Commitment | NC


Their Words:

1.

Vicki Anderson and Jill Hesse of Garner, NC, have been together for seven years.

Jill has always known she was different. She met Vicki on a blind date and they have been together ever since.

Jill grew up in a strong Christian home and describes herself as a spiritual person and a "recovering Southern Baptist."

"I got over, a long time ago, wanting to hide. I knew Jesus and would be OK. I can't go back to [hiding], says Jill.

Vicki has health problems that necessitate Jill having durable power of medical attorney, or the legal ability to make medical decisions for Vicki. Their biggest concern with the North Carolina amendment lies in their denial of legal rights that straight couples are entitled to upon marriage. Also under the amendment it will be illegal for government employers to provide benefits for the partners of employees in same sex relationships.

The couple sees the struggle as strictly a legal issue.

"Marriage requires a license. It is not a religious process," said Vicki.

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2.

Genia Smith says her son Chris was destined to play baseball. And Chris will tell you that growing up with two mothers didn't impede his transformation into an athletic, articulate and heterosexual young man.

Genia's partner of 32 years, Becky, agrees.

"As soon as he could hold a ball, he was playing catch," Genia says, who remembers her first game of catch with Chris when he was 3 or 4 years old. "I would pitch, he would hit and Becky was our fielder... She had to go run after all the balls."

I can't even tell you how many hours and hours I spent with him in the batting cage, on the field in the drive way," says Genia who coached her son through Little League, from when he was 7 to 12, four nights a week.

Genia says she played softball all her life, and she was good. She only stopped playing after she started coaching Chris. She even played when she was pregnant with him, giving up playing catcher because it was too dangerous. She and Becky would haul Chris to all her games. He pointed to a scar on his leg he says he's had since he was 4, when he fell off the bleachers, bringing one of her games to a stop.

Chris swears he learned from watching her, by playing a game with his mom that most boys play with their dad. He just turned 15 and plays shortstop and second base against kids who are 16 and 17. Baseball is his life and he's very competitive.

He cherishes his memories of little league baseball. "It's all about your friends and doing your best. It's a community and you know the people for a long time, it's where I met my best friend to this day," Chris tells me. He would often get depressed during winter months, between little league seasons, when he couldn't play.

He tells me about a friend on his team who gets mad when teammates say "that's so gay," or other disparaging things. "He looks out for me, he's very protective of me," Chris says, who is frustrated by the North Carolina constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

"All my friends are super comfortable around my parents. I hear most mean comments from older people, from my parents generation," he says, contending that kids his age who are homophobic often have homophobic parents.

"It's baffling when right now there are natural disasters, poverty and hunger, but [legislators] are hurting the people out there that are happy and doing well," says Chris, who doesn't feel any different that other kids, having grown up with two mothers.

"Well, the only time it is a problem is when I have to tie a tie, and they aren't very helpful then," he says laughing as he looks at his mothers.

Genia hands me a photo of Chris and in it he is wearing a suit. His black tie is tied perfectly and standing next to him is a pretty girl with brown hair in a new dress. "This is from his formal last Saturday, and that is his date" she tells me.

In this day and age, children are lucky to have someone to play catch with, lucky to have a father figure, sometimes lucky to have parents at all. It is obvious that Genia and Becky have been everything a child could ask for in parents. Chris is well mannered and well adjusted. He is also straight, so their sexuality has had no impact on his.

"It's only fair to have equal marriage rights. It's so bizarre that straight people think it has so much to do with them," says Genia. She "couldn't care less about an actual marriage ceremony," instead she just wants the legal rights that every other couple with a marriage license has.

Genia and Becky have spent thousands and thousands on legal fees to make sure Becky also has custody of Chris. His father, a gay man, is friends with Genia and he donated his sperm and signed off all custody. Genia and Becky agree that with age they have experience navigating the legal system to work around the rights they are denied such as child custody and durable power of medical attorney. Their concern is that younger couples with less money and less experience will have a harder time doing so.

"Marriage is a legality, you don't need a preacher to get married," she adds.

The three agree that so far they have never felt discriminated against on the baseball field or in public, and don't expect to be. But they just want to be treated equally by the state.

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4.

Robin Silver is tired of thinking about being gay every day. "It's just one part of me!" she says.

She and Teri Reeder live in Greensboro, NC have been together for eight years and have known each other for 23. They are legally married in Canada. Terri was once married to a man because she wanted to please her parents who she describes as being very conservative.

Robin's parents asked her if she was gay in high school, but it hadn't occurred to her. She realized it years later and it has never been a big deal with them.

