40+ years of Valentine's Days

Same-sex couples together more than four decades defined commitment years before today’s fight for marriage equality.

BY Kelly Griffith

January 30 2006 1:00 AM ET

They all said it
would never last between these two silly boys—what
with all the breaking up and getting back together.
Like clockwork, between every Halloween and New
Year’s Day, with party season in full swing,
Marvin Burrows and his boyfriend, Bill Swenor, would
invariably find themselves at odds over something.

“We were
so young, I guess we had to spread our wings to see how far
we could fly,” says Burrows, who started dating
Swenor when the two were just 17 and 15, respectively.
“But it never had any effect on our love. We
knew it was special even at that age.” The men, who
lived in Hayward, Calif, a suburb of San Francisco,
spent more than 50 years partnered before Bill died in
spring 2005.

Their love story
began in Flint, Mich., around Christmastime 1953, with
two teenagers who were admittedly “in lust,” a
status that quickly changed to something much deeper
and more costly.

Burrows was
kicked out of his home when his father found out about the
relationship, so he eventually moved in with Swenor and his
mother, and the two men remained together until
Bill’s death.

Through the years
they lied to landlords to rent apartments and to
bankers to open joint savings accounts, and for years they
were quiet about their relationship around coworkers.
Only in recent decades did they begin to enjoy the
freedom of living as an out couple. The two were
married in San Francisco in 2004, more than a half century
after their love affair began.

Burrows and
Swenor make up just one of many longtime gay and lesbian
couples who have seen so much change in their lives. They
were gay long before gay rights had a name. For many,
hiding their relationship was a way of life, and for
some, it still is, and marriage seemed only a faraway
dream.

“We have
to realize how much the world has changed,” says
Samiya Bashir, spokeswoman for the New
York–based Freedom to Marry, an organization
working for equal marriage rights. “Forty years ago,
none of our national GLBT organizations existed.
The Advocate didn’t exist. This was 20
years before ‘We’re here, we’re queer,
get used to it.’ ”

Today, such
long-term couples stand as pillars in the fight for
equality, often showing more stamina, more passion
than those who have lived their entire lives outside
the confines of the closet. They offer young people a
model of what happy committed gay relationships look
like—relationships often forged against all
odds.

The Advocate, celebrating 39 years of publication
this year, found couples with at least as much
longevity to talk about their relationships, their
triumphs, their struggles, and their secrets for
success. And what we heard was funny, insightful, poignant,
beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking.

“Mr. G” and “Mr. B”

Oregon

They met at a
Chicago theater and happened to strike up a conversation.
“What we saw, we liked,” Everett Baird says of
his 1955 encounter with George W. Gebhardt.

It took a while
longer before they got together for good, but once they
did, they stuck. They cite October 5, 1955, as the date
their relationship began, and this past fall they
celebrated 50 years as “cohabitants”
with a buffet and a custom-made cake.

Their advice to
young couples: Remember it’s a give-and-take.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be good to each
other. Don’t disappoint each other.
“We’re family. We never thought of it any
other way,” Baird says.

Through the years
the men never hid, operating their own typesetting and
graphic arts business together in Chicago for more than 20
years before retiring to Oregon, where Baird’s
brother lives with his own partner of 26 years.
“How’d we stay together so long?” Baird
asks. “Nobody else would have us.”

Kaz and Connie

Macon, Mo.

Kazia Macey and
Constance Vermillion consider this article a coming out
of sorts after 39 years as lovers, best friends, and
lifelong partners. Heretofore, few people have known
them as anything more than two close friends who live
together.

“I am a
little afraid of the article appearing because of the secret
life we have lived for so long,” says
Vermillion, 57. “I know many people have
speculated but have never had proof. Missouri is such a
conservative state. I guess the chips will fall where
they may.”

The
couple—who recently returned from a trip to Burbank,
Calif., where they attended the official Xena:
Warrior Princess
convention—believe
they have something others can use, even if they
haven’t always let the world see it up close. They
gush of their happiness and devotion to one another
and say they only grow fonder of each other as time
passes.

The two met in
August 1966 and became a couple two months later. They
have been together ever since, navigating everything from
negotiating domestic roles to seeing each other
through menopause—and surviving to tell about
it all.

Macey, 60, the
self-described butch who has always been comfortable
changing motor oil, now cooks meals for the couple
occasionally, while Vermillion, a more
“feminine” type, learned to enjoy letting
someone take over the kitchen from time to time.

They credit their
relationship’s success to their mutual understanding
of true partnership.

“We’ve learned how to be flexible over the
years and ‘know’ when to take the lead
or relinquish it to the other. It takes a while to learn
this, but that’s how it works out if you put
your minds to it,” Macey says. “I
believe it’s imperative that people know there really
are same-sex partnerships that last a
lifetime.”

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