A few years back, Brad Schwei’s mom pulled him out of bed at an ungodly hour to let him know that she had a pretty good idea who her son actually was. Moms always know, and she knew. “It’s okay if you’re gay,” she explained. “Just tell me.”
Brad laughs as he tells it now, but not every guy — and he was in his mid-20’s at the time, mind you — has the luxury of a mother who will lovingly tug him out of whatever closets we are still acknowledging in 2015. His partner Adam Sturdy has a similar tale of a previously conservative father who just decided, ‘Well, I love this kid. Let’s just get on with it already.’
Gay marriage, the loving commitment turned political buzzword, has never been more comfy in our neighborhoods. Two of America’s foremost purveyors of family-friendly whimsy are Ellen DeGeneres and the erstwhile Doogie Howser, both of whom are homosexual. When Michael Sam shared cake with his boyfriend after being drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams in 2014, the quiet sentiment among many fans wasn’t that he was gay, but that they just wished he was actually a little better at playing football. And then when poor Kim Davis, she of the selective marriage-license issuing in Kentucky, decided to make her position a pulpit, it was met with more mockery than outrage (with the possible exception of the 80’s rockers in Survivor). It would seem that we’ve all gone a little gay, haven’t we?
When Mike Cannon and Alton Seymour met fifteen years ago, it wasn’t so simple. Alton had been in the military since he was 17. They met online, realized they lived mere blocks from each other in Appleton, and, as Alton glances toward his beaming husband, “He just never left.” They verbally poke and joust and finish sentences just as any long-tenured couple would.For their part, Brad and Adam represent a comparable experience, even if they’ve dealt with less upstream swimming than Mike and Alton have. They’re handsome, professional, and the faces of a national advertising campaign for Jewelers Mutual’s foray into the gay marriage sector. If they’re at all uncomfortable with their visible position in the Wisconsin equality discussion, you certainly wouldn’t know it from their outward and obvious affection and respect for each other.
Two couples, two different stories. Mike and Alton, fifteen years in, married in their church in 2011, and finally recognized this year by the state of Wisconsin. Brad and Adam, a relatively young couple, committed for nearly three years, and a pretty clear portrait of the strides we’ve made since the days when guys met and fell in love on Gay.com. Taken together and considering the two relationships side by side, it’s pretty impossible to ignore the mileposts on our long and arduous slog toward universal marriage equality.
Mike and Alton live pretty quietly now, but you’d better believe they remember the initial backlash. Alton is a matter-of-fact guy, and the matters of the facts are fresh in his memory.
“My dad didn’t talk to Mike for five years,” Alton said. “He was just old-school, didn’t wanna hear it. In our neighborhood, Mike and I would see kids go out of their way to avoid our house, like, ‘Oh, those guys are creepy.’ You just get used to laughing at it. Now they know to come to our house for fundraisers or raffles or whatever. It’s like they’re making up for lost time.”
And as for his old-school old man? “Oh, he’s come around entirely,” Alton said “he probably talks to Mike now more than he talks to me.”
So what changed?
“It’s all different,” Mike explains. “We weren’t dying to be accepted; we really weren’t. When you’re gay, we say that you make your own ‘family,’ if that makes sense. You know the relatives and friends and neighbors who accept you, and you know who doesn’t.”In 2001 when they met, there wasn’t a roadmap. Certainly not for a couple who was religious, where one of them had a military background. Alton is pretty succinct in the telling: “These were in the days of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I introduced Mike to my sergeants as my brother. Yeah, it was tough, but a lot of the guys I worked with were older, more conservative guys. It had to be kept a secret out of fear that I’d be booted.”
Mike, on the other hand, came out when he was fourteen. The positive side? His mother has been enormously supportive, even living with them as de facto grandmother to their two dogs.
The negative? “My dad doesn’t talk to me, still to this day, for being gay.” Win some, lose some, I suppose.
You hear stories like this all the time, where a person comes out gradually. First to themselves, then to a select few trusted individuals, and once they feel confident that the world won’t swallow them whole when the news breaks to everyone else. For Brad and Adam, two men with exceptional business acumen who just happen to be gay, the need to preserve their integrity while navigating the corporate landscape was paramount.
“If anything, I think it just makes us work that much harder,” Brad explains. “I don’t want to say that we separate our work life from our personal, because it isn’t that. I think it’s more that we know that labels exist, and that we try to let our work performance speak for itself. So that the labels don’t matter, I guess.”Of course, when you’re the national faces of Jewelers Mutual’s extension of insurance services to gay couples, you’re bound to be noticed. Brad and Adam also both work for Kimberly-Clark, a company they describe as “extremely supportive and very welcoming.” They are openly together, although they shrug it off as a non-issue.
“When I met him, I knew I wanted him in my life,” Brad said. “It really has nothing to do with our professional lives, and it never has.”
Fifteen years ago, Mike and Alton’s commitment to each other was recognized by precisely no one, not by the courts nor employers, and it cost them family relationships in the process. Fifteen years before that, an AIDS crisis was roundly ignored by a president who didn’t dare show any support for the LGBT community of any kind. And now, in 2015, not only are gay marriages valid in the eyes of the law (and the president, for that matter), the patronage of gay couples is also being pursued by entities with real-world leverage. Chalk it up as only the latest example of dollar-chasing cynicism if you’d like, but I’d prefer to think of it as tangible proof of real progress.
So where will we be fifteen years from now? I’d argue we’ll hear a lot more stories like Brad and Adam’s, and hopefully precious few like Mike and Alton’s. We’ll probably know a lot more gay couples who have children, something both of these couples plan to pursue in the future, and both through surrogacy. And maybe the labels we’ve spent decades running from, the ones that have long kept couples like these on the margins, will continue to fall.
To quote at least one Dad who looked at his gay son with love rather than scorn, “let’s get on with it already.”
Read more from Tyler Sjostrom at ThePastorsKid.net.