They had a commitment ceremony in Greensboro performed by their friend Heather McIver's grandfather, who helped found the Wake Forest Divinity School.

"Lesbians usually look for that "it" neighborhood. We ended up in the suburbs," laughs Robin. She says it has been difficult for them to even get a family pool membership in their neighborhood.

"We bought a house here, why can't we have a family pool membership? Families pay one cheaper fee and can bring guests! It was harder to get that than it was to get a YMCA membership or bank account together," she says. They eventually were granted one, and hope the experience was educational to the neighborhood.

"We are living the American dream, except for tax breaks we don't get and legal issues we fight," says Teri.

"Both of us have thought, as we get older, what if something happens to us. The house, the cars, where do they go?" she wondered.

Teri describes the United States, and particularly the South, as a hard place for gays and lesbians to live. "We are more recognized in other countries, more legitimate in Canada where we were married." Robin and Teri's travels to Europe have highlighted a stark contrast in how homosexuals and couples are treated. They recall a a trip to the Netherlands where they visited the Anne Frank house, which they called "a somber experience." When they walked outside the town was celebrating gay pride with a parade. "Even the mayor of the town was there," said Robin.

"Acceptance is the real American dream," says Teri. She defines acceptance as "to wake up and not have to brace myself for someone not liking me."

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5.

Chris Crabtree knew he was different in the first or second grade.

His partner of 17 years, Parrish Pace, can relate; he says that when he played on the playground in elementary school and a bunch of his guy friends fell on the ground, he always wanted to fall on top of them. He didn't understand why until he was 13 or 14 years old.

Parrish says figuring out he was gay was "miserable."

"My first crush was on another guy in the church choir." he says, grimacing.

Chris beams when he tells me he was one of the first in his family to come out.

Chris' family lives on land where the pavement ends, just north of Durham in Bahama, that has been in the family for over 200 years. He tells me that "it" runs in his family. His brother Ed is gay, and so were many of his cousins and aunts.

"I'm pretty sure Aunt Nannie May was, and so was Aunt Eddie Jackson Crabtree... she was a spinster. Aunt Nannie May had a Ph.D, but Aunt Eddie couldn't even read," he says laughing.

"We are incredibly normal," says Chris. "We go to the grocery store together and live next to my parents."

Chris says his relationship with Parrish's family is strained to say the least and he has "No legal tie to Parrish even though we have a house together," he says.

"He is on my life insurance policy but [my family] could contest that," Parrish tells me, if same-sex marriage stays illegal in North Carolina.

Parrish is mostly concerned about how the amendment is written.

"Sometimes we get too tied up in the word 'marriage.' I want to know if when he is in the hospital, can I go see him, and vice-versa. I want to know that I can leave my property to him. I just want the same situation that others can have when they get married," he says.

Under the amendment, parties in public contracts, such as employees working for state or municipal government, cannot extend benefits to their same-sex partners. Private businesses are excluded from this, but Parrish thinks that the language and definition is vague.

"The say private contracts are excluded, but what is a private contract? If a local government can't legally support you, then what good is a private contract any way?" he argues.

Ultimately Chris and Parrish feel that politicians are trying to create a bogeyman to distract voters from real issues such as unemployment.

"We are going to vote on this during a primary election which means independents/unaffiliateds will have no reason to vote... the only people going to vote are the extreme left and extreme right," he contends.

Even if the amendment passes, Parrish and Chris won't change. "We are who we are," says Parrish.

"This [amendment] goes far beyond just marriage. It goes after us at home, everywhere... recently I have decided that I don't care how bigoted people are... they aren't going to keep me from my relationship with God and Christ. I can have that without them," Chris says in frustration over others who point to religion and say being gay is a choice.

"There must be a whole bunch of bisexuals in the world because they are all making the choice to be straight, if it is also a choice to be gay," he says with a smirk.

---

6.

Every day that Tim O'Hara is gone, Ed Crabtree sends himself an email that counts down the days left until the love of his life comes home.

In the space between, he seeks distractions. He used to watch TV a lot, but he's been out of work for a while, so he turned off his cable. Often he bides his time looking for jobs, going for walks and cleaning.

"Sunday nights are the worst because no one ever calls. Then I am very starkly aware that I am alone... It's just not good to sit and think," he tells me.

Before Tim left for his first year away, he left cards hidden around the house, in the cupboard, the closet, under pillows, that Ed gradually found. With each one he is reminded of their love and he forgets the pain of their separation. Twenty of those cards line his kitchen counter above his sink.

