Talking with John and Martin about their 33-year journey together made clear that walking down the road of life hand-in-hand with another person can lead to exciting and unexpected detours.
Martin: Two years ago, when there was the opportunity in California to get married, John said, “You’re going to think this is crazy, but what about going out to California to get married?”
John: That was on our 30th anniversary. We’d been thinking about getting married ever since Massachusetts made it legal, but we hesitated. Like a lot of things that we do together, we had to grow into the idea of getting legally married.
Martin: There was no real reason to get married. We had been domestic partners since New York City started that.
John: But that was for a practical reason. I work for the city, and Martin could get my health insurance benefits if we were domestic partners. We didn’t make a big romantic thing about the domestic partnership. I think it was also part of the whole process of my coming out. Like at work: when Martin’s mother died, I said I was taking bereavement leave and the secretary had to verify our domestic partnership. At work, they probably surmised that I was gay, but I didn’t discuss it. I worked in city government, which was very blue collar and very racially diverse and there were probably a lot of people that would be very much against gay people or a gay couple. So this was part of my very slow coming out process.
A year or two after that I changed jobs and I made a conscious decision that I was going to be very out. So I went into this office which was composed of a lot of police officers and civilians and I was very out about it and it was absolutely fine. There was absolutely no problem.
Martin: I had a different past, I was in the arts, I was in photography and I did theater work, so my whole adult career I’ve been around gay people and they knew I was gay and in that world it didn’t matter to me. When we moved to this neighborhood 11 years ago, I was a little bit nervous about moving together into a house, into a mixed race, primarily African American, neighborhood and I didn’t know how we’d be accepted. Well, from day one, from day minus one -- before we even moved in -- people were talking to us, friendly to us, including us in their families, their celebrations. We have an annual pot luck party that I started 10 years ago and we have anywhere from 70 to 80 people here every year, and those are gay, straight, black, white, all from within this neighborhood; it’s a very, very close neighborhood. When we got married last year, well, we had a lot of neighbors come.
John: We had a reception party at our church here.
Martin: Two new neighbors, a husband and wife from the next block, convinced us that we should have one. We had over 40 neighbors from the neighborhood come besides our family and friends. So I’d say that people have accepted us, and who we are.
John: About a dozen or so years ago, I started going to church again. I hadn’t really gone very much except at Christmas and Easter for a long time, but as you get more mature you start thinking more about spiritual things. When I started going to an Episcopal church in Brooklyn Heights, I thought there would be more gays there and it was a little bit of a disappointment that there weren't that many. Some gays choose to be in a totally gay world, and only have gay friends, go to gay churches, the whole thing. But Martin and I have chosen to be more out in the general community, as well has having a lot of gay friends, certainly.
Martin: Since society is not gay or straight, if you want to live in society you’ve got to be part of it. I know some people that only do gay things and only go to gay churches, their whole life is revolving around gay groups, gay organizations, gay everything and I don’t need that and I don’t like that. I do some gay things, but not exclusively.
John: My church is a very liberal congregation, and one year I suggested that the priest talk about upcoming Gay Pride. He said, “Oh yeah, that’s a great idea!” I said, “I don’t know how people might feel about that.” He said, “Who cares?”
So I was outing myself a bit, and of course he did mention it. He was straight, but very pro gay rights, and later on Grace Church participated in the Gay Pride Parade for the first time and we’ve done it ever since.
Martin: We’ve gotten into a lot of causes which have really solidified our relationship, like when John went on a Witness trip to Israel and Palestine, which I wasn't open to it at first.
John: It was a Witness trip organized by a retired Episcopal priest and his wife and an ecumenical Palestinian Christian group which helps the community of Palestinians to fight against the occupation in a peaceful, in a nonviolent way. Like Liberation Theology , using the Christian principles to liberate themselves. So anyway, they organize these trips with typical Christian pilgrimages to the holy sites, as well as meetings with Israeli people in the peace movement, and Palestinian officials and Palestinian people and we would travel in the West Bank to see the effects of the occupation, the settlements, and the separation wall.
Martin: I didn’t go with John. I had been in Israel 30, 40 years ago, when I went to live on a kibbutz for a year. My family were Zionists involved with the founding of Israel. So there was a history there. When John first talked about going, for about 10 minutes I thought of going with him. And then I said, “It’s too Christian, too Palestinian, I don’t think I can do it.” So I didn’t go. He went, and we had our annual Passover Seder two days after he returned -- we do a big Seder here.
I still thought that anything that Israel did was probably right, and these Palestinians were setting bombs off in Israel and they had to be stopped.
Two years later, John was going on the same Witness trip again. This time, I thought about it and I said, “I’ll go, but I’m going as a hostile witness.”
On the third day there, in the middle of the night I woke up at 2 o'clock in the morning, and I said, “I get it, I really get this,” because I had been humiliated the day before by the Israelis, who thought I was a Palestinian.
I lost my luggage when I first arrived and I had to go back to the airport in Jerusalem, and I went with a Palestinian taxi driver. I sat up front with him and we were held at a checkpoint, and I watched all the Israelis being allowed back into the airport. They held us for only a half hour, where some Palestinians are held for hours and days, and during that half hour I watched the Israeli soldiers drink their coffee, read their paper, and not to come over to ask us who we were, or what we were doing. We just had to sit there and wait. And it was a little bit of a humiliation.
When I started hearing Palestinians tell their stories in the next few days in all these meetings, I started to realize, “Hey, I know what they’re feeling, I know exactly what they mean, because I experienced that two days ago.” And before the end of the trip, I had changed and realized that it’s a human rights issue. Yes, the suicide bombings had stopped after they put up the separation wall, but maybe that was because the Palestinians stopped sending them, and not just because of the separation wall.
So I came back from the trip a changed person, and again, we were having a Passover Seder about a week later and I looked at what we usually talk about, about being the oppressed people by the Egyptians and all that, and I said, “Whoa,” and I threw out everything we ever said and I rewrote the whole Seder.
John: I just remembered what led me into going to Israel, why I started to feel the way I did: it was after Katrina.
Martin: We started going down to the Gulf Coast after Katrina, to help rebuild. We’ve been down there nine times. We started to see how the government was not doing anything and I think that’s why I eventually went to Israel.
John: As I became more religious and all that, I started thinking of wanting to give back to the world, and the idea of adopting a child has somewhat appealed to me, although it’s also quite daunting, but when I mention it to Martin he always says...
Martin: First we have to have a dog. First let’s deal with a dog.
Zina Saunders 2014