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JeffSteenLoveI remember the pimple-faced awkwardness of my early teens with unfortunate detail. Perhaps some of you can relate: My hair – shaggy and unkempt – was forcefully combed over every morning before school. My clothes sagged on me in a remarkably uncool way, leaning on my unloveable handles and accentuating my bulbous bubble butt. My laughs were awkward and jagged and my smiles betrayed an immense lack of self-confidence. I was, to most and to many, an outcast.

But while I remember these sad truths very well indeed, I also remember the striking chords and uplifting harmony of what would become a gay anthem. It was in theater class that I heard it first, caught behind the stage while working on a set for a show. A CD was blaring in the background, and I hardly noticed what was playing until I heard the simple, powerful, uplifting words of Jonathan Larson’s opus: “525,600 minutes – 525,000 moments so dear… how do we measure, measure a year?”

That song played out between pounding hammers and hoisted two-by-fours, laughter and boisterous conversation, until the refrain at last kicked in: “Seasons of love,” the principals sang, stretched by riveting harmony and lilting chords. It occurred to me, at that moment – surrounded by hormone-plagued teens and world-conquering idealists – that I had never truly experienced romance. I had never been in love.

 


A will and a way…


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From around the bustling corner of The Market in Larimer Square, I see Wendy Alfredsen’s hand energetically waving at me. She smiles with an unspoken happiness while motioning for her partner, Michelle Phillips Carney, to rush over to our table in the far corner of the café. The two laugh as they shake my hand, tucking into chairs across from one another. Their legs cross, gently rubbing against each other. They settle into smiles.

To the rights-hungry activists in our community, Wendy is something of a heroine; to the average lesbian, however, she is simply an amazing role model. Over the last 10 years, she has suffered through legal mire and wrestled with institution and government. Once upon a time, life was ideal: she and her former partner adopted two girls – sisters – who were meant to become the core of their nuclear family. When the relationship ended, however, Wendy’s partner left the country, taking one of the daughters with her. Since that fateful, tearful day, Wendy has fought with all her might – legally and emotionally – to maintain custody of her second daughter. After many long, hard battles, she was granted legal paternity and is now able to build a loving relationship with both daughters.

Wendy’s partner, Michelle – an effervescent brunette with intense depth in her eyes and a brimming smile – has known her own struggles. Once married, she divorced her husband in 2001 and began to live her life as the person she knew she was – a lesbian. With two children from the marriage, however, life wasn’t easy, and neither was dating. When she met Wendy – in the middle of legal chaos and emotional upheaval – she felt both genuine affection and weighty hesitation.

“It was just a lot,” she says, her eyes falling to the table as she remembers. “I cared for Wendy, but I wasn’t ready for all that we brought with us – me with two kids, and Wendy with her custody battle.”

Fortunately for both, however, the story had a remarkably happy ending. Wendy and Michelle – wildly in love with one another – soon came back together and have enjoyed a loving, caring relationship ever since. But not without their own share of stumbling blocks.

“Life from the beginning has been so highly emotional, and that was its own difficulty,” Michelle said. “Now, our arguments are typically over something idiotic. And you know what? It’s Wendy’s hug that always brings us back.”

In the flash of a smile that the two share, I watch as their hands stretch over the table and touch. “We’ve had so much crisis and huge emotional trauma,” Michelle said, “that the little things don’t get us. We have our angry moments, then we come back and hug.”

Wendy and Michelle celebrated their official second anniversary just more than a month ago, and with a fifth child on the way (Michelle is 21 weeks pregnant) and four other children between them, I asked what can possibly keep them sane.

“We have always been able to be ourselves,” Wendy said – without pause or hesitation. “We had no secrets, from the very beginning. And we didn’t try to change each other. I love Michelle for who she is, and she loves me with all my faults and quirks.”

“Our love is purely organic,” Michelle echoed with a glint in her eye. “We don’t have to try. It’s just so easy. And we make time to spend one-on-one – away from the case, from the kids, from our lives. Just us.”

The LGBT community has wavered some in the pairs’ tumultuous journey, but has ultimately come to support them with enthusiasm and strength. And when asked what advice Wendy and Michelle would extend to the ever-growing, ever-learning community that surrounds them, their guidance is clear: “Be yourself,” they both chant in unison. “Speak your truth as individuals and as a couple, and let your journey be your own.”

When their story had ended – for the time being – both Wendy and Michelle meandered over to the pastry case, ogling the towering cakes and frosted pastries. I asked what they were doing that night, and Michelle laughed.

“Laundry,” she said with a shrug. “It’s not very exciting, but it’s our life – together. And we’re happy with it.”