At the airport there are always hugs, tears and 'I love yous.' The first time Tim flew away, Ed followed him as far as he could into the terminal. He watched him round the corner past security, he took a picture of him, and then he was gone.

"It gets a little better a few minutes after he is gone. It's the anticipation that is just murder. It is sad that it gets better after I drop him off but there is no more dread. And I begin to look forward to him coming back," says Ed. "A part of me seems to just go on auto-pilot."

"I know that I have to go on, and I know that he will be back. I have to trust that he will be back, but life is unpredictable. It bothers me that life is unpredictable, that despite our best efforts, something could happen and we would not be together ever again," he says.

Tim is from Canada and met Ed when he was working in the US back in December of 1999. In their hearts, minds and souls, they have been together ever since. This December they will celebrate 12 years of commitment. Tim is 45 and Ed, who is 50, is Chris Crabtree's brother.

In the early days they endured living on top of each other in a 300 square-foot apartment in Chapel Hill when Tim had a long-term work visa, and for the past year survived living seven time zones apart while Tim teaches in Cairo, Egypt because he can't get back into the United States.

"Since [we] aren't federally recognized as a couple, I can't sponsor Tim as my spouse, so the only way he can come here is on a work visa," Ed tells me.

Tim's last visa was an H1B, which expires every three years and can be renewed for another three pending its recipient has a certified job in the US. During the 5th year of the visa, Tim would have needed to begin working towards citizenship to stay longer, but Ed says his lawyer didn't tell him that.

"It was also during the worst of the economic crisis, so we weren't even sure he'd have labor certification any way," Ed tells me.

Under the terms of the H1B visa, Tim had to leave the US for a year on August 21, 2010. He returned to visit for the first time one year and a day later. Since then he and Ed have gone to great lengths to make their relationship work. They both hate to fly; in fact Ed tells me that they both have to take Xanax every time they get on a plane, just to survive the flight. But have put aside their fears to visit each other in Egypt, Europe, and Canada.

Ed says that marriage wasn't much of a thought in the past, but now he feels it could help Tim get citizenship. Under current immigration law, "alien" fiances can apply for a K-1 Fiance Visa to enter the US and marry a US citizen, then they have to apply for a Green Card and the process has to be done in that order. But to be in the US while they apply for a Green Card, one requires a valid non-immigration visa such as a technical or work visa like the ones Tim had in the past.

But all this is irrelevant to Tim and Ed because Tim could never get a K-1 visa to marry Ed because the federal Defense of Marriage Act doesn't allow for same-sex marriage in the US.

"We kinda didn't think we had to conform, but now, damn-it, we want [marriage]. It is the only solution," he argues.

In fact, in Canada it would be easy for Tim and Ed to marry, and even easier for Ed to get citizenship in about six months.

"I grew up in Canada, but I am the one who moved here.. I shouldn't take him from the place he has lived all his life... He is only 20 miles from where he grew up," Tim complains.

"We want the choice to be together here. Straight couples wouldn't have to move! And moving doesn't guarantee we would have jobs," he adds.

But even if Ed and Tim got married in Washington D.C., Iowa, New York, Massachusetts or Vermont, their union wouldn't be recognized federally, or here, because of the Defense of Marriage Act and a similar act already in place in North Carolina.

Codifying marriage as between one man and one woman into the North Carolina constitution could further prevent anyone from ever contesting North Carolina's own DOMA on constitutional grounds.

Ed thinks the amendment is a blight on the state constitution. Tim, however, sees a silver lining.

"Sometimes you need an amendment like this to get people to rally. I hope it will get people thinking, 'Why do we need this? Is this necessary?" he says.

For now, Tim and Ed feel the visas, DOMA and the North Carolina amendment will continue to work against them, but the legislation won't change them.

"We are a unit," says Ed. "I remember each time he leaves I think, 'It's back to regular life,' but that's not true. My real life is when he is here."

"We may not be recognized by anybody, but he is the only person I can imagine spending the rest of my life with. And all indications are I am the one he wants to be with," he adds.

Further, such legislation will not change Ed and Tim's sexuality.

"I always knew I was different," Ed says, who realized he was different at a young age.

"I always thought my attraction to men was something that was gonna pass. When I was 36 years into it, I realized that if you extract the gay from me, I don't exist really. It's not about sex, especially once you are in a committed relationships, there's not that much sex, its just like a straight married couple!" he says laughing.

Ed thinks that much of the fear of homosexuals lies in the fear of how they have sex.

