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As civil unions move forward in Colorado, same-sex couples share their stories 

Actually, it's just love

As the Supreme Court considers same-sex marriage cases this session, the Pentagon extends some benefits for same-sex domestic partners and reviews the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Boy Scouts of America contemplate opening their doors to gay Scouts and troop leaders, the Colorado Legislature has pushed for a civil unions bill. It passed the Senate Monday. If it passes the House, and Gov. John Hickenlooper signs off as promised, Colorado will be the ninth state to have this type of law.

Yes, the times they are a-changin'. Even the language is changing. President Obama, during his January inaugural speech, connected the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village, where the gay rights movement could be said to have begun in 1969, to Selma, Ala. (an organizing community of the racial-equality movement) and Seneca Falls, N.Y. (the location of one of the first national women's rights conventions).

As always, resistance to change is loud, often with the loudest voice getting the microphone. But according to a November 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Americans on the whole have crossed over on gay marriage. In 2001, they opposed it 57 to 35 percent. Now, the margin is 48 percent in favor and 43 against.

In honor of Valentine's Day, against this backdrop of progress, we spoke with four local same-sex couples. Some of them support civil unions. Some believe we should be asking for more. Either way, the bottom line for each? Spending their days just living their lives, loving one another.

Step into their shoes for a bit, won't you?

click to enlarge Jeff and Eric - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Jeff and Eric

Jeff and Eric

When Eric Gustafson told his grandmother he was gay, she said only this: "As long as you marry a good Catholic boy."

"And I am a good Catholic boy," says fiancé Jeff Mueller emphatically.

A Notre Dame grad with an engineering degree, the 33-year-old is also a major in the U.S. Air Force, assigned to the Missile Defense Agency at Schriever Air Force Base.

The two met in August 2005 when Jeff, a Colorado native, was stationed in Great Falls, Mont. Eric, who's from Montana, was in college about 21/2 hours away. The two chatted on and off on gay.com, but it wasn't until Eric's best friend, who also happened to be one of Jeff's civil air patrol cadets and a gay.com member herself, discovered the online connection and started pushing the two to meet, that they did.

A shopping trip to Great Falls brought Eric and his friend within miles of Jeff, who happened to be at Home Depot, buying materials for a basement remodel.

"I helped him pick out some colors," Eric says. "It was kinda fun. He points out that I was a little bitchy."

'Put a Ring on It'

The relationship they started would be challenged by miles — and pressure from Jeff's career.

"The number one rule of gay dating is, don't date someone in the closet," Jeff explains, adding, "If someone's more open and more willing to talk about it, and someone else isn't, that can cause a lot of strain. Now for us it was a little bit different because it's not that I didn't want to be, it's that I couldn't be."

When the two did go out for dinner or a movie in Great Falls, Jeff says he was "mildly terrified." In a city of 60,000 in which at least 2,000 are military, "[If] I'm at a restaurant with another guy, people are gonna start asking questions."

But Jeff said, as their commitment grew, he cared less.

"I was still careful, but it got to the point where it was like, this is stupid. Yes, I don't want to lose my job, but I want to have a life. ... I heard stories afterward from friends where pretty much everybody knew and nobody cared. My squadron commander knew, and he would have been the one who would have started administrative proceedings to separate me, and he didn't."

When Jeff got transferred to Colorado Springs in December 2006, Eric was still finishing undergraduate work in physics and religious studies. By June 2008, Eric had earned his degree and moved here to live with Jeff. A big step, with a bigger one to come.

In October 2008, Eric took Jeff to Notre Dame for a football game weekend. The night they arrived, the two visited the Grotto, a spot that Jeff describes as "a secular sacred space ... it's a very special place for a Notre Dame grad. You light a candle. Say a prayer. Things happen." Here Eric surprised Jeff with, "Will you marry me?" and, appropriately for the guy who says he "bleeds blue and gold," a titanium ring, with a gold inlay and a blue sapphire.

Jeff's response: Yes, but we have to wait.

"You know, marriage is a very big step, period. But the fact that [a relationship] becomes much more public, I was still nervous to do it while Don't Ask Don't Tell was still in place."