 


Spinning love stories


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In almost a different world entirely lives an equally endearing vision of relationship and love, lived out in the music-laden lives of Markie Lindemulder and his partner, Beth Baker.

For countless years, “DJ Markie” has been the resident DJ at Tracks. As we all know, Tracks is a Denver LGBT icon; tucked away in Five Points in the warehouse district, it is the social and entertainment outlet for hundreds of LGBT boys and girls, men and women. And atop the dizzying DJ heights of the Tech Room – as well as Exdo and the newly-minted Lounge – hails queen and king of the music scene, DJ Markie.

You see, to most, DJ Markie is the drag queen who spins. But to a few, she is both a loving friend and a loving boyfriend. And to that same few, he is both he and she.

Over a steaming pot of green tea on a chilly day recently, I lingered in Dazbog with Markie and Beth. It was clear from the moment the couple walked into the coffee shop that they were the perfect complements for one another – he in his silk, purple button-up and Beth in her wool coat and smartly manicured hair. I still laugh when I remember the story they told after hands had been shaken and coffees coddled. There was a sequin dress they both loved, you see, and somehow, their misguided dry cleaner had cleaned the sequins right off.

Markie laughed with an edge of frustration as he told the story, Beth echoing by his side. When two people love each other, an unmistakable aura shines from both, and I felt –almost palpably – the connection between the two as they sat in front of me, laughing. As the giggles subsided, they both leaned in to tell the story of their four-year romance.

First, Markie: “We met at Charlie’s on May 18, 2009 at 5:30 p.m.” Beth smiled knowingly, nodding as she remembered the exact time and place. As Beth painted the scene, she was looking for a release at the end of a failing relationship and was urged by a friend to come down to the bar at Charlie’s. There, she met Markie – dressed to the nines in a gorgeous dress and absolutely beautiful.

Markie, as Beth learned that night, was – and is – a T-girl, or transvestite. To many, it’s an identity that needs explanation, and even with a modicum of understanding, confusion persists. Is he attracted to guys? Is she a lesbian?

Beth had similar questions when the two started dating, but the biological reality never changed – they’re a straight couple, with Markie living out two parts of the same identity, one masculine and one feminine.

“This is the first relationship where I met a girl already dressed up,” Markie remembered. “It was great because I didn’t ever have to explain things to her.” He laughed, reaching back to a seemingly distant memory. “It was actually more awkward the first time I wasn’t dressed up – I remember thinking I wasn’t as cool.”

“I felt weird at first,” Beth confessed. “I didn’t know how to treat Markie.” I asked her how the early days unfolded, and when they found comfort together. Both sighed as they described the first months in their relationship.

“When we first got together, Markie would introduce me to couples ‘like us,’ but there was no one like us,” Beth said. “In my mind, there are different types of T-girls: fetishists who prey on women and the kind who, in public, are totally shy. They’re basement dressers – those who dress up at home all the time, but don’t have the support to do it in public. And there are a lot of couples with open relationships, but we talked about that at the beginning and decided there was going to be no sharing.”

While there was – by her own confession – a learning curve for Beth, there have been certain constants that haven’t changed in their relationship.

“My expression of love never changes whether I’m in masculine or feminine persona,” Markie said. “And there’s plenty of physical contact – touching, hugging, kissing.”

“That stuff is important to us,” Beth nodded. “I grew up in a very lovey, huggy family and I’ve always needed that connection. Sometimes, when I get upset with Markie, it’s because I don’t feel like I’m getting enough physical love from him.”

And while that is perhaps a relative norm in relationships – homosexual and heterosexual alike – Beth and Markie have had slightly different struggles as well.

“With Markie, and with a lot of friends, sometimes it’s a private process transitioning from masculine to feminine,” Beth said. “It’s something I’ve had to learn – when it’s OK for me to be there, or when she needs space.”

But ultimately, it’s a combination of humor and open communication that have given their relationship a firm foundation. “Sometimes, when we fight and I know I’m the one who’s fucked up,” Markie said with a sly grin, “I like to go to Beth and say, ‘I forgive you.’”

Beth chuckled in agreement. “He says it just like that, too. And I can’t stay angry at him. How could I?”

Their advice for the relationship neophyte is perhaps what you’d expect to hear but always worth sharing. “Put all your cards on the table,” Markie said. “And be true to yourself. I don’t know that a lot of gay people in their 20s ever had parents tell them to be nice to their boyfriend, or lesbians to be nice to their girlfriends. That might account for a lot of volatility in relationships now, but it’s so important to respect your partner.”