"Sex is not what life is about, but I am gay in all of life. Its not like I am straight except for the gay sex. It's an essence," he contends.

Ed chuckles when he hears talk of the "Gay Agenda" or a "Gay Conspiracy."

"The gay agenda... it depends on the day. It's just to live day to day. Some days there's brunch, a manicure, hopefully mimosas," he says with a smirk.

--

8.

Heather McIver always felt drawn to the old, white clapboard church when she drove by on the rural Alamance County road.

Raising two kids can be exhausting, so she was looking for a place where she could go and sit in silence for an hour a week. But the old doors would offer an unexpected peace, an unexpected family and much more.

Heather believes that within everyone is a divine light, and if you are quiet enough you can experience God's intentions through it. So does the congregation at the Spring Friends Meeting, a progressive Quaker Meeting in Snow Camp, North Carolina north of Siler City.

Most Sundays you can find Heather and her family here, sitting in silence. The creak of the old wood floor in the 1900's-built meeting house is often the loudest noise in the room. The worship services are informal and inclusive. Heather's sexual orientation and her family have never been an "issue" here.

She has been with Suzanne Lowe for 18 years, and they had a commitment ceremony in 1997. Heather is the biological mother of their two daughters, Annika, 7, and Celie, 3. Their biological father, a gay man, lives not far from them in Siler City, and signed off all custody to Heather after donating his sperm. However, he maintains a close relationship with the family.

Suzanne tells me that their decision to have kids was very intentional and took years of thought. They began talking about having a family after Heather's grandfather--a prominent Bible scholar and Baptist minister who presided over their commitment ceremony--admonished them to "make a significant contribution to the future generation."

Heather feels that so much of the push behind federal and state legislation like Amendment One prohibiting same-sex marriage has its roots in religion. In her mind, it is a push for her to be something that she isn't.

"If there wasn't a moral or religious objection to same-sex couples, then there wouldn't be a legal objection, because what would be the problem?" she contends.

She says she doesn't feel this push at Spring Friends Meeting however.

Quakers have a tradition of bucking "tradition." They broke with the Church of England during the English Reformation in the mid-seventeenth century because they felt that the common man, or woman, could experience God directly. They attempt to read the Bible with its intention in mind, instead of reading it literally.

"A Quaker farmer might feel the presence of God while he is plowing in his field," muses Heather, sharing a sentiment that makes too much sense in a rural community like Siler City. Spring Friends Meeting has been a fixture in this agricultural community nestled between Chapel Hill and Greensboro since it was founded in 1761 before the Revolutionary War. Since then it has shifted from being theologically conservative to being more open and pluralistic.

Historically, Quakers have been known for their refusal to fight in wars, and their opposition to slavery and capital punishment. Involvement in social justice movements has been a fixture of Quaker outreach, and Spring Friends adheres strongly to that tradition.

During a recent monthly business meeting at Spring Friends, a family was "held in the light," or prayed for, after a dog killed most of their livestock the night before. The social justice committee voted to continue helping a local woman who was trying to get her GED, members allocated funds to refurbish the meeting house and tied up other loose ends.

They also began forming a statement to oppose Amendment One on the grounds that it is socially unacceptable and harmful, and incongruent with Quaker views on equality.

"We saw the same light in Heather and Suzanne that they saw in us. That puts us on equal footing," says Cindy Perry, Clerk of the Spring Friends Meeting.

"There is something about their lives that pulls people together... They are just good, caring people, who aren't different from us," she added. She says their influence on the congregation has been nothing but positive and educational.

"One Mother's Day we were all sitting around and Annika said 'I am so lucky because I've got two moms...' We needed to hear that, so did the other kids and it just blew us away," says Cindy.

Cindy says that their contribution to the Meeting has been quiet, steady and gentle, which in her words is "the Quaker way." She and others in the congregation worry about the effects the amendment could have on Heather and Suzanne.

Like other Quakers, Cindy has a deep concern for equality and against violence. She believes that all people are made by God for His work on Earth and that every time a life is restrained by inequality or snuffed out through violence, a piece of God is snuffed out too.

"We all wanted to do something, to speak out so that their relationship wouldn't be marginalized. They didn't ask us to do this. The most they asked was to come and pose for the picture, and what was so remarkable about that is we had more people show up that day, than we typically have. We wanted to do something to support them so nothing would happen to their beautiful relationship that we have come to know," she concluded.

"We are very fortunate that in this community, no one seems to care about our lifestyle. Annika goes to the public school and the faculty and staff have only ever been supportive and accepting," Heather tells me.

