At a Peruvian airport in 1983, Javier Melendez,a handsome 19-year-old with dark wavy hair
and sweet brown eyes, spotted the rugged good looks of 25-year-old Rodolfo Arrue. The men, born and raised in the country's capital, Lima, worked for competing airlines in close proximity to each other.
"I used to walk by and check him out and leave unsigned love notes on his counter," Melendez remembered. "He would smile at me," Arrue said, "so I knew it was him."
The notes were anonymous for good reason. Peru remains one of the most homophobic countries in South America. Last year, its congress voted against a bill to legalize civil unions. In 2013, a proposal to include sexual orientation and gender identity in a hate crimes law was overwhelmingly defeated.
Melendez recalls his first gay bar experience in 1981. "It was totally underground and very quiet. There was no sign outside. It looked like a house. When you knocked at the door, somebody would open a little window to look at you. If you looked gay, they would let you in."
After three years together, in 1986, the couple relocated to West Hollywood, Calif., to live a freer life. "I didn't want to live in hiding," Arrue said. Both Arrue and Melendez said that in Peru it's dangerous for same-sex couples to show affection in public, and being openly gay is career suicide.
The duo never desired to wed because they never imagined they could. But they couldn't let their 30th year together pass without celebrating. So on January 19, 2013, they boarded a plane to visit their homeland's most magical city: "We went to Machu Picchu," Melendez said. "It's a very bohemian and spiritual place. We decided to have a symbolic ceremony there. We bought matching rings and put them on each other. We didn't know we'd actually be getting married."
Eleven months later, on December 6, 2013, six months after the United States Supreme Court affirmed a federal district court ruling in California allowing same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses, the couple invited eight of their closest family members and friends to an informal, but thoughtful, wedding at City Hall in Beverly Hills. Melendez gifted guests with $0.99 Ikea teddy bears that he spruced up with neckties engraved with the pair's names and the date of their union. The gathering, which was topped off with a Brazilian feast at Bossa Nova, a restaurant they've been dining at since arriving in the States, wasn't without sadness.
While the couple's families mutually accept and love the two men, homosexuality doesn't jibe with their religious beliefs. Melendez called on a supportive younger sister, who grew up in America, to serve as his witness, and invited an older sister to attend, but he decided against including his mother and father, as well as a born-again sibling.
"They are not very open about gay marriage, and I didn't want to be stressed," Melendez said. "They love me," he acknowledged, "but they keep their distance." Arrue, whose evangelical sister rebuffed the invitation to be his witness, asked a co-worker to take her place. "It's part of the story we have to tell," Melendez said. "Their absence was part of the ceremony."
Despite the cultural resistance to their union, they seem to have discovered the magic elixir for longevity: "Separate bedrooms!" Melendez joked. Having a room of one's own has saved them from channel-changer feuds.
"I watch all the Housewives and Rodolfo likes to watch sports, but we sleep in the same bed every night." Flexibility and compromise are the pillars that fortify their enduring partnership. "And," Melendez said, "you have to fall in love with the same person over and over and over again."
Photos Courtesy of Arrue and Melendez.