‘First Comes Love’: Capturing Love In Pictures

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When the “First Comes Love” Project began in March of 2009, the country had just inaugurated a fair-minded President, yet in the same election, Proposition 8, outlawing LGBTQ marriages in California, was passed. The Defense of Marriage Act was the law of the land. Now five years later, DOMA has been declared unconstitutional and Proposition 8 has been defeated…for good. But the work is not done. There are still many states in the USA where gay marriages are illegal and the relationships are not recognized. While the tide is rolling across the country to provide equal rights to all citizens, there remains a deep misunderstanding of the relationships in the LGBTQ community. New laws do not always change minds. Understanding is the only weapon to combat hatred, bigotry, violence, and bullying towards LGBTQ individuals and couples of all ages. This project serves to provide a new perspective on the issue and illuminate the real life stories of the couples involved by educating those outside of the LGBTQ community, while celebrating those who are a part.

The goal of “First Comes Love” is to provide a glimpse into the “everyday” lives of LGBTQ couples who have been in their relationships for 10, 20, 30, 40 and even 50 years! Unlike the stereotypical picture painted by the media, these portraits and stories seek to educate those who question, celebrate those who have loving, devoted relationships, and provide an historical record of the strength of this community. We have photographed and recorded diverse, LGBTQ couples and created an expressive portrait to represent in each relationship the depth, the seriousness, and the love between two people who have made a commitment to one another. Portraits are presented in black and white to further break down the stereotypes in a society where homosexuality is often characterized by nothing more than images of drag queens, gay pride parades, and rainbow flags. But the essence of this community goes much deeper. The world needs to see the more human side of these relationships and this project intends to show just that. These couples are “over the rainbow” in love and the portraits, by being in black & white, force the viewer to take a deeper look into the true nature of these relationships. This project emphasizes that gay relationships are in many ways no different than heterosexual ones, yet each is unique, in and of itself. The people represented in this project live “ordinary” lives made extraordinary by their endurance of the attitudes and policies that society directs against them, all the while facing the everyday struggles faced by any enduring relationship. Through tenderness of touch or intimacy of gaze, the deep seeded emotions of these couples are revealed.

The “First Comes Love” Project is a traveling exhibition of photographs, stories and video and in the fall of 2014 became a self-published hardbound book (Soleil Press), available only via the project website (www.firstcomeslove.org) and select independent bookstores. This documentary will bear witness that couples represented in the project have endured the challenges, victories, defeats, births, deaths, loves and losses that any couple faces in many years together. These couples stand together “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” and withstand the test of time and the discrimination allowed by inequitable laws of many states. The book emphasizes the “normalcy” of these relationships and will serve as a testament to the LGBTQ youth of our community, that long-term, stable, loving relationships are possible for their future.

Every effort has been made to show as much diversity as possible within the community by including many racial and cultural groups as well as transgendered and questioning individuals and couples. Some of the issues raised in the stories of these couples include raising children, custody of or adopting children, immigration policies, medical issues, living with HIV/AIDS, death of a long-term partner, interracial relationships, and even divorce. This work shows a group of people as diverse as the human race itself yet who share the common bond of what it takes to commit to a lifetime of love.

The Mirror is showcasing the Florida couples featured in this book. Visit www.FirstComesLove.org for more information.

ANTHONY and DOMENICK, together 33 years

Anthony de Maio and Domenick Falcione met 33 years ago in Atlantic City at Caesar’s Palace, where Anthony was working the craps table. His chiseled features and pale blue eyes captivated Domenick instantly.

A few months later, they officially met in a bar, again in Atlantic City, and Domenick “dragged him home.” Thirty-three years later, they are still together. They work together. They play together and their relationship is strong...by the looks of their biceps…very strong. It is fueled by their Latin blood but built on honesty and trust.

Both Anthony and Domenick were raised with strong Italian backgrounds. They are passionate about each other and everything else around them, from their love of Italy, to Domenick’s cooking and his abstract painting, to the restaurants that they have renovated from top to bottom. They are open and forthwith and even living in a small New Jersey town, where their relationship began, they have never hidden their gayness.