"Often, I forget that we are a gay couple... we are just two people who fell in love and decided to create a family together. But when stuff like this amendment comes up, I feel like am being singled out. Like the way I live isn't right. We're basically just working parents who take our kids to soccer games, put dinner on the table and attend school functions. We have the same struggles and the same joys other parents do. It may not affect us on a daily basis, but the state has decided that we aren't a real family," she says.

Without legal assistance, Suzanne has no guardianship over the children or health care power of attorney to make medical decisions for Heather. Luckily, her employer provides domestic partner benefits which are extended to Heather, who tells me she would be on Medicaid without them.

"We had to pay lots of lawyers... for Suzanne to also have guardianship over the kids and rights to make medical decisions for us," Heather tells me. Straight couples who marry have those rights implied, and if Amendment One passes things could only get harder for families like Heather and Suzanne's.

Heather and Suzanne both feel the amendment would also be bad for the state economy. They reason that if gay couples have the option to live in states, such as New York or Vermont, where they are recognized and have domestic partner benefits, then talented and productive people are going to settle in those others state and not North Carolina.

"Our state will suffer by having a lower quality workforce," Heather predicts.

"If people don't have to hide their relationship, they are going to be more productive members of the community. Having the ability to share who we really are opens us up to being able to contribute to society more instead of having to worry about being found out. Keeping a secret is exhausting and isolating," she contends.

Read Spring Friends' resolution against Amendment One HERE
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9.

Wesley Thompson had just finished work at the restaurant, and after a few drinks he realized that he couldn't get Trey Owen out of his head.

It was 1986, before the era of cell phones, so he picked up the restaurant's phone, called Trey and told him that he just had to see him.

They had only known each other for five weeks, but he had something important to tell him.

Somewhere on U.S. 15-501 between Durham and Chapel Hill, a cop pulled him over, asked him if he had been drinking and where he was going.

"Yes I have, and I am going to tell someone that I am in love with them," Wesley exclaimed.

The cop looked stunned and was speechless for a moment.

"Well I'll be damned. If you had told me anything else I would have probably arrested you. I am going to follow you and if you are telling me the truth, don't let this happen again," he told Wesley.

The officer did just that, and from his squad car window he watched Wesley shake like a leaf as he professed his love to Trey on his front stoop. He then drove away.

Wesley and Trey went inside and fell into each other's arms and into the arms of sleep. Twenty-five years later they are still together, and happily married.

In 2005 Trey and Wesley awoke to a nightmare. Trey had been feeling sick for a few weeks, and Wesley, who is a physician assistant, had done blood-work on him twice. Each time the results showed that his white blood cell count was through the roof, and he appeared leukemic. Soon after Trey was diagnosed with a rare form of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and had a survival rate in the single digits.

Trey fought the aggressive cancer for a year and its complications, including blood poisoning that damaged his brain, kidneys and liver. He was in intensive care for weeks and received a stem cell transplant that wasn't covered by insurance. The cost drained him and Wesley of their savings but the procedure ultimately saved his life. He will continue to fight its effects for the rest of his life.

At one point Trey was on a ventilator and needed 14 tubes in his body to survive. It was then that doctors urged Wesley to make a decision.
"They wanted to know if I wanted to pull the plug. I said 'no, that doesn't feel right'," Wesley told me.

"So I said to the nurse, who kept trying to shoo me out, 'I am not leaving until he wakes up.'" Wesley says he sat by Trey's side for seven days.

"The whole time I was praying 'God, take anything from me, please keep him! Trey, please stay," he added.

Seven days later Trey woke up, saying "I'll stay, I'll stay," according to Wesley.
"To this day, I still believe there was some kind of energy transfer from a higher power that kept him alive," says Wesley, who is a devout Christian like Trey.

Growing up, Trey and Wesley both experienced tension with their faith and sexuality, and recognize that both are woven together tightly. Trey even spent a couple years in an "Ex-Gay" program designed to rid him of his homosexuality. He eventually dated a guy in the group before he met Wesley.

"I had to say to myself, wake up... you gotta just face this, as much as you don't want to." He met Wesley a year later and they have been inseparable.

"We still come to church wanting a relationship with God, regardless of what the church wants from us," Wesley contends.

Trey says that you often find so many gay men and lesbians in evangelical Christian groups because they are desperately trying to be different. He contends that many feel hated by the world.

"Why would you want to be something that everybody hates? They are seeking God's salvation and begging, imploring God to change the feelings they have, because they fear that their family will reject them, at very best society will ignore them if not outright hate them or discriminate against them," says Wesley.

