Photography by M. Sharkey
Will Behrens and Tech Sgt. Erwynn Umali are living reproof to those who argue that sexuality can be taught. If it could, these men, brought up in strict and religious households and raised by their parents and the church to despise homosexuals, would surely have stayed married to their wives in a simulacrum of heterosexual domesticity, attending Sunday services and taking their kids (each is a father of two children) to football games. Instead, they found themselves making history this past June as the first gay couple to be officially married on a military base. Umali, who has seen action in Afghanistan, where he drove Humvees and worked as a gunner, met Behrens at the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, N.J., where the two began a cautious courtship through emails that became increasingly flirtatious. “Our conversations went from, ‘Hey, how’s work going?’ to, ‘If you had a choice to do it yourself or have a friend do it for you, what would you choose?,’ ” recalls Umali, laughing at the memory of their coy sexual overtures.
Behrens, who was still married at the time, began inviting Umali over for dinner while keeping their blossoming relationship a secret from his wife. It couldn’t and didn’t last. “I came home one night and she was there with our pastor, several assistant pastors, and my dad,” recalls Behrens. “They cornered me in the back of the house and confronted me about Erwynn. I said yes and walked out. I said, ‘I’m not doing this with all of you here.’ ”
For Umali, who had divorced his wife in 2005, the situation was complicated by “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that made homosexuality in the military a firing offense, but when it was repealed -- the law went into effect in the fall of 2011 -- the two were finally free to go public. They got engaged soon afterward, driving down to Tampa Bay, where Behrens had arranged for a private room at Bern’s Steak House, complete with a pianist at a grand piano. “They brought out Erwynn’s dessert -- it said ‘I love you’ in chocolate on it -- and when we finished dessert, I got up and played ‘You Raise Me Up,’ by Josh Groban, and then got down on one knee and proposed,” Behrens recalls. When Umali cautiously inquired about being married at his base, he got another surprise. “They said that no one had ever asked about doing that, but one thing led to another,” he says. “They had to approve it all the way to the Pentagon.” Their experience suggests that institutions may adapt to change more quickly than families. At their wedding, the military chaplain defied his own Southern Baptist background to bless their union, and Umali’s military colleagues mingled with their friends and relatives as if DADT had never existed.
Neither set of parents attended.
Photographed at their home in New Jersey on September 29, 2012