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40+ years of
Valentine's Days

40+ years of
Valentine's Days


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

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"


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."

Mary Beth Brindley and Evelyn Hall

Portland, Ore.

It's all about compromise when it comes right down to it.

After such a long partnership (March 1 marks 47 years), that's what Evelyn Hall, 67, and Mary Beth Brindley, 66, have figured out. That, and that people really don't change all that much, no matter how hard you try to wrangle, wrestle, and rope them into it.

"That's a life lesson that once I learned it, things got a lot easier," Brindley says. "Once you give up any control of the other person, the relationship will be smoother, but as long as you are doing that, it will have ups and downs. It's all about compromise. But if you think people are going to change, they really aren't. You think maybe they won't snore or maybe they'll stay up later with you, they won't. It took me 15 or 20 years to figure this out."

The two got together soon after they met through a bowling league in 1958 in Memphis, Tenn., at a time when the L word was whispered if spoken at all and Southern ideals for girls were to get married and have babies. They moved to Fort Worth, Texas, in 1959 to flee the pressure of disapproving family members, only to find themselves in a city that felt less than affirming. They spent 37 years in the closet there.

Hall's advice to younger couples: "Go ahead and come out. Go for it. Take advantage of the social groups and support groups that are out there and just go for it." During the latter part of their 50 years together in California, Bill Swenor and Marvin Burrows were often asked why they'd never had a commitment ceremony. Swenor would cite the number of years they had been a couple and muse over whether that hadn't been commitment enough.

But when gay couples started getting married in San Francisco, Bill proposed to his high school sweetheart, and the two were among those married in that memorable February of 2004.

"The impact of saying those words out loud brought tears to our eyes," Burrows said. "It did change the dynamics of our relationship. It seemed to give us a measure of acceptance in the community and made us proud. Bill really felt great about being able to do something so personal yet political in one action."

Swenor passed away from an apparent heart attack in his sleep in March 2005, his marriage to Burrows already having been voided by the courts. Burrows has since been denied access to Swenor's pension benefits. Burrows celebrated New Year's Eve with a few male friends before going home a bit early--alone. He knows his grieving process will take time.

Long devoted to numerous gay rights and civil rights organizations, including the local group Lavender Seniors of the East Bay, Burrows vows to continue to do all he can to fight for equal marriage rights.

"We always felt we were just like anyone else," Burrows says. "Married, committed, and in love."

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