They say their faith shifted from a Baptist denomination to Episcopalian after they heard a Baptist minister at their church claim that HIV and AIDS was God's divine wrath on homosexuals.

"We walked out," says Wesley, who admits he struggled with his faith for a year afterwards, and felt angry towards God.

He and Trey discovered the Episcopal church which they felt was more affirming to them and less literal.

Wesley says "I am a Christian, but not a literalist. The Bible for me is a great foundation, it's what I build on but it's not my roof or end-all-be-all. I am very fundamental about my beliefs."

"We believe in the fundamental of Christianity, to love one another," Trey elaborates.
"The fact is the Bible is a living document and people have added to it, which to me proves that God continues to speak and inspire!" Wesley exclaims.

Both admit that they had very little legal trouble making healthcare decisions during their battle with Leukemia.

"We had very little problems with the hospital and our families... the primary reason we didn't was because we were fortunate enough to have planned ahead of time for an illness or something and had done all the necessary paper work..." says Trey, who also points out that their parents were supportive.

But they still had to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to ensure that they could make medical decisions for each other, which is implied in marriage.

"We knitted our lives together early on," says Wesley. "We knew that we needed some ties that bind, so first we combined our finances, we made each other healthcare power of attorney and created living wills... Everything was split 50/50, and we feel like those are the trappings early on that keep you together when the going gets tough," he says.

Wesley remembers asking Trey to marry him in 1990, to which he declined.

"I said that I didn't really see the need for spending all that money for something that didn't really have any impact on our lives. It didn't change anything ... The only protections that we could get we already had because we had spent all that money having all the legal paperwork done... I didn't see how it could make us any more committed than we already were," admits Trey.

But cancer, time and watching his own brother battle addictions and get married four times changed Trey. He was finally in remission, but during his brother's fifth wedding in 2006, Trey says he nearly snapped.

"I was in the wedding... as happy as I was for my brother I was mad as fire the whole time. All I could think about was, 'So my brother can get married five times and somehow that is all still sacred, fine and wonderful and good in God's eyes, and yet I can't even get married once? That is just ridiculous!" Trey recalls.

After the wedding, Trey started thinking about marrying the man he had been with for nearly 20 years. They were eating cheesy takeout food on the bed.
"I just looked at Wes and said, 'Honey are you still willing to marry me?"
"Of course, of course," said Wesley.

On November 18, 2006, twenty years to the day, even to the hour that Trey Owen and Wesley Thompson met, they were civilly married in Vancouver, British Columbia at the O' Canada House. Everyone at the bed and breakfast attended their wedding held in the parlor.

"Being a gay couple was such a non-issue in Canada," Wesley tells me.
"As much as we like to think we have a separation of church and state in this country we don't, and they do, and they completely separate civil rights from religious activities," says Trey, who now admits that marriage is more than just a piece of paper.

"Being married and being able to say that communicates so much more to other people. You can say 'we are in a loving committed relationship,' which is true, but it doesn't communicate anything compared to saying 'we are married,'" contends Trey.

Wesley says "It changed me. Mind, heart and soul. And maybe it is because it's something that we don't throw around so easily as straight couples who fall in and out of marriage do."

He describes the difference in their relationship now as "palpable." "It truly is hard to verbalize," he says.

"We can only talk about how transformative it is. I guess because we had to fight for it, so it means more to us," adds Trey.

Wesley and Trey admit they knew, from the beginning, the odds were against them lasting. Divorce rates are high among cancer survivors and their spouses. Trey still battles the effects of his cancer, and his relationship with Wesley is obviously more complicated than most.

"Trey and I were up against the odds that statistically say you are likely to break up, and then you throw cancer in the picture which makes it more likely, and then we have no ties that bind which makes it even more likely... I guess I am proud that we are where we are, that we are still there for each other," says Wesley.

"A lot of younger people have come through our lives and have said you guys are role models for us, because how many gay couples stay together this long?" he concludes.

---

12.

Hospitality and community are tightly woven into the fabric of southern culture. You can feel it when the passing farmer gives you the two finger wave from his steering wheel, or when the mailman stops to chew the fat. It's in the chatty woman in the checkout line, the banjo players at the barbershop or the trucker that stops to help jump-start a car.

But Hal Lindley, 57, doesn't feel that hospitality when people driving past his house yell "FAGGOT" at him.