With a clasp of her hand on Markie’s arm, Beth agreed. “No duffel bags,” she said, an unmistakable tone of seriousness in her voice.

“That really sums it up,” Markie affirmed. “No duffel bags.” And with another lingering smile, the two begin chatting about day-to-day life, errands, to-dos – back to cats, to home, to work, and to a simple, unadulterated life together.

 


Triumph of love


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When HIV hit the gay community, it hit like a raging firestorm. Sure, the love decade of the ’60s had passed, but the growing freedoms and explorations of the gay community hadn’t. And nobody could have anticipated the devastating impact the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s would have on the community.

Ken and Will,* two survivors of the early days of the epidemic, sat in front of me on a recent Sunday afternoon. They’ve been together for some 27 years – a feat for any couple. Beneath salt-and-pepper moustaches, their faces lifted into smiles. Twenty-seven years and they are still very much in love.

Both Ken and Will were diagnosed with HIV in 2000, shortly after moving to Colorado from Florida. And while the days that followed were a true test of faith and relationship, they cling fondly to the days when they met, almost three decades ago in Tampa.

“We actually met each other at a leather bar,” Ken recalled. “We both went there, but then, on that special night, there was something unique about Will, something that drew me to him. We went on a proper date, of course, then I took him home, gave him my special brand of love” – he said with a wink – “and the rest is history.”

History, absolutely – and a full one at that. When Ken and Will met in 1986, some of their closest friends were already passing away. HIV meant nothing less than a death sentence then, and both thought they had somehow avoided contracting the disease. Until their move westward.

The couple’s journey to Colorado was bittersweet. Will had long dreamed of living in Rocky Mountain country, and Ken had bought into the dream himself. And yet, the stress of the move brought the disease to the fore. “I was so sick,” Ken shook his head sadly. “I had just started on HIV meds that first Christmas, and I could hardly open my package. But I watched as quarter-sized snowflakes covered everything with white. It was beautiful.”

I ask if coming to terms with HIV – and living with the reality of the disease – has changed their relationship at all. Both shook their heads. “I think a solid relationship is a solid relationship. AIDS doesn’t change that,” Will affirmed. “It can be a test of a relationship, but it doesn’t change the love you feel for each other. Love has always been the same for us – now and when we started dating. Ken is my best friend. And I still want to spend my life with him. Honestly, I think the secret to longevity in relationship is that the definition of love doesn’t change.”

After so many years, I wondered if there weren’t a much deeper connection the two share that others can look forward to. Ken chuckles to himself. “There’s this psychic component to things after all these years – you’ll think, “Dang, I wish I had a beer,” and suddenly a beer will show up.”

But while HIV has made both of them count their blessings and not take a single day of their lives together for granted, they are still able to laugh, to joke, to life full lives. And there’s another yet another piece to those lives – and their relationship’s success – that is not often commonplace in the gay community.

“We’ve been going to church since 2003,” Ken beamed. “And that community – and faith – has made the relationship more real. It’s about practicing what you’re taught from the pulpit, and learning when you fail. After so many years of working on things, the relationship has just gotten better.”

“Faith has strengthened the relationship, without a doubt,” Will agreed. “In stressful times, it gives us extra strength and reassurance. It also gives us a big community of support.”

And their advice, with 27 years at their back? “I see younger people looking for the greener grass on the other side of the fence,” Ken said. “But at the end of the day, the sex is all the same. The parts are the same. Nothing new has been invented. When you find someone, don’t let the trivial things take over. You’re together. That’s what matters.”

“And don’t go to bed angry,” Will added, waving his finger. “Count your blessings. Whatever your struggles, there are a lot of things to be thankful for.”

And with a loving nudge into each other, they begin to reminisce – about snowflakes, and parties, leather bars and carrying each other through the years. In the background, I see the residual white from a recent snow.

 


In the dark, and the light


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It was a cold day in December 2009 when Shannon Stillman walked into a bar – Blush. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be anything to write home about, except that it was on that very night that she met the love of her life: Molly Dyer.

At the time, Molly was working at Blush as a bartender. And while most of us can attest to the fact that deep, long-lasting connections are seldom to be found in a bar, somehow a spark ignited between the two.

“Right away,” Molly said with a smiling pause, “right away, we were attracted to each other.”

Both Molly and Shannon were out to family and friends at that point, and though Molly had experienced her share of familial awkwardness, it was a hurdle long-since jumped. Having begun the winding road through relationships, both met when they would least expect – at the tail end of previous relationships.