It would be three years before repeal talk got serious. In the meantime, Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" hit airwaves, and Jeff says Eric starting joking with him about not having a ring on his finger.

Jeff, due to his volunteer work with OutServe, a then-clandestine association of actively serving LGBT military personnel, got some insider information on when DADT was likely to be repealed — and started planning his own surprise.

The evening of the repeal, Sept. 20, 2011, the two celebrated with dinner at the Blue Star, and Eric did get a ring added to his finger — not blue and gold, but a silver band with a black meteorite stone inlay for the man who loves space, and a touch of the unique.

DOMA demands

To the right of the front door of their north-end Colorado Springs home, a hand-painted sign proclaims "The Muellers."

It was Jeff's father's sign. And while the two don't plan to share a last name even when they do someday get married, they will take the sign with them when the military reassigns Jeff this summer — where to exactly, the two aren't sure yet.

Eric, now 27, will leave his information specialist job with the Pikes Peak Library District. The two will need to figure out whether to sell their home, find a place to live in their new location, et cetera — "the same exact things that every other military couple has to deal with," Jeff emphasizes.

Yet because they're two men with the Defense of Marriage Act — the 1996 federal law defining marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman — hovering overhead, they're also dealing with a lot of issues straight, married couples in the military don't even have to consider.

For instance, military benefits include housing expenses. The couple could choose to live in privatized base housing, but where a straight, married couple would be completely funded by the military, Eric is considered a dependent, not a spouse, for whom Jeff must pay extra.

If they go the other route and opt for off-base housing, Jeff's allowance doesn't include Eric.

Add to that, moving expenses. If Jeff exceeds his military-approved weight limit, he has to pay for every pound he goes over — even though he's moving two people, and two people's stuff. ("We have a book problem, which we're gonna try to fix," Jeff says, laughing.)

And until Eric can find a job, he will be without medical and dental benefits.

Thanks to Monday's announcement by the Department of Defense, some benefits Eric's gone without will be available to him later this year, including a dependent ID card, which will finally allow him to be on base without Jeff to access commissaries, base exchanges and family programs.

"At the end of the day, I'm fine," Jeff says. "We're not gonna be living on the street. But there's an inequality there."

Should the couple not be relocated before civil unions are legal in Colorado, they do plan to go forward with the paperwork, just in case it allows them future benefits under a DOMA change.

"The funny thing is, co-workers, people at church, everybody kind of agrees," Jeff says. "I really haven't found a lot of people that don't support [DOMA] going away."

click to enlarge Dara and Lauren - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Dara and Lauren

Dara and Lauren

Dara Hoffman-Fox and Lauren Fox are tucked into a couch at Dara's office. They hold hands, wrap and unwrap legs. Eyes sparkling, Dara begins the interview by saying that Lauren realized that morning that the couple started e-mailing exactly six years ago the day prior. Now the 38-year-olds live on a 3-acre farm in Cañon City with their two 11-year-old daughters from previous marriages, six dogs, one cat, three donkeys and a bird.

Both work in the Springs: Dara is a licensed professional counselor in private practice, and Lauren, executive director of All Breed Rescue & Training.

Lauren: So do you want to tell the beginning, or do you want me? This is like When Harry Met Sally.

Dara: Awww.

Lauren: So let's see, in, fall of 2006, I had just, I had been dealing with a pretty yucky breakup. And Dara had as well, a little bit earlier on, though, right?

Dara: Mmm hmm.

Lauren: And so I was perusing online lesbian personals ... lesbian-personals-online-dot-com. ... You have to make sure you put lesbian-personals-online, because if you just put lesbian-personals-dot-com, it is a very different site. ...

So anyway, October of 2006, I still wasn't out of this relationship. I knew the relationship was ending. And I saw Dara's profile on there, and I "winked" at her 'cause that's about as cheap as you can be. Like, you can wink, but you don't have to pay anything if you just wink. So I winked at her.

Dara: And I winked back. 'Cause you could still see the profile, so I thought she was very attractive and it turns out the picture she had —

Lauren: — was in the Independent.

