October 28, 2012

Bill Nemitz: In the end, that marriage certificate means a lot

What do you do when your phone rings in the middle of a hectic day and, on the other end, you're greeted by a grown man in tears?

click image to enlarge

Joseph Stackpole, 68, of Old Orchard Beach, is a cancer patient at Maine Medical Center who likely has not long to live. He and his partner, Richard Johnson, were married in Massachusetts, but Stackpole wants his home state of Maine to allow them to make their partnership a marriage.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Richard Johnson of Old Orchard Beach is preparing for life without his partner, his “rock,” Joseph Stackpole.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

"I was going to write a letter to the editor," Joseph Stackpole told me as he struggled to compose himself. "But I'm not sure I have the strength."

As you read this, Stackpole is lying in a bed in Maine Medical Center's cancer wing. He's 68, gay, and for some time now has lived for the day when his beloved state of Maine will recognize him and his partner, Richard Johnson, as the married couple they already consider themselves to be.

In fact, just moments before he called Thursday afternoon, Stackpole had confided to his doctor his fervent hope that he'll live at least long enough to see Maine voters legalize same-sex marriage on Nov. 6 -- now a mere nine days away.

"Well," replied the doctor with all the bedside manner he could muster, "there's no guarantee of that."

As we hurtle toward the next (and hopefully the last) statewide referendum involving equality for all Mainers regardless of their sexual orientation, it's easy to get lost in the back-and-forth chatter -- the claim by one side that the opposition's latest ads are a bunch of hooey or the warning from the other side that the "radical gay agenda" will bring us all to eternal damnation.

Then all of a sudden, away from the fray, a lone voice emerges. The voice of a man who wants more than anything else to be legally married, but suddenly finds himself running out of time.

"We're a demographic that people aren't very interested in," Stackpole said with a smile when I arrived at his bedside Friday morning. Sitting nearby, mostly in silence, was Johnson -- the man Stackpole proudly calls "my husband."

Not interesting? How so?

"We're two older gay men," Stackpole replied. "We don't have interesting stories."

You be the judge.

They met in 1996, both refugees from decades-long, heterosexual marriages in which they'd tried and failed to be someone they knew deep down they weren't.

Joseph Stackpole had only come out -- even to himself -- the previous year. Richard Johnson, now 70, had known since he was a child that he was gay, but only in his mid-50s had he accepted it and begun, however painfully, to adjust his life accordingly.

Joseph, a lifelong Mainer and Vietnam veteran, was an accountant. Richard, a Massachusetts native who had just moved to Maine, worked with computers.

Both were scared. Both were confused. But from the night they first laid eyes on each other at a support-group gathering for men struggling with their sexual identities, it was clear to both men that this was meant to be.

"We had the proverbial 'South Pacific' moment -- across the crowded room," recalled Joseph with a chuckle.

It by no means would be easy. But through their divorces, through Richard's bouts with deep depression, through the sometimes terrifying process of presenting themselves as a gay couple to family, friends and the world at large, they stuck together.

"I believed in a relationship and monogamy -- and the idea of casual sex just really didn't appeal to me," Joseph said. "I know that's the big image that everybody has of (being a gay man). But I'd been in a relationship for 28 years and that's what I still wanted -- the intimacy of a relationship."

They've been together 16 years now. And along the way, they've done whatever they can to present themselves not as boyfriends, not as companions, but as two men as deeply committed to each other as any husband and wife.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Joseph Stackpole wears his wedding band while in his hospital bed at Maine Medical Center on Friday.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


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