Still, love has its way, and though unexpected, their meeting was a happy surprise; the two starting dating in February 2010.

When asked if the inkling of deep and abiding love was present in those early days, Shannon stirred, thinking back to the beginning. “I knew that Molly was someone extremely special,” she said quietly. “I think there was something that changed my definition of love that night – that I could easily talk to and share myself with someone. That’s something I don’t really do. And yet it’s developed and grown since that very first night.”

Molly – the more extroverted of the two – leaned back and smiled, listening. There’s a gentle balance between them, and though Shannon might be considered an introvert, Molly is quick to extol the virtues of her thoughtfulness – one more way the two genuinely appreciate each other.

“I learned early on that Shannon takes a long time to think about things, and that when she says something, it’s articulate and meaningful. I love that about her.”

Three years after their first dates – almost exactly – the love that was foreshadowed early on at Blush, fully bloomed. It is a beautiful dance of emotion and physicality, of listening and sharing. And at the core of their love for one another rests a mature and considered understanding of what love is, and what it has grown to be.

“It’s important to understand that love takes time to build and always involves compromise,” Molly said with a tone of seriousness. “Sure, it takes work, it takes commitment – working through tough shit together. And until you experience it, you don’t really know what love can be. Someday, trudging through the bad times, you can look back and recognize it for what it is – that wonderful, unexpected emotion that you fought for.”

Shannon lingered for a minute, and adds: “I think what I finally realized is that when you’re in love with somebody, you realize that happiness and fun come and go. But for me, true love means that my desire is always to be with Molly. When the shit hits the fan, Molly is the first one I go to.”

And in those not-so-happy moments, when voices are raised and anger stirs over who drank the last beer?

“When we fight, it’s mostly about something stupid,” Shannon admitted. “And yet, we both look at each other and feel bad we hurt the other person – almost at the same time. Then we hold each other’s hand, or put our arms around each other. Someone cracks a joke, and we’re grounded again. We can work through our disagreement and frustration.”

I ask, after three years of ups and downs, if there’s one happy memory that surpasses all the others. They look at each other and sigh.

“It was, without a doubt, the night that Shannon proposed to me,” Molly said, on the verge of very happy tears. “I was out on a walk in City Park with a friend, and when we rounded the lake next to the gazebo, there was Shannon. She pulled me up into the gazebo with shaking hands and started to propose. Almost immediately, we fell into crying and laughter. That night, we were engaged.”

Molly reached for Shannon’s hand as they tell the story of the surprise party Shannon threw after the proposal, of the Champagne toast with friends and family surrounding them, and of all the memories that collide with that one night.

Before we said goodbye, I asked them both to share with me what little thing reminds each of them of their love for one another, that connects them with each other again.

Molly beamed. “Shannon’s laugh,” she said. “I don’t know how to describe it; it just sweeps me off my feet. When she starts giggling, I will do anything for her.”

And as Shannon, too, draws the picture of that one endearing trait, both of them look at each other. “For me, it’s Molly’s compassion – and the look in her eye when she knows I’m upset. She’s so nurturing. Just the sound of her voice melts my heart.”

In that moment, the sounds of distant chatter fade, and there is – as there should be – just Molly and Shannon, reliving the first moment when they found each other three short years ago.

 

At the ripe old age of 31, I sometimes feel as though I’ve experienced love in its many, often painful forms. When I first heard the opening song of Rent all those years ago, the ideal of love was still new and fresh – it was opportunity. Over the years, however, I have barked up many a wrong tree, stumbled and fallen, broken hearts and had my heart broken, and learned what not to do perhaps more than what to do.

Still, I am happy to say I am in love now – and I know this not because of a formula, or some tried and truth method that led me on the right path. I had my own trying journey, and it led me to a fruitful place. The idealism of yesteryear makes me smile in retrospect, and somehow still lingers inside me – not necessarily because of who I am, but because I know people like Wendy and Michelle, Markie and Beth, Ken and Will, Shannon and Molly. I feel a part of their stories somehow, and continue to share in the growing narrative of love in the LGBT community.

And lest I take that, too, for granted, know that I am humbled to have heard the personal stories of many and – for a brief and fleeting moment—shared what it means, in all the good and bad, to be undeniably, indefatigably in love.

– Jeff __________________________

 


*Editor’s Note on anonymous sources: While Out Front places a high priority on transparent sourcing, under limited circumstances we honor valuable, verified sources’ requests to keep their identities protected. In this story, Will and Ken are pseudonyms for the HIV-positive couple who said revealing their HIV status could lead to employment discrimination in their fields. Read Out Front’s full policy on anonymous sources here.