Anthony explained how his co-workers at Caesar’s Palace would ask him questions like “Who is the male and who is the female?” He would jokingly answer, “He's on top Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I'm on top Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and we fight for it on Sunday.” While they received some flack for flying the rainbow flag outside of their beach restaurant in Margate, New Jersey, their proclivity for working out at the gym, their athletic build and their loveable personalities have kept any real trouble at bay.

When Domenick first came out to his father, they did not speak for 5 years, but now he loves Anthony like a son. The older Mr. Falcione and his wife, now in their 80’s, live with the couple for long stretches of time over the winter months…and they love it.

Being in the restaurant business at a beach resort in the north allowed the couple to travel for many of the winter months and soon they found themselves in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where they opened MOJO, their current restaurant and one that they built from the bottom up and designed themselves to showcase Domenick’s art. Domenick, “an artist in the kitchen and on canvas” as Anthony says, is the cook. Anthony, with his background in business and marketing, works the front of the house. It’s a perfect system. As demanding as it is, it’s their “only child” and they love it.

When asked about the leather harnesses, they explained that they wear them sometimes because they are “masculine, mysterious and dark” and not because they are fully invested in the “leather scene” or bear culture, although they are very supportive of both communities. The men do, however, have an interesting spin on their relationship. Anthony recounted, “We did something abnormal in the gay world when we first met…. we concentrated on ourselves. There was no promiscuity. We were in a relationship for almost 13-14 years and when it was right for us, we opened the doors to play around collectively with other people.” They do not stray individually. That’s the rule. They experiment only as a couple. Currently in a triad relationship with a young man 29 years old...their young “pup” as Anthony refers to him…is keeping the fire extra hot. They are both certain that the sexual openness is in no way a threat to their relationship. It is made quite clear to any “third parties” that Anthony and Domenick will always be Anthony and Domenick. They are deeply in love and committed to each other and to their baby…. MOJO.

Bob and Rich

Bob and Rich, born three days apart in 1937, have the honor of being the longest relationship in the First Comes Love Project.

They met in 1955 at Trinity College at freshman orientation. Rich looked across the room and when his eyes landed on Bob, he was so "overcome that he started to shake," but was determined to meet him. While most of the guys were out playing softball, their friendship began. Back in those days, everyone was closeted. According to Rich, "Even to each other there was a process of coming out and checking each other out to make sure that this was going to be okay." As Bob remembers, " We sat together in psychology class where we learned we were listed as criminally deviant."

They both confirmed that what works for them in staying together for many decades is the "chemistry." The emotional, spiritual, and physical chemistry is just right. Otherwise, they consider themselves quite ordinary. "If our life together were seen through a heterosexual lens, there would be nothing startling about the relationship or anything about us. We're a family," Rich says, "with real family values. If anything should happen to either of us, the survivor would need to be comforted." Mundane as they may claim to be, they have made many compromises along the way in order to live what they consider a "mainstream" life. They have always put their relationship first above all vocational opportunities and aspirations.

For these lifelong Episcopalians, the Church plays a very central part of their lives An ordained Episcopal priest, Rich had originally intended to invest himself fully in the Church. But in 1965, a career as a full-time priest of a parish would not have included a life with Bob, the man he loved. It was made quite clear that if he wished to rise through the Church hierarchy, he would need to marry...a woman. Rather than create a façade or live a lie, he chose to serve part-time at different parishes and two cathedrals, while simultaneously pursuing a career in higher education. Bob also worked for the church, serving as parish treasurer and, of course, as test audience for Rich's sermons. For his service to the Church, Rich was installed in 1992 as an honorary canon (for life) of Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, Connecticut.

At a time when closet doors were closed tightly, they made sure that their home was their "impenetrable castle." Rich pursued an alternate career as teacher of philosophy and religious studies at the college level. He earned three graduate degrees, including master's degrees from Hartford Seminary and Yale University and a Ph.D. from New York University. Bob pursued a career in education as well; he earned a master's degree in secondary school administration, and worked as a public school teacher of secondary mathematics for 35 years, 27 of those years as department head.

