Photography by Julie Skarratt
Like many good romances, this one starts with a kiss.
Danny O’Donnell and John Banta were juniors at the Catholic University of America, and O’Donnell had just stopped by Banta’s dorm room before dinner. Banta was reading; O’Donnell was lying on Banta’s bed waiting for him to finish. It was, for all intents and purposes, a regular, laid-back Friday night for the both of them.
But then, in an “earth-shattering” moment, Banta decided to close his book, walk across the room, and kiss O’Donnell. No prelude, no explanation. Just a kiss. And that’s how O’Donnell and Banta embarked upon a 31-year-long relationship.
Looking back, O’Donnell notes how tremendously unexpected that kiss was. After all, it happened in 1980, when there were “no out people”—so neither O’Donnell nor Banta had ever even hinted at being gay. And yet, despite the momentous nature of the kiss, the two refrained from having a conversation about its implications. Although they spent the night together, “There wasn’t much conversation going on after that.”
From that point on, their relationship was mostly smooth-sailing. After all, they had been best friends since freshman orientation, so they already had a strong foundation to work from.
“We got along pretty well. We never really fought, and we still don’t fight,” says O’Donnell.
And they’re still getting along pretty well these days: The couple was recently married on January 29, in a ceremony of about 400 people at Guastavino’s.
According to O’Donnell, the idea to get married didn’t occur to him and Banta until 2004, when a lawyer friend pushed them to participate in the fight for marriage equality in New York. After all, O’Donnell—a former lawyer (and 2011 Out100 honoree)—had recently been elected to the State Assembly, and thus had some influence up in Albany. Although he didn’t think that he and Banta were right for the job, he still decided to bring it up over dinner at a Greek restaurant in Morningside Heights.
When he mentioned the idea, however, Banta said it was out of the question. When O’Donnell asked him why, Banta told him it was because O’Donnell had never proposed. After some thought, O’Donnell said, “OK, fair enough. Will you marry me?”
Banta, of course, said, "Yes." And the rest is history.
The January wedding ceremony—attended by O’Donnell’s sister Rosie (yes, that Rosie O’Donnell), New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and “almost every New York assemblyman and Senator who had voted ‘yes’ to the New York marriage bill”—was a rather symbolic affair. After exchanging vows, O’Donnell and Banta took off white-gold rings which had been on their right hands for fifteen years and moved them to their left hands. Next, Banta’s nephew Henry Turner—a 6-year-old who had wondered why O’Donnell had to fight the government “to give out a piece of paper so that boys can marry boys”—handed the couple their marriage license. Also in attendance: famed soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, who serenaded the couple with a rendition of “I Carry Your Heart.”
Then, of course, they followed up the ceremony with an after-party: a disco-themed bash held upstairs, where O’Donnell had “the time of his life.”
After their honeymoon in Paris, O’Donnell and Banta have for the most part settled down. Banta is still director of special events for the Metropolitan Opera, and O’Donnell is still a New York State Assemblyman—and neither one plans on leaving his post any time soon. They currently live happily together in a Morningside Heights apartment.
“I had never been with a man before [Banta.] I had never kissed a man before,” O’Donnell explains. “But we’ve been together ever since [our kiss]...and now he’s my man. Now he’s my husband.”
And just think: None of that would have happened if it weren’t for a regular, laid-back Friday night in college.