Especially since the Lindleys were some of the first settlers of the Silk Hope community, nestled in rural Chatham County not far from Siler City. The Lindley's were mostly farmers, families that coaxed abundance from the earth, milled the grain and broke the wilderness long before the United States existed. They were rugged stewards of the land, and Hal has roots deep along Cane Creek.

Silk Hope is his home and it's where he belongs.

The Lindley's have historically been Quaker, and Hal's life centered around church when he was a child.

Hal realized he was gay when he was 10 or 11 years old.

"For me it just seems so natural. Back then no one ever talked about it so it didn't seem anything out of the ordinary to me," Hal says.

He remembers clearly when he first made to feel ashamed of his feelings, years later when he says a preacher at his church began to preach frequently against homosexuality.

"It made me feel bad, that I was a terrible person. And I withdrew a little bit... from having anything to do with anyone at that point. I think that a lot of people started picking up that I was different... I felt like a weirdo, like I didn't belong," he remembers.

Hal has piercing eyes set under his silver eyebrows. His demeanor is timid, his voice soft and his mind wise like an owl.

Hal recalls being more "feminine" and interested in things that the other boys his age were not. He felt isolated.

"My friends started backing away, they were no longer my friends and I couldn't understand what was going on. Plus my father, he rejected me a long time ago," he says, describing how his father spent more time with his brothers.

"Back then I thought there was something wrong with me.... Somehow I was inferior to my brothers. My mother always took up for me, and if it hadn't been for her I don't know what really would have happened to me. It's not that my father was mean to me or cruel, he just ignored me and had nothing to do with me. It was like he was ashamed of me. He didn't want people to see me with him," he explains.

Hal tells me that he eventually moved to San Francisco where he met his partner Tom Campbell, 54, at a bar. Tom was in graduate school and wasn't really wanting to date but the two became inseparable. They have been together for 17 years and had a commitment ceremony on their property, performed by Heather McIver's grandfather, Walter Harrelson.

Tom says he was 21 when he came out to his family, but knew he was gay when he was 5. He was at vacation bible school and was "in love with another boy" there. His father wasn't understanding at first and Tom left home and lived with his gay cousin in San Francisco. The years estranged from his father were hard for Tom, but his father accepts him for who he is now, and they consider it "water under the bridge."

Hal's father died in 2011, and they never reconciled.

For a long time, Hal has wanted to have his own architecture business, but he realized early on that it would be difficult to make a living in California, so he and Tom moved back to Silk Hope, where Hal says he feels less stressed. His mother gave him some land and encouraged him to build a house, but his brothers tried to run him off again.

But his roots were so deep he had to return. "I felt like a fish out of water until I got back home, even though we had all these problems here," he says.

Hal struggles in reconciling his mistreatment in the past with his life in rural Chatham County today.

"The Silk Hope community is really nice... [the people] are really giving, they will do anything for you," he tells me, but he hesitates.

He seems to realize his contradicting thoughts as he elaborates.

"But in some ways they are just the opposite of that. We came back because we were looking for a slower pace of life and didn't want to be in a big city any more... but I forgot about all the problems here from before. If you are like the traditional southern person here you fit in, then its a great place. People treat you decently and you have all the opportunities of anyone else. In this area there seems to be a very obvious problem: The [rejection] of anyone who might be different" he explains.

Tom and Hal both know the South's history with bigotry and inequality, and fear that it will be the last place where gays and lesbians will be accepted and have equal rights. Their thoughts about the South beg the question: What is the Southern legacy? Is it hospitality or hostility?

It seems to lay somewhere in between the sweet tea and porches and its darker history of intolerance. It is as if the South itself is poised at one of the many pastoral crossroads scattered across Silk Hope, unsure of which fork to take. The great challenge for Southern identity is to shed its darker past for a new skin of true hospitality and community.

Tom and Hal think that the region could be "failing in its potential" to be truly the most hospitable region in the United States if Amendment One and legislation like it continues to pass. They point to religion and fear for why discriminatory legislation seems to stick in the South.

"It's easy to foster [fear] because they say the Bible condemns [homosexuality]," Tom says.

"I just think that if you can find your own spirituality in anything... at church, at synagogue, in a mosque and for [someone] to say 'I'm this and I only believe this,' why do you want to limit yourself? Personally I want to be exposed to as [many ideas] as I can so I can make more informed decisions," he explains.

"I have no desire for special rights. I just want to be equal, and [Amendment One] removes any chance of us being equal," Tom contends.

"We are extremely ordinary people. We have the same hopes [as most people]. We want to be accepted for who we are and not what people think we are," adds Hal.