Their chosen careers in education allowed them the freedom to travel during their summers and vacations to distant lands where they could be more open about their relationship and not concerned about what other people saw or thought. They spent many summers in Florida.

Particularly in the early years of their relationship, two men seen together frequently going to the movies or shopping together raised eyebrows. Going out to dinner could be interpreted as a business meeting, but Bob and Rich were still very cautious.

In 1967, they moved into a home that Bob designed: a two-family house, divided into two separate living spaces with separate addresses, entrances, and phone numbers that provided the necessary facade for their life together. For their neighbors - blue-collar, Italian Roman Catholics - it worked. The men chatted with Bob about cars or landscaping, and their sons mowed their lawns and shoveled their snow.

As a priest, Rich buried Bob's brother, parents and grandmother, but had to conceal his emotions as Bob's partner and lover. When he visited Bob in a hospital after surgery, he put on a clerical collar in order to gain access to Bob's room. He could only show the emotions of priest to parishioner. Rich lamented, "In those days, I couldn't have made emergency decisions as 'next of kin.'"

Every September for many years they celebrated their anniversary, even their 25th, quietly. Only in later years, could they celebrate with friends. As Rich says, "You can't grieve publicly, and you can't celebrate publicly, but we got used to that. We feel that our life together is so enriched in so many ways that it's mostly positive."

In 1994, Bob and Rich retired to Florida where they live in a continuing care retirement community so that they can always be close should one need more care than the other. Fully and happily out of the closet, they served as Grand Marshalls in the 2005 Pride Fest parade in nearby Lake Worth. For 53 years they shared a wonderful life together fueled by their love and devotion but protected by no vows or laws. In 2009, Bob and Rich were legally married in Trinity College Chapel in Connecticut, back where they first met on that first day of freshman orientation. In September of 2014, they will celebrate their 59th anniversary.

EDRIE and JAN, together 55 years

Edrie and Jan have spent a colorful 55 years together. With homes in three different locations, they have a circle of friends that spreads far and wide and spans many decades.

They met when Edrie was a student and Jan was on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, and wisely waited for Edrie’s graduation before pursuing a romance. Six years the elder and Edrie’s first lesbian experience, Jan thought it best to introduce Edrie to all aspects of the gay lifestyle. Edrie remembers, “I respected her for trying to show me that there was a culture out there and some of that culture was not exactly consistent with who she thought I was or would want to be.” She continues, “I was totally lucky to fall in love with someone like Jan because I’m not the kind that would have been going around to bars.”

In their early years together, Jan took a position teaching physical education at the University of Nevada, Reno, while Edrie was enrolled in a master’s program at UCLA. The distance was a challenge, but Jan had a black Corvette: “I could do the trip in six hours.” They marked their calendars for early June, when the academic year ended, and spent their summers together at the California beaches. When Edrie landed a job at the same university, they went skiing in the Sierras and had fun hitting the shows, casinos, and restaurants in Reno. A divorce town, Reno was accustomed to two women out together on the town.

After Nevada, Edrie and Jan spent a few unhappy years at Ohio State University: Edrie chose to leave, opting to return to USC and finish her doctorate, but Jan was essentially fired for being a lesbian. It was 1967.

Their next adventure took them to the east coast to Philadelphia. Hired by Temple University, Edrie did an impressive job of creating a dance department there and retired after 30 years. Jan, who has an Ed.D. in the History and Philosophy of Education, eventually landed comfortably at East Stroudsburg University, teaching physical education and directing a master’s program that included such courses as Sports Sociology and Women in Sport. Her book More than Movement has been widely adopted in introductory Physical Education courses throughout the country, and she co-authored The American Woman in Sport. Jan retired from East Stroudsburg after 29 years.

