It was 2010 when Iris and I first "met." It was through the German social media site Wer-Kennt-Wen, or, as it's more commonly known by its users, WKW. This was the time when I began relearning the language after reconnecting with friends I'd met in Germany when I was stationed there with the U.S. military during the early 1980s. When I eventually returned in 2011, I knew that Iris and I would eventually meet. That first meeting took place in 2012. Conny, the woman with whom I'm in a relationship, and I were invited for dinner.
Iris was as wonderful in person as she was on WKW. Her bubbly personality was amazing, particularly given that she's also severely afflicted with the disease lymphedema, an often debilitating disease that affects the lymph glands and channels. In fact, she nearly lost her life over a year ago. Like so many who are suffering from this disease, when not in bed, she is mostly confined to a wheelchair.
Her spouse is also wonderful, faithfully by Iris' side, preparing meals, caring for her needs, even sharing moments of tears. The task of being a caretaker is not easy. Anyone who has ever done it will immediately attest to this. It is not only physically draining but psychologically draining. And to top it off, the spouse also has lymphedema and other health issues. But since Iris is the more ill of the two, the spouse is always faithfully by her side. I have nothing but respect for both of them.
Conny, being a professional photographer, offered to take pictures of the family on our second visit. It would be a special gift for them. Watching Iris as she struggled down the stairs into the yard was a moving moment. It was her first time out of the house since returning from the hospital, and she wanted to do it alone. She wanted those beautiful pictures with her family. Her smile was brighter than the July sun.
On our third visit we celebrated Iris' birthday with dinner that her spouse prepared. For dessert I brought a sweet potato pie that I'd baked, something for which I'm becoming quite well-known. Like every other German I've met, they had never before heard of sweet potato pie. And just like every other German for whom I've made it, Iris and her spouse absolutely loved it.
Oh, I think I left something out: Iris and her spouse, Simone, are a lesbian couple. They were united in marriage in 2008. You see, Germany has legally recognized same-sex civil unions. Everybody married in Germany must have a civil ceremony, whether they wed in the church or not. Otherwise, you're not legally married.
In 2001 the German parliament passed the Life Partnership Act (known as the Eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaft in German) recognizing same-sex unions. It granted same-sex couples a number of rights enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. Even though it went through court challenges, the act was upheld. In 2004 additional rights were extended to them, including the rights for widows and widowers to qualify for state pensions.
Later this year the U.S. Supreme Court will render its final decision on two landmark cases, possibly settling the issue of same-sex marriage in America once and for all. The first case will be on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, the controversial ballot initiative that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. This, of course, is effectively a ban on same-sex marriage.
The second case will also be on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (also known as DOMA), which prevents federal recognition of state marriages between people of the same sex.
According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 53 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. That number has increased from a poll conducted in December 2012. This past March a similar Washington Post/ABC News poll found that a record 58 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage. It also showed that support had increased across virtually all parties and demographics. It looks like the country is evolving in the direction of marriage equality.
To be honest, one might say that I've experienced quite an evolution myself. Just like most Americans, I was taught that being gay isn't something that anyone is born to be but a "lifestyle" that one chooses. I was taught that if someone is gay, there is something wrong with that person. It just wasn't normal.
On the flip side, I was taught that we are all God's children, and that just because you don't agree with someone or even like them, it doesn't give you the right to mistreat them or abuse them. They have the same right to happiness as we all do. Of course, that didn't include the right to marry.
Like a lot of guys, I've used the "F" word in the past. It's not something I'm proud to admit, but I'm being honest. And I wasn't comfortable seeing two guys kiss in public. Funny, seeing two women never affected me the same way. But no matter how much I tried to deny it, this was really no different from having a prejudice against a person of a different race or culture.
The internal conflict grew stronger as I actually got to meet and know gay and lesbian people. I began to see them not just as gay or lesbian but as people. And like most people, they work hard. They pay their taxes. They're doctors, lawyers, police officers, teachers, politicians, businesspeople and truck drivers. They even fight -- and die -- for their country as they serve in the military. And, like all of us, they want their full rights as citizens of United States of America.
This includes the right to marry and have it recognized the same way that we recognize so-called straight marriages.
When it came time to vote on Proposition 8, I was forced to confront my own values. Did I really believe in equality, or was it just lip service? It really wasn't a same-sex marriage issue for me anymore. It was an equality issue. As an African American, I'm very much aware of my country's history of legal discrimination and racism. Did I really want to be a part of putting a law on the books that limited the rights of others? Hadn't we had enough of that? I knew what my decision had to be.
After the vote, two neighbors and I had a conversation about the issue. They asked for my opinion on the subject. I thought for a moment, then I answered, "As a recovering homophobe, I voted against it."
It was such a perfect description for me, because that's what I considered myself: a recovering homophobe. And like recovering alcoholics or recovering drug addicts, I know that I have to guard myself against falling back into past behaviors. Of course, this isn't something unique to homophobia. All prejudices are like that. I'm just honest enough to admit it, while others choose to lie to themselves.
Sadly, Proposition 8 passed anyway, and here we are. The state with arguably the largest gay community in the country banned same-sex marriage. Unbelievable, isn't it? But the Supreme Court of the United States can rectify this, if they have the courage to put aside their own personal beliefs and judge in favor of marriage equality.
When I return home, I hope it's to an America where couples like Iris and Simone can legally share the rights that all straight married couples enjoy. Maybe I'll be sitting in a restaurant just as a married couple, two married men hoping to have a cozy dinner together, enters. And they might share a romantic kiss or two, because that's what loving couples do. And that will be something I'll just have to get used to.
Or maybe it'll be another couple, also two guys. This time one of them will be in a wheelchair... and on an oxygen tank. His husband will wheel him gently through the door, probably for a rare night out of the house, one loving and committed spouse taking care of the other, just as Simone does for Iris, just as it should be.
America -- and the world -- need more of this, not less.