Tom and Hal worry about the amendment being divisive to families as well as to politics. Tom insists that "we are all in this together," that in a sense we are all a family.

"Love makes a family," says Tom. And regardless of Amendment One, Tom and Hal will continue to function as one.

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13.

Bath time for a baby can be like a NASA space shuttle launch. Great care must be taken and it's truly a team-effort, but it's always a labor of love. It's no different with Prue Cuper and Kelly Eppley and their baby Maggie, who is only a few months old.

Prue hunches over the bathtub as a special baby bath seat fills with water. She carefully checks the temperature with a thermometer. Too cold and baby could become fussy. Too hot and, well, baby could become fussy, or boiled.

Down the hall in their modest home, Kelly liberates Maggie from a pee-soaked diaper in the nursery. Wedged in the tiny room is a crib, a diaper changing station and a queen sized inflatable bed, where one of them takes turns sleeping to keep an eye on their "Nut-nut" (as they affectionately call her) because she hasn't been sleeping well at night. Framed prints of cartoonish owls, bears and foxes peer down from the walls.

Prue and Kelly have been together for six years. They met at a party, hit it off and went on a date a few weeks later. They had a deep and instant connection, and talked late into the night. In 2007 they had a commitment ceremony in Bahama, just north of Durham. Kelly delivered Margaret Eppley Cuper on July 9, 2011. She weighed 7lbs, 4oz and her eyes are blue just like her mother's, blue without metaphor. The couple only knows a little bit about their sperm donor. He has dark hair and eyes, he's artistic, a lover of music and theater.

When Margaret turns 18, she can contact him if she chooses.

But that is far in the future. Right now, the bath water is just right, so Prue calls to Kelly and she brings Maggie to the tub. They take turns bathing her, gently rubbing her soft skin, rinsing her peach-fuzz hair and cooing to her while they scrub between her little pink toes.

Maggie starts to make an unpleasant face. Maybe "Nut-nut" is cranky? Maybe the water is getting cold? Her cranky face relaxes as she poops in the bathwater. It is not unlike the swimming pool scene from the comedy Caddyshack.

"Oh noooo!" exclaims Prue, giggling. They quickly extract Maggie from the messy tub and she immediately gets fussy. Babies don't like sudden temperature changes, Kelly explains to me. They whisk her away to the nursery again and clean her up, wash out the tub and start all over again. Luckily, bath time round two goes a lot like round one, but with less mess.

After bath time, Maggie is wrapped up with a blanket contraption that resembles a baby straightjacket. She is tired and pacified and Prue watches over her in the living room as Kelly cleans bottles in the kitchen sink.

Prue tells me that she worries about what the amendment banning same same-sex marriage in North Carolina could mean for her work benefits and ultimately her family.

"This year, I added Kelly and Maggie to my health insurance plan here at Duke, and, as mundane as it sounds, it actually felt like a big moment for us. I felt proud of my employer for recognizing us as a family, even if the state doesn't," she says.

Kelly shudders to think what would have happened to Maggie if she had died giving birth to her, since the state doesn't recognize Prue as her joint guardian:

The bigger and more personal issue around Prue's custody rights, to me, is the simple acknowledgement of her equal position to mine in parenting this child. We chose parenthood together. We worked very hard together to make a family. Because my long and complicated labor ended in a C-section, Prue was even the first of us to meet Maggie and welcome her to the world. And we work very hard every day at parenting her together. But in the eyes of the law, I'm a single mother with a roommate. That's a really harsh reality to accept ...

Throughout my pregnancy, we had to live with the fact that, if something happened to me, my sister or parents would have more legal right to take Maggie than Prue would. My family accepts that Prue is a mom to Maggie just as much as I am, but the daily reality of living a very real family life that isn't and wouldn't be supported legally is brutal. There's no safety net. I think seeing us together and understanding us as a family makes well-meaning friends and family forget that we've only cobbled together some very tenuous protections, such as placing me and Maggie on Prue's insurance. These things could mean nothing if this amendment passes. We may even be forced to give up those small wins. I'm not even sure the hospital staff who treated us as a family during her birth would be legally able to do so any longer if they were forced to ignore any "marriage-like" relationship.

Some people may ask why we chose to make a family when we knew we would have no more rights than this. But to me, a family is least of all things a legal institution. It's a way to share the enormous love we've received from our own families and to send the best of ourselves out into the world. We deserve the opportunity to do that as much as anyone else.

For now, Prue and Kelly are trying to enjoy being parents while looking to the future and wondering what it holds.

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MORE TO COME