They bought their first house in the Pocono Mountains, near Jan’s university, but now divide the year among three homes, which they find “cleansing, like the seasons.” In 1977, they bought a house in Cherry Grove on Fire Island. As they were viewing the property, which their therapist adamantly told them not to consider buying, butterflies began to fly by. It was a sure sign that the house was meant to be theirs. They adore the Fire Island community, which is very gay and familial. They have known their friends there for decades and remain active and involved in the community theater, one of the oldest in the country. Then, in 1985, they bought a condo just off of the beach in South Beach, Miami. Jan says, “I like to place myself in environments that give something back to me. So these three homes, each brings out something different in us. Different aspects of yourself come forward and retreat. This sense of movement tends to keep a lot of life in your relationship.”

Asked for her words of wisdom about how to stay together for more than 50 years, Edrie says, “By the 50th year, there better be depth. The joy in it just amplifies; the deeper you go, the fuller you feel and the more meaningful the moments. I mean, it’s just a wonderful thing, but you have to go through some stuff to get to the depths. If you’re not willing to challenge some of your inadequacies or some of your feelings or some of the ways in which you’re insecure or whatever, if you’re not willing to challenge them, chances are you’re going to dead end right there.”

Jan says, “We are together because we love each other and we want to be together. There is no more stricture here even though we did get married, but we did that more because we know we play symbolic roles because of our age and longevity. But everyday if you’re not happy and in love and not working or building your relationship then…” She throws her hands in the air.

Edrie and Jan are wonderful role models. After 55 years they are still full of love, full of life and enjoy having fun. They laugh a lot and run on the beach. After a few months in one location, they pack up their car and their two cats and drive up or down the east coast to another home where they settle into the comfort of a new and refreshing environment.

“She is the most wonderful person in the world,” says Jan. “Besides being lovely and loving, Edrie is smarter than anybody I know. She’s more sensitive, more caring, and more insightful. She is just a brilliant marvelous person.”

“I adore Jan absolutely,” says Edrie. “I always have and I always will. There’s just something about Jan that just absolutely brings life into me. So there’s a lot of playfulness that we’ve always had together but really Jan just lights up a room for me. No matter where she is, I could find her.”

Larry and Joe   (39 YEARS)

Larry and Joe met in 1975 in New York City and have been celebrating life to the fullest ever since. Together now for 39 years, they have homes in Greenwich Village, the Berkshire Mountains of New York State, and sunny Aventura, Florida... When I followed up with them after making their portrait, they had just returned from seven weeks in Australia.

Now retired, Joe was a visual merchandise planner and designer, while Larry still works in the family printing and real estate business. They both spoke with great pleasure and amusement about their early days in New York. They met when Joe was hired to decorate for a Halloween Party that Larry and a friend were having. In lieu of payment, Joe asked if he could come to the party and bring some friends. He brought 20.

Larry’s parties, referred to as La La Lounges, were—and still are—legendary. Beginning as pre-night-on-the-town “warm ups,” sometimes with as many as 60 or 70 people, they were often so much fun that that no one ever made it out on the town. They continue to this day, now at a prestigious address on Fifth Ave in the Village. Being on the second floor over a bank meant that they could make a great deal of noise on the weekend. Every June, when the Gay Pride Parade goes right past their house, they host an “outrageous party with 200 people.”

Joe was at the Stonewall Inn the night of the famous riots. He and a friend were coming from a crowded bar around the corner when they landed in the thick of the police raid. Two women asked him to help pick up a trashcan: he did and then watched it go flying through a window. It was chaos. He and his friend managed to escape without being arrested and didn’t realize the evening’s significance until the next day. Today, he laments that the gay youth do not know how many people fought so hard for the rights they have today. He shakes his head, telling of the young gay men at last night’s party who asked about Stonewall, thinking that it amounted to nothing much more than “a parade” and a big party.

