. With thousands of dollars in his pocket, he bought a ticket to Israel, where he intended to visit an old friend from his college days, a ticket with so many stopovers on route that it literally stretched from his upheld hand all the way to the floor.
For the next year, I would slave away at liquidating a business whose time had passed while he toured Europe in high style. This was before the very idea of “palimony” but I ended up paying it big time. Towards the end of our relationship, Peter and I had the great adventure of videotaping an action by the Gay Activists Alliance in which they took over the NYC Marriage Bureau and threw an “engagement party” for two gay couples.
GAA activists spread out through the building, giving out invitations to all the civil servants working there, “to come up and join the celebration” of two gay unions (free coffee and cake) in the NYC Marriage Bureau offices.
And, indeed, many did come. It was quite a theatrical event. I've submitted this videotape to the annual film/videotape festival for consideration of inclusion in this year's program but have had no response to date. Frankly, I really don't care. It is a vibrant and precious piece of history. Those who saw it at the GAA Firehouse were nearly deafening in their applause. It will live on as a historic document.
No lawyers were involved. It was just him and me. I was at that time living on the profits of the button shop. I tried a “diet magazine” and it failed.
I had videotaped the “drag wedding” of John Wojtowicz to Liz Eden. After John tried to rob a bank and became a celebrity, I negotiated the contract between the producer and the family of the movie that ultimately became known as Dog Day Afternoon.
Meanwhile, I was driving a cab to pay the monthly bills and David worked in a local antique shop where the owner, rather than paying him in cash, would frequently give him some merchandise instead.
We had a huge seven-room, 2,950 square foot rent-controlled apartment for a mere $221.93 per month. It was “too good to last” and it didn't. The building fell into receivership. Ultimately, we moved out.
In the meantime, however, I had taken a lease on a small shop in West Village, at 506 Hudson Street, where I now sit writing this story. The rent was $165 a month. Today, after absorbing the shop next door, the rent is $5000.00 a month.
David, who got me into the antique business, and who (thanks to the lack of lawyers) had no claim on the store actually “donated” the first stock. We simply emptied our huge apartment to stock our shop. To make a long story shorter, our antique shop was a success. Once I “offered” to put David on the lease. However, in what he later considered the “greatest mistake of my life” he was too busy on the disco circuit to be bothered.
Ours was what some psychologists call a “conflict-oriented” relationship. We fought a lot. We had different tastes in antiques. He wanted to buy beautiful things and keep them forever. I was the businessman who realized that we were in a “bottom-line” business of buying and selling.
There were times in our stormy 18-year relationship that we parted company. A heterosexual employee called it “the longest running divorce in the history of Greenwich Village”. His description was a good one.
When a young heterosexual insurance salesman came by, I told him that I'd like to be a customer but since I was located in Greenwich Village, was involved in a gay relationship with someone I thought might have AIDS, I really didn't think we would ever be approved.
The salesman, to my surprise, couldn't care less about possible claims. He only wanted to sell insurance. If we “could get approved” he would get his commission. He was especially helpful in filling out the forms.
“No, you don't want to make each other beneficiaries 'in case of death'” he counseled. “That will raise a red flag at the insurance company. Make the “beneficiary” on the policy “your estate”.
Enter another marvelous heterosexual insurance advisor. “Yes,” he counseled, “put down that David felt tired and went to the Jersey City Medical Center for tests, that the doctor wanted David to come back for further tests, but that David never returned.” That way, they couldn't cancel our insurance once it was approved.
It was approved. For three or four years I paid the premiums and kept David on the books. All the time, he was living in a garden apartment a couple blocks from our legal residence in Hoboken.
I was “true” to my vows. No lawyer was necessary to enforce them. I was taking care of the love of my life. Finally, in the summer of 1989, his lung collapsed. We went to the hospital and the diagnosis was made official.
At that time, had we been legally “married” and I hadn't succeeded in obtaining insurance, I would have been liable for all his medical bills. Today, I wouldn't be writing you this letter from my Manhattan store. The Federal Government or some bank would own it because of medical bills.
Now, I can understand the political posturing of our “official advocates” in the political arena. They demand “full equality”. Like, really, could you say that we'll settle for sitting “on the back 2/3s of the bus?”.
But the reality is that the “obligations” of marriage have been ignored or lost in this debate. Our spokespeople demand “the benefits” of marriage. Don't they realize how many gay couples are able to receive Medicaid, SSI, etc. simply because “society” sees them as “single people” with no visible means of support?
Forgive me if I jump around in time frames here. I'm 62 years old and have outlived most of my contemporaries and the majority of the following generation as well. I have learned a few things and I have a broader time-frame perspective on this issue than many.
