Bill and Doug Got Married*

*They did. But really, they didn’t.

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It was a small wedding. Bill and Doug arrived together for the ceremony, as for the past 50 years they had arrived together for everything. Each wore a braided gold band as a symbol of commitment. They were not dressed traditionally for such an occasion, but since it was theirs to celebrate, what they wore didn’t matter. They had only three witnesses: a minister, the minister’s daughter and a friend who would be taking photos. Bill was the best thing that ever happened to Doug, and vice versa. They stood and faced each other in front of a fake fireplace in Niagara Falls, Ontario, last July, in a brick chapel with a white awning painted with two blue hearts, one of the few places in the world where they were allowed to do what they were going to do; they held each other’s hand, looked into each other’s eyes, and said I do.

***

Photograph by Jonathan Hollada

The wedding was about love, mostly. They were old now, and gray as seashells, and love was one of the only things of which they could be certain. Doug was 77, and his weak heart fluttered in the cage of his ailing chest. He had lost one of his hearing aids and the other was broken, and sometimes when Bill would call at him and call at him he would not hear; due to high blood pressure and physical strain from the bad heart his breath seemed to force its way out of his lungs. He loved to tend the yard, but could no longer do so. Bill, 73, had an arthritic left knee; he had stopped playing his beloved organ at church. They both had problems remembering things. They had begun to make arrangements to move into a retirement home, and had learned they would not be able to live in the same room together. They were fighting the decision. The wedding, when it happened, would be about something else, as well—a kind of validation for those who had championed their cause. Bill and Doug shared their lives and their furniture and their CD collection and their love of art and a little gray house that was webbed by the long shadows of north Georgia pines in a suburb of Atlanta, and marriage in theory was not something they would ever need and they were quite certain that if they took the vows they would not be saying anything to each other that had not already been said before.

***

Wake up, my handsome man, Bill says to Doug on most mornings, looking across the bed to his companion.

Good morning—but I am not handsome, Doug replies.

Bill fetches him coffee: To me, you are, he says.

When they were younger, in the sixties and seventies, two Atlanta men a good twenty years from coming out as a gay couple, they masked their affections by living platonically, out of fear, and the above conversation is one they did not often share.

Two million, three hundred eighty-nine thousand, three hundred forty-four Georgians voted for Senate Resolution 595 in last November’s election, which equated to 76 percent of the vote. The amendment to the state constitution provided that Georgia would recognize marriage only as the union of a man and woman. Of course, neither Bill nor Doug is a woman. This means, barring a reversal of pervading beliefs, they will most likely never be allowed to marry in our state.

***

Bill is short and slightly paunchy, a good 4 inches shorter than Doug, who is about 5-foot-11. Doug is thinner, and always has been. He used to look like James Dean, or tried to look like him, and wore the cuffs of his jeans rolled up. Bill, when he was younger, posed with a cocky expression, in one picture bare-chested, like a model. Both are now bald, Bill with his hair buzzed around his head and Doug with what remains longer and slicked back on the sides. They like to eat at High Cotton in Dunwoody, where the wait staff is friendly; they are fond of the sweet potato fries and asparagus salad. They look older, sitting in the booth, with soft faces, like grandfathers.

***

While in college at the University of Florida in the late 1940s, when Bill and Doug were merely friends, they heard use of the word “yag.” This, they found out, was a secret word employed by the homosexual community meaning “gay,” which was much too dangerous then to say out loud. Only upon further inquiry did they learn that “gay” was a word used by older homosexuals to avoid the homophobic epithets of “queer” or “faggot.” Doug did not identify as a homosexual at the time, and had no feeling about the words “yag” or “gay.”

***

Did you expect to get married today? The Ontario marriage license clerk asked them. Yes, they replied. They had sworn with their hands on a Bible that everything they had filled out about each other on the marriage certificate was true. The clerk had been pleasant and sympathetic and had told them after they responded “yes” that there was no one in city hall who could officiate that day, and actually three people in the entire city could even officiate at all, and Would you like me to call one? she asked them, and they looked at each other and needed not think about a responded and told her yes, and she came back with a street address and directions how to get there, and it turned out to be a little white brick chapel—nothing spectacular in this honeymoon capital of the world—and it had two blue hearts painted on its white awning, and when they got there they stood in front of the door, and their picture was taken and would later be stowed in a modest little flipbook they would use as their wedding album. They entered the chapel, Doug in a blue long-sleeved Polo tucked into his olive pants and Bill wearing blue sneakers. A Minister of the United Church of Christ led the service, which was a civil service, not a religious one, because that’s what they had chosen, the civil service blessed in the Episcopal prayer book. Doug and Bill, who had been raised Southern Baptists, had for a long time been Episcopalians.

***

The two met in 1948, before school, after World War II. It feels as though, sometimes, they met last month. They have been together long enough to perhaps make them Atlanta’s oldest gay couple; in fact, in the local gay and lesbian community, they are often referred to as such. Are they? They cannot be certain.

