Love Won, Love Lost
By Lilly O'Donnell
Photo: Jeff (left) and Herb on a New York City subway.
Herb and Jeff were together for 23 years, but the couple, who married as soon as it was legal in New York, won't be celebrating their second wedding anniversary. Jeff died this summer, before reaching that milestone.
A few months before Jeff died, I had an opportunity to talk with Jeff about church, alcoholism, and the marriage he and Herb waited so long to have. In many ways, their relationship seemed to be a portrait of working-class gay men of which so few are aware, but actually make up the backbone of gay America.
Sitting in a narrow diner that smelled of bacon fat, burnt coffee, and bleach, Jeff wore a dark blue custodian uniform with “Jeffrey” embroidered on the chest. He described the day in 1988 when he met his future husband.
Jeff had been in A.A. for about a month, and was told it was time to find a sponsor. He looked around the room full of people he didn’t know, and seeing Herb. “He had a goatee and an afro,” Jeff remembered, laughing a little to himself at the memory. “I thought he was cute, so I asked him.” He shrugged his shoulders like a teenager admitting to a crush.
Jeff looked like a guy from Queens who’d come out the other side of some serious benders, which he was. His watery eyes bulged out a little from their droopy beds on either side of his red nose. The weathered skin sunk farther in on one cheek than on the other, and both sides hung down to jowls that looked like they’d given up on being part of his face.
His voice was low and almost unintelligibly quiet, a fact not helped by his tendency to talk into his coffee mug. But despite the general downward inclination of his facial features, shoulders, and voice, most sentences—even the sad or angry ones—ended in a small laugh and a smile that, exposing a chipped front tooth, pulled one side of his face back to life.
Herb agreed to be Jeff’s sponsor, and the two were living together within a year on 43rd Street in Astoria—in the same apartment where Jeff grew up—and where Herb still lives with their three dogs, five cats, and two parakeets.
The same year they met, after an A.A. meeting at Redeemer Episcopal Church, Jeff wandered into the sanctuary and was struck by how beautiful it was. He decided it was time to start going to church again, after a decade-long break, and what he called a dark period in his life.
“My God was a bottle of vodka,” Herb explained. And reconnecting with God seemed like a logical next step after reconnecting with his sober self.
Herb said he would agree to go to church with Jeff if they went to Trinity Lutheran, since it was around the corner from where they lived—on their home turf.
Jeff was raised Roman Catholic and had briefly tried being a Methodist and then a Unitarian. He said it took him years to really get used to the Lutheran Church and feel like it was his, but Herb and Jeff continued to go to Trinity since they first began in 1989. They even both served on the church council.
Within days of the vote that legalized same-sex marriage in New York State in July 2010, Jeff and Herb asked Pastor Milholland to marry them. The Bishop, The Rev. Robert Rimbo, supported marriage equality and encouraged Lutheran pastors to perform same-sex marriages, but he left it up to each pastor to decide whether or not it was right for his or her own congregation.
Pastor Milholland, in an effort not to alienate anyone, decided to try to reach consensus among the congregation, rather than making a top-down decision. Two years later, that consensus still hasn’t been reached.
Jeff told me that as soon as Pastor Milholland explained his approach, he knew the process would take forever, and that the couple didn’t want to wait.
Jeff said that they had waited long enough for it to be legal for them to get married. After being together for over two decades without any official recognition, they weren’t prepared to wait another year for the congregation of Trinity Lutheran to decide whether or not they were comfortable with a marriage.
“We just wanted to get married,” Jeff said.
The two were married at Borough Hall in August 2011, just weeks after it became legal. They both took the day off of work and signed the papers, with no fuss or ceremony.
“It’s just gonna drag on and on,” he said. “I’m 58, Herb’s 60. God forbid if one of us was in the hospital and couldn’t speak.”
Of course, Jeff didn’t know that a couple of months later he would, in fact, be in the hospital, dying of cancer, and that Herb would only be allowed in his room because of their impatience with the church.