Dara: — was in the Independent. It was a picture of her with her pit bull and it was a picture that I had seen and remembered —

Lauren: — for sure, the year before. It was one of my favorite pictures of me.

Dara: So that was on her profile and then in her profile she said, you know, that she worked for a nonprofit, and I at the time was working at the Pride Center, so I was like, I work for a nonprofit. And she had a daughter — I think you might have said how old she was because my daughter was the same age — like, there was a couple of things there that definitely sounded like we had some things in common.

Lauren: And that was the same thing for me. I was like, "Oh she works for a nonprofit, she has a kid. So that's cool."

Dara: And cute.

Lauren: And cute. [Laughs.] Super adorably cute.

Both women ended relationships in January 2007, and as Lauren says, she finally spent the 20 bucks to get a membership to the website. They e-mailed and indeed found a lot of similarities — though, Dara says, "One big thing not in common was I never ever, ever had owned a dog in my life and Lauren ran a dog rescue."

Dara: So we did end up meeting up — the Pride Center has a group called the Women's Social Network. ... We had a mutual friend who ... did play a hand sort of in letting Lauren know she knew who I was. ...

Lauren: She sent me some other pictures that she found online of Dara.

Dara: That was funny. ... I actually had another date with another girl that day, 'cause you know, I was datin'. And so we met, and two days later was the Super Bowl, so that's another sort of way we remember how things went down.

Lauren: And I had a date the day before with Jennifer. That Thursday night.

Dara: So let's just say then on the Super Bowl —

Lauren: No, it was the Friday. It was the Friday before Super Bowl.

Dara: No, I know, that's when we went on our date. ...

Lauren: We went to Chili's —

Dara: — on North Academy —

Lauren: — and then we went to —

Dara: — the Indian restaurant. So anyway, there were a lot of people around, and Ruth was there and they were talking about dogs a lot. But I knew enough that I wanted to see her again.

Three and half years later, on Oct. 10, 2010, they held a ceremony with friends and family. The two explain how, before the wedding, they made sure they were "as legally binded together" as they could possibly be in Colorado. "It was a lot of paperwork. It was a lot of time. And it was a lot of money," Lauren says. "Where straight people, just for everything we did and the money and expenses, all they have to do is get a marriage license. And we still don't have as much coverage as they do."

Day-to-day challenges continue.

Lauren: For Christmas this year, [my parents] got us a Sleep Number mattress and so we ordered it online. My mother said, "Oh you need to go to the store, check out the settings. And they'll [help you]. And so we're like, OK, we're gonna go to the store ... and as we walked into the store, as you look around and there are these huge pictures of all these straight couples on the wall —

Dara: — and mostly white, too —

Lauren: — and at that moment I realized. There's this middle-aged white man there, like, "How can I help you?" So ... I'm explaining that my parents got us this bed.

Dara: I didn't actually think about it until we laid on the bed, and I was like, oh, awkward!

Lauren: Awkward! Because I was like, we both have to, Test The Bed. So now, it's coming out. Now we're coming out. You never know, on a daily basis, when we have to come out, over and over and over again. So then he turns to me and says, "Oh is this for you and your husband?" Dara is standing next to me and I've been referring to 'us' —

Dara: — laying —

Lauren: — she's laying on the bed next to me and he says, "Is this for you and your husband?" And I said, "No. We're together. It's our bed." ... And he was clearly embarrassed, but not embarrassed because we were together, but embarrassed because he immediately assumed that we weren't.

He was awesome. He got it. Clicked in his brain. Moved on and helped us and it was a good experience. But there was like, I didn't think how buying mattresses would require us to come out. It was just bizarre.

Dara: As we say this, I think about how far things have come. ... To say we don't have a fear, there's not fear of physical harm, or even feeling like our feelings are going to get hurt. I mean there's always the chance that might happen, but for the most part it's really just — to be able to use words like, "It's so awkward," or, "It's uncomfortable." I still feel happy to know that's all it is. And every time we do it and every time we go through it, it brings us together more, 'cause we're like, "Oh, how did we handle that? How can we handle it better next time?" ... It's getting easier, probably because, on the outside, society is gettin' with the program.