***

What is it like to be gay? Quite frankly, Bill and Doug did not ask to be gay. Perhaps the people who voted yes to Senate Resolution 595 can understand this; perhaps they cannot. Bill does not know anyone who chooses to be gay because frankly it is a nuisance. There was never a moment in his life when gay was not his orientation.

Doug did not always know he was gay. He had, at age 18, what he refers to as a sexual experience with another man when he was in the Navy. He was seduced. “The intimacy was agreeable,” he writes in a brief autobiography, “but (I was) shocked when the lieutenant said, ‘Some day you will make someone a good wife.’” Afterward, he decided to remain chaste, until he graduated from college.

***

They came out 15 years ago. Everyone said, “We always knew you were gay.” They had been living together for four decades. There was suspicion.

***

They ate lunch together at the University of Florida cafeteria. They went to see plays at the drama department. They went to musicals. Maybe a couple times a month, they’d go to downtown Gainesville to a movie. Together. No one had cars in those days. They walked everywhere. They were best friends. They had common interests. They visited each other’s parents, which is what a courting couple would’ve done. In 1948, they went to New York City together. They sat up in a coach car, and didn’t get any sleep along the way. They went to the Metropolitan Opera. They cannot remember their first kiss.

***

On the wall of their home is Doug’s needlepoint. It’s in the shape of a greyhound. It took him three months to complete. Doug is an artist, and has an artist’s taste. He has done weaving and glass mosaic work. He loves big projects, something he can get involved in. He loved the yard work, when he could do it, getting the leaves off the driveway and planting flowers. Bill plays the organ, and has professionally for more than 40 years. A 9-foot, 10-rank Flentrop pipe organ custom-made in Holland used to grace the living room. It had to be sold, as they planned to move into the retirement home. After some arguing and pressing, they were able to get in and live in the same room. Bill was an exquisite organist, and one day, before the organ was moved out, he let the air into its pipes and began to fill the afternoon with its hollow moan.

***

According to Doug and Bill, there were two gay bars in Atlanta in the fifties, when they first moved here. They were raided occasionally. Patrons were arrested. People were fired back then merely on the suspicion of being gay. Bill and Doug were terrified when they were almost outed. A member of Bill’s choir class decided she was in love with him, and to put her off, he told her he was gay, and then, well, she said she wanted both him and Doug. She eventually backed off.

***

Bill and Doug are religious. At the beginning of their relationship, they told each other they would be religious until religion crapped on them. If religion ever does crap on them, their allegiance is to God, not to a denomination. Being Episcopalian has never crapped on them.

Doug and Bill have wills. Since their marriage is not recognized in Georgia, Doug and Bill have had to plan for what will happen, financially, if one of them were to pass on. If he had been a heterosexual married man, when Doug retired as a University of Georgia professor of pharmacology, he could’ve chosen a payout option that would’ve covered him and his spouse. As a “single” man with a gay partner, which was not recognized, the option was not possible. There was only one option. Take a payout that ends when he dies. Bill and Doug’s financial planning has to deal with what happens if Doug dies first. They have planned for it, but feel crapped upon.

***

Sex becomes routine. Companionship is everything you do besides sex. Some things Bill and Doug have shared in their 51 years of being companions: movies, books, theater, art, religion, politics, both of them eventually coming to adopt the same opinion on all those. They took care of each other when they were sick. They experienced many things together. Realized they were just one, a being.

***

They knew from the beginning that marriage in Canada had no legal meaning in Georgia. As far as Bill and Doug were concerned, it was to be a personal reaffirmation of their 50-year commitment to each other. It was a seal on 50 years together. They had tried last year to marry in San Francisco. Like a great number of other same-sex couples, they made plans for the trip there, and had scheduled the wedding at city hall. The state Supreme Court overruled gay marriage six days before they arrived. They had scheduled a celebration at The Palace Hotel. They still went, but without much to celebrate. The waiter brought them desserts with flags sticking out that read: Happy Anniversary!

***

Love is beautiful. Love is two people who have been together for a very long time ambling into their kitchen which is half-filled with daylight, to make sure the little miniature greyhound resting on the kitchen seat has its food, and their feet in loafers rake slowly over the hardwood floor of a house they’ve shared for 40 years and they have sold the piano and will have to give it up soon but they still have each other. Love is boring. It’s yelling into a deaf ear, as Bill does, yelling at Doug to get the paper, and Doug turns and cups his ear and asks, “What?” Love is simple. They talk about gas mileage on the way to a restaurant, in the car.

***

Doug and Bill believe that the people who voted for Senate Resolution 595 are sincere in their hearts. They are probably people, they say, who read the Bible literally. People who vote their conscience, they say. Everyone sees the Bible differently. But what does God see?

***

Two million, three hundred eighty-nine thousand, three hundred forty-four. Seventy-six percent.

***

Bill and Doug love each other more now than they ever did. Their marriage is not recognized in Georgia.

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