During the early years of Joe and Larry’s relationship, New York City was free-spirited, even hedonistic. The police raids of the 1960s gave rise to a network of private parties, and Stonewall inspired a new feeling of strength in the community and a vision of banding together for political action. People began to think about how to make a difference, how to create change. Then came the AIDS epidemic. It was a sobering time: Joe and Larry estimate that they lost about 40 close friends to the disease. It opened their eyes and brought them, for a time, to a new awareness and a somewhat less hedonistic way of celebrating.

…Decades later, one of their best parties, dubbed the “Hundred-Year Celebration,” celebrated Larry’s 70th birthday and their 30th anniversary. In typical Joe-and-Larry fashion, they began preparing seven or eight months ahead: they raised a tent at their country home in the Berkshires, and they hired a lighting expert to help them realize their theme—“everybody was a star in our galaxy.” As their 140 guests sat down, they were treated to the sight of their names flying like shooting stars across the top of the tent.

But that was only the beginning. Unbeknownst to their guests, who thought they were attending a birthday/anniversary celebration, Joe and Larry had chosen that very night to surprise everyone and get married. They snuck off to the guesthouse and donned tuxedos for their grand entrance. But it wouldn’t be Joe and Larry without a little fanfare. Or, actually, a lot of fanfare. In fact, make that a marching band. Joe and Larry had hired the entire local high school marching band to escort them into the tent to their wedding before their shocked, but delighted guests.

Their love has grown for 39 years and continues to grow today. Since their marriage, they say, their love has come to a different, even higher level. They add, almost in unison, “We are blessed.”

Ruthie and Connie

For Ruthie and Connie—two amazing, generous, enthusiastic, and hysterically funny Jewish women from Brooklyn—it began in 1958 when they nodded to each other at the apartment complex mailbox. Housewives married to very traditional Jewish men, they had both just begun to raise families. Their friendship grew through the “carriage brigade” of neighborhood women, baby strollers, a constant exchange of advice, and a growing trust. When the two families moved to a new complex, Connie and Ruthie started a nursery school, one of the first of their many entrepreneurial adventures and “probably one of the first Head Start programs in Brooklyn.”

Their growing affection faced a test when Connie and her family moved to Israel in 1970. But for the extremely outgoing Connie, the language barrier was stifling. With no one to talk to, she found her loneliness “beyond the beyond.” Ruthie’s family went to visit in 1972, and after that both women missed each other so much that they made several trips back and forth. Finally, in 1976 after the Yom Kippur War, Connie returned to the States for a visit with her husband.                 

During Connie’s visit, she and Ruthie and another friend, saw “Let My People Come,” a popular musical about sexual freedoms that happened to include lesbian characters. As Ruth recalls, “There was a gorgeous woman in a red gown singing and she’s a lesbian. Something happened, something happened at that particular moment.” She felt a spark.

One night when Connie was visiting, as they were sitting and talking, Ruthie leaned over and said to Connie, “Aren’t you going to kiss me?” She says, “Don’t ask me where it came from, but it came. She kissed me.” And Connie adds, “And then she says to me, ‘Can’t you do better than that?’” She says, “I’ve been practicing ever since to do better.”

That kiss progressed into a trans-continental affair. Within a year and a half, the two women had left their husbands, and their children, and moved in with each other.

That first year was “a year of excitement and lovemaking,” Connie explains. She openly shares that “for 18 years, unbeknownst to me, I never had an orgasm. I had no idea I was not having an orgasm until Ruthie and I made love. I never knew where my body could have gone.” When she was about to marry, her mother had told her, “‘He will teach you.’ I didn’t know he didn’t know,” exclaims Connie. Ruthie changed that.

But as liberated as Connie felt, Ruthie was tortured at the thought of being a lesbian. She says, “It was one thing to be with Connie. It was another thing to be out. The embarrassment and shame was overwhelming.” They stayed “in the closet,” maintaining separate bedrooms, preserving the appearance of being roommates, and publicly denying their relationship. Ruthie contemplated suicide. When after two years, Connie accused her of “not validating their relationship,” Ruthie began to accept herself, and slowly she began to come out.