Lauren: We have way more than the generation before us.

The two plan to file a civil union. After their wedding, Dara tried to legally change her last name to Lauren's but ran into roadblocks, and is excited that this is included in the law, so her public commitment can be more than "Facebook official." Someday, they'd like to share a name on bank checks.

click to enlarge Kathy and Geri - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Kathy and Geri

Kathy and Geri

The story of Geri Johnson and Kathy Edwards begins like that of many couples — at the office. Geri, 38, says they "originally sat, like, three cubes apart," at the Indianapolis offices of Sallie Mae, the U.S. student loan company, where they are both still employed in the tech side of the business.

They started working on projects together and Kathy, 44, says, "we were so compatible, you know, with the way we looked at things, and looked at problems and life."

But Geri had other things in mind. She had been married to a man and divorced. "I married my best friend," she says, thinking back with tears in her eyes. "I loved him ...[but] one morning I woke up and was like, 'I can't do this the rest of my life. Something is missing. I am content, but I'm not happy.' ... At the time it wasn't about straight or gay."

As a result, she was comfortable being single. And she'd been dreaming of moving to a place she'd visited and fallen in love with: Colorado. With her boss' approval to telecommute, she headed to Fort Collins. She liked it there, but the Indiana-born-and-bred woman — whose family was still across the country, along with her burgeoning relationship with Kathy — was finding herself in the veritable "absence makes the heart grow fonder" situation.

"My heart was calling me back," she says.

Being who you are

When Geri returned to the Midwest, the two prioritized making their relationship work.

"When we decided to live together, we proactively sought a therapist and said, 'Hey, we want to live together and we want to stay together for the foreseeable future.' ... We used to see her every six weeks, learning to communicate. And that has paid — "

"— dividends," Kathy says, laughing. "Beyond dividends."

Of course it seems healthy communication has been key for both of them their whole lives.

"My father, when I came out to him, he was like, 'Thank god you know this about yourself,'" Kathy says. "He just wanted me to be happy. I've really never encountered resistance about being a lesbian. Maybe it's the friends I keep, maybe it's my family, maybe it's the places I don't go. I don't know. I've never needed to be closeted."

Geri's story is different, but she says her parents, who have supported her all along the way, would say she's always been individualistic.

"I love myself. I see myself as so unique and so I've always embraced whatever there is about me. ... I'm just gonna be me no matter what, which is a great outlook on life, I think personally. ... And thankfully I haven't met any resistance, but that was just how it was gonna be regardless."

They say they haven't had challenges at work either, though Sallie Mae is a large corporation they consider conservative.

"We've never been closeted about our relationship," says Kathy, who's in her 10th year of employment. Geri, in her 20th year, adds: "I had no qualms about us when we had to tell our management we needed to work on different teams [because we were dating] ... I mean we didn't fear our employment, I don't even know if we talked about it, I guess is my point. Where other people, they do, I mean it's a real thing. So it does sound like, 'Yay, everything is just roses ... and we don't have any challenges,' but it's literally true."

Colorado, for good

Flash forward to 2012, and as Geri says, it's kind of like déjà vu. The two visited friends in Colorado Springs last summer and were so taken with the Kissing Camels neighborhood that on the way to the airport they called a real estate agent and set an appointment for that Monday to put their Indianapolis house up for sale.

They once again asked their bosses if they could telecommute, and on approval, packed up and drove cross-country in two U-Hauls with their dogs, Sadie and Josie.

The couple, who have now been together for 10 years, admit to having heard stories about Colorado Springs' conservative environment, but as Kathy says, "We have experienced nothing but welcome arms."

"Because I play golf," Geri says, "we immediately joined the Garden of the Gods Club, and we love it there — not that we're trying to put in a plug for the Garden of the Gods Club, but —"

"— it is an older, conservative club," Kathy interjects. "But we've had nothing but friendliness and welcome. ... Three months in the house and happy as clams."