When Marc Rubin was laying out the “agenda” for the takeover of the NYC Marriage Bureau in 1971 or 1972, he made it quite clear to those participating that “Gay marriage is not the issue here!” The gay movement, at that time, was quite divided on the “marriage” issue.
Most activists argued that gays should not “fall into the trap” of copying heterosexual formulas in their relationships. We were a new visionary people. We didn't have to worry about “consequences” of sex like reproduction. We were free of all that! Liberation was about “freedom”. You could have all the sexual partners you wanted, for as long or short a time as suited you, and “that” was what “gay liberation” was all about!
It might have sounded good at the time. From my point of view, many gay males (more than females) got lost in promiscuity. In the end, “excess of freedom” brought us the AIDS epidemic.
To everyone's surprise, AIDS did not turn us into “moral lepers” but actually turned us into “pathetic dying human beings”. We found that there was more compassion than hate in the hearts of most heterosexuals.
David's quilt designed by Randolfe and lovingly sewn by hand by Randy's mother, 1990
Now, we were an open and recognized minority. “Acceptance” was not enough. We wanted “full equality”! And what is the ultimate standard of “full equality” for a bunch of people who have been labeled sinners, mentally ill misfits, criminals, etc.?
Simply put, it means having “your relationships” given the same approved status that others (heterosexuals) have for their relationships. It is called, legally speaking, “marriage”.
Quentin Crisp had a great line I can't quote verbatim which went something like: “Marriage has made heterosexuals miserable for the past two hundred years and now it seems gays want to join them in their misery”.
Well, the judiciary of Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont have all sided with gay couples seeking “admission to misery”. They have all ruled that everyone who wants to adopt a heterosexual model which has a 50% failure rate for their relationships should have the legal right to do so.
Ironically, while homosexuals have been clamoring for “equality” under the legal formulas established for heterosexual marriages, heterosexuals have been flocking to models set up to accommodate gay marriages.
France passed a law last fall, despite virulent opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and social conservatives, which provided for “civil unions” which conferred many of the benefits of marriage but which could also be easily terminated.
A New York Times story in mid April 2000 reported that nearly 40% of those making use of such civil unions were unmarried heterosexual couples. In France, marriage is a very legally-involved thing. It takes years and years and all sorts of legal help to get divorced.
So, heterosexual couples have been using the new “civil unions” as a stepping block to marriage. Many who have come from families and lived through long extended legal divorces are choosing “civil unions” as a middle ground. Their relationships are recognized in many important ways but they are not “bound” by the marriage laws.
In the United States, a similar “nuancing” of marriage laws has appeared in Louisiana. There, couples wanting to be married have the choice of two ceremonies. One is much more legally entangling and difficult to get out of than the other.
Meanwhile, we have this “great debate” going on. Today, I watched a program on C-Span where an assemblage of social conservatives were predicting the end to “civilization as we know it” because Vermont appeared to be on the brink of recognizing same sex unions.
In the New York Times, I read how many of Vermont's State Senators were so offended by the death threats, obscene gestures, smashed windshields, etc. that they had been subjected to that they had “experienced what it was like to walk in a homosexual's shoes”. As a result, they felt morally obliged to vote for what they felt was right and passed the proposed “civil union” act.
So, as a twice married 62-year-old gay widower, what would I say on the subject of gay marriage?
Well, I actually married the love of my life twice. First it was that special moment between the two of us in the “Garden of the Blind” and on January 27,1990, we had a more “official” deathbed wedding.
The story of our final exchange of vows, carried by the Hoboken Reporter, still sits in one corner of the window of the shop we built together. Young people from an AIDS Theater Group once excitedly recognized me as the owner “of that shop with the marriage story in the window”. I was touched.
But, frankly, legal formulas cannot be designed in a “one-size-fits-all” format. Marriage that is “held together” only by the law is no marriage. It is a set of legal obligations.
Marriage does not take place in a courthouse in City Hall. It takes place in our minds and hearts. If it doesn't survive there, no previous legally-binding ceremony means anything.
Yes, my marriage was just as valid as any heterosexual union. If David's sister hadn't (as executor of his estate) stolen the $20,000 death benefit, I had recruited LLDF to fight the inheritance taxes due on the basis that I was entitled to a “spouse's exemption”.
Am I talking out of both sides of my mouth here? Possibly. But, if some winsome adorable fem queen happened along, loved me up, convinced my aged and crumbling mind that 'we should get married', I'd hate to think that a couple years from now I might be facing some legal suit demanding “half “of everything I owned because I had “taken” the best years of her (his) life.
No thank you. I'll pass on that “equality”—legal obligations dictated by the state and differing state by state.
Same-sex couples rushing into contracts designed with breadwinner and homemaker social roles in mind are headed toward desert mirages and/or grass-covered quicksand.
Civil unions—perhaps enhanced by pre-nuptial agreements between each couple—are not just equal, they are much better.