Once she came out, she came all the way out. …[Ruth] and Connie became activists. They counseled other women; they led workshops (one was called “The Importance of Being or Is Their Life After Coming Out); they lectured; they marched; they started a newsletter. In 1988, they joined two other couples and the New York City Gay Teacher’s Association in suing the City of New York for domestic partner benefits. After a six-year battle, they won their case.

In 2000, Ruthie and Connie moved to Florida, bringing along their exuberance, their goodness, and their giving, through an “unofficial” charity known as the “Oona Numan Fund.” Whenever they can, they give money to help women and children in need. They remain active in many political and socially based organizations and maintain their membership in Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a gay synagogue in New York City.

Asked how they have stayed together so long, Connie says, “We look at life very similarly. Our politics are like that. Our giving is like that. Our appreciation for each other and what we do is like that. The Yiddish word for that is ‘kvelling.’”

Another factor in their relationship’s longevity is something they call a “Sunday.” Ruthie explains, “A Sunday is when I am given an opportunity to say how I feel. She doesn’t say a word. She just listens. When I’m done releasing, I take time to share my appreciation of her and then she takes time to do the same thing. We appreciate each other and it ends.”

Connie continues, “We have a sense of humor. We have a wonderful sense of humor outside of the relationship and within the relationship. That’s been wonderful. We have cried together. We have lost our parents together. We have been sick together. We care a great deal about each other in every room in the house. It is not only the bedroom.”

After what they call a “36-year engagement,” Ruthie and Connie were married in New York in 2011. Best friends for 14 years, lovers for 36, they have been wives for three. The story of their 53 years together has been told in a documentary film, Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House, directed by Deborah Dickson that has won 24 awards in film festivals around the world.

Sandra and Anita

Sandra Holiday and Anita Priest had been together for 23 years when Anita passed away from complications due to cancer. Today, her portrait hangs above the piano where she will always hear the music, something she loved very much. The gold “A” that hangs around Sandra’s neck is a constant reminder and keeps Anita close to her heart.

Theirs was a storybook romance. It all began when their “eyes met across a crowded room” at Jimmy January’s in Fort Lauderdale in 1985. It was electric. Although Sandra was living in Boston at the time, had two homes, a business, and a failing relationship there, the two women began a long distance courtship and within 3 months were living together in Florida.

A renowned and prolific designer, Anita ran a successful decorating school and interior design firm that counted many of South Florida’s society ladies as clientele. The plan was for Sandra to open a travel agency so that they could follow their mutual passion and the couple could benefit from less expensive travel during the months that Anita had free from her business. Their plans were quickly derailed, however, when Anita’s only employee resigned and Sandra took over the business side of the school. They worked, traveled, and loved together 24/7—and loved every minute of it. The business flourished, as did their love.

In 2000, Anita began to experience health problems and in 2004 was diagnosed with cancer. Initially refusing treatment, she was convinced by her doctor to fight. Sandra was with her every minute of the day and night. She nursed Anita through the chemotherapy and the radiation and its after-effects, which eventually caused her death.

Today, Anita Priest’s spirit and legacy live on through Sandra who created the Whispering Angels foundation in her honor. Through concerts, galas, performances, and an honorary board that includes Carol Channing, Betty Buckley, and Michael Feinstein, the foundation raises funds for a scholarship for an LGBTQ student who is interested in design or the arts. It is a lasting legacy born of a deep, deep love.

The love between Sandra and Anita is still palpable. It only takes a few moments with Sandra to feel how much she is still in love with her partner. In her own words:

When I think back to the time of being with her, I think that I am one of the

luckiest girls in the world. Some people don't get a little glimmer of what I had and I had it for 23 years and we never lost the magic. We really didn't. We were totally in love. I think we were more in love every year were together.

I wish everybody could have known Anita for five minutes. I'm not religious, but I believe there’s certain people in this world God puts his finger on their shoulder and I believe she was one of them. I was blessed.

Sandra and Anita, for 23 glorious years, followed their mantra “never lose the magic.” That magic lives on.


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