So now that they're in Colorado, will they file for a civil union?

"What we care about are matters of the heart," Geri says. "So when I think about our rights, it's what I care most about between the two of us, that is, us supporting each other in sickness and in health. And whatever rights we need to do that, outside of this house, is what we would be most interested in."

"If that's a civil union that gives us those basic rights, you know, that we want in this relationship," Kathy adds, "then that's good."

click to enlarge Stuart and Rick - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Stuart and Rick

Stuart and Rick

Rick Newcomb and Stuart Blom's relationship from the get-go was, as Stuart says, "A little scandalous. A little Springer." The gist: Stuart was engaged to Rick's cousin Melissa. The two guys had been close friends for five years by then.

"And Rick," says Stuart, "was going to be the best man."

"It turns out I still am," Rick adds, laughing.

After Stuart broke up with Melissa, he and Rick dated, then lived together as roommates, but didn't tell anyone for a year.

"Honestly, my family was just so devastated when they broke up because everybody loves Stuart so much," Rick says, "and so I was so scared to tell people. But they were just so ecstatic and so happy that Stuart was back a part of our team."

Almost 14 years have passed since then. Rick, 30, and Stuart, 35, agree that's a long time and yet, speaking together, say "It feels like no time at all."

"I want to see his 100th birthday," Stuart says. "Not that I want us to be old, 'cause we'll be there when we get there, no rushing. ... I just want to see him on his 100th birthday. I mean, that would be the best gift."

"I'm gonna be a dapper centenarian, too," Rick teases.

Truth is, there's nothing Springer about them.

I wanna hold your hand

At SalonSeven, the Tejon Street salon they've owned for the past five years, Rick does hair. Stuart manages, keeping the books, answering phone calls, and getting clients drinks. They credit their success to one simple thing.

"We are ourselves here," Stuart says. "We don't hold back — I mean we're not running around kissing and hugging and, you know, being gross. Well, not gross, but like, in people's face about it — but we are certainly ourselves here. And people I think like that."

Being themselves hasn't always been easy. Rick recalls when Stuart was a University of Iowa student. It was Valentine's Day and all the straight couples around them were walking down the street holding hands.

"I wanted to hold Stuart's hand and he was so nervous, like 'What if people are mean to us, or what if' ... And instead I finally convinced him to hold my hand, and people were applauding or people were saying, 'Good for you guys,' so it was a completely opposite scenario of what Stuart was scared of. I think that was a turning point for us. And we'd been together for three or four years at that point."

Of course that doesn't mean they haven't had other battles to fight. When they bought their first house in Colorado Springs, they realized the paperwork did not allow for the property to be transferred automatically to the other in case of death.

"We literally stood up to leave the closing, 'cause we weren't gonna sign it that way," Stuart says.

Rick adds: "And they looked at us incredulously, like, 'Really?'"

Stuart nods. "Like we were doing something wrong. It's like, 'No, if I die, he gets my part of the house.' ... It shouldn't be rocket science."

Kudos to Iowa

Rick and Stuart have no interest in getting a civil union — they're waiting for full marriage equality.

"You know, we're from Iowa. We can get married in Iowa. Shouldn't other states be embarrassed?" Stuart asks. "Didn't we already do this with women's rights, and didn't we already do this with black folks? I mean, do we just have to keep replaying history?

"Twenty, 30, 50 years from now, it'll be another group of people that don't get to have their rights. The Constitution is very clear about who gets rights. Everyone. So why do we still pick and choose who gets them?"

"We should definitely be beyond the times where we are easing into this conversation, and the idea that we are moving full speed ahead with civil unions seems absolutely counter-productive if you ask me," Rick says. "We know what we want. Why are we not asking for that? ... Let's talk about the real issue. I mean for goodness sakes, it's legal to smoke pot in Colorado, but 'Don't let the gay people get married.'"

Of course, wherever the legislation ends up isn't really the bottom line for this couple.

"We've gotten so good the last couple of years of just doing whatever we want and knowing that if we're happy, then we'll make other people happy," Stuart says.

Rick breaks into soft song.

"All you need is love."

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