Two Grooms

Two Grooms

by Louie Clay (né Louie Crew)

From Couples and Careers, edited by Leonore Hoffman and Gloria DeSole (Modern Language Association: NYC, 1976.) © 1976 by the Modern Language Assoc. and © in 1995, 1996, 1998, and 2010 by  Louie Clay 377 S. Harrison St., 12D, East Orange, NJ 07018-1222


Fort Valley, Georgia, 1976

Our marriage [2/2/74], like our courtship, has been conventional. It was love at first sight when we met at the elevator just outside the sixth- floor tearoom of the Atlanta YMCA [9/2/73]. Ernest was a fashion coordinator for a local department store, I a state college professor from 100 miles way, deep in the peach and pecan orchards. One of us black, the other white; both native Southerners. We commuted every weekend for five months. Our friends were not surprised when we decided to marry.

We would have wasted our time to send an announcement to the local papers. Besides, the bank employees spread the word just as effectively when we took out a joint account. Our wedding itself was private, just the two of us and the Holy Spirit. Parents, although loving, would not have welcomed the occasion; our priest would not have officiated even had he been granted the Episcopal authority which was expressly denied. Two apartment neighbors, historians, sent a bottle of champagne; a psychologist friend dropped in earlier to propose a toast; others sent welcoming tokens.

We unloaded the heavier gear from the car before beginning the ceremony. Then we carried each other across the threshold into the dining room, where the table was set with two wine glasses from Woolworth's, one lone and lighted red candle instead of our customary two green ones, a vase with one early narcissus, and an open Book of Common Prayer [1928]. We read the service nervously, its fearsome bidding and pledges. The words woman and wife translated readily as spouse, man, husband, Person. All took only about ten minutes.

One could be too quick to sentimentalize a few details, such as our bed, a two-hundred-year-old four-poster built by the slave ancestors of one of us for the free ancestors of the other. Perhaps we were fulfilling their dream? Or Dr. King's dream...? We find day-to- day living too difficult for us to negotiate other people's dreams: we work at living our own dream, a dream no different from the dream of many other couples, a dream of a home with much love to bridge our separateness.

After the Honeymoon

Our careers have always been very important to both of us. We came together from the beginning anticipating many of the inevitable tensions between our rival commitments to careers and to each other. We both had already enjoyed professional success in a variety of occupations: our main challenge was clearly going to be whether or not we could succeed together. One of my biggest hesitancies during our months of courtship was my fear that I might thereby seem to commit myself to conjugal activity as much of the time when we lived all of our time together. Little did I realize that Ernest too enjoys working alone many days on end for 14-16 hours a day.

Ironically, earlier lessons from our oppression as relatively less conspicuous gays served as resources for our thriving as an openly gay couple employed behind the Cotton Curtain. Gays learn very early that most jobs are not secure for those even suspected of being Gay. Very early on Ernest had been fired from a civil service job when he refused to go to bed with a male supervisor, who then had Ernest "investigated" and "proved" gay. All of my teaching assignments have been filled with horrifying anecdotes about various predecessors who were fired when discovered as "queer." The effect of this clear pattern of discrimination was the same on both of us: prepare for as many jobs as you possibly can; never go into real debt; own mainly portable property; be able always to land on your feet.

Before we met, Ernest had supported himself with a variety of jobs--janitorial service, modeling, fashion coordinating, nursing. I had worked as a lumberjack, mechanic, professor, professional actor, waiter, writer. We both know that when push comes to shove we can always be caterers, seamsters, peach pickers.... What is more, we know that we would be better than most at any of these tasks. We have simply had to be sure of this kind of mobility. Tenure is always meaningless when one is gay. I have never expected an institution to grant me tenure, and I have always been an excellent teacher precisely because I am willing to take the kinds of risks that are necessary to germinate ideas, the very kinds of risks that disqualify one with tenure committees.

This is not to deny the anxiety that accompanies threats to any job security, and certainly not to support those threats, but merely to put those threats into a perspective where we have been able to negotiate them reasonably successfully with, more important than any one job, our integrity preserved. Humor has been a saving factor repeatedly. When Ernest went to apply for beauty school, for example, the white ladies who ran the place were terrified at the idea of having a black male there, assuming that his only motive would be sexual assault. When he sensed their fear, he explained to them that he is married to another man, and they took him with open arms.

Imagine the response that came after a bishop from the Anglican Orthodox church had written to the local paper saying that the two of us by organizing a national group of gay Episcopalians had been responsible for the devastating tornado that had recently struck Fort Valley with a tornado that left the two of us and our property unharmed but knocked the steeple off every homophobic church in the white community. "Would one expect God to keep silent when homosexuals are tolerated?" the bishop asked. That evening in a spate of hate calls one familiar voice rang: "Louie, you and Ernest get yourselves on over here and kiss in my backyard so my greens will grow!" An administrator at the college also called to suggest that I apply for head of Agriculture: power to control the wind and the rain is queer power indeed.

Professional paranoia is an occupational necessity for open gays. Right now I have in litigation a complaint against a major American university [pun intended] where I was denied employment by a homophobic dean after my winning the unanimous support not only of a search committee of faculty and students but also of the entire thirty-six members of the college's Faculty Rank and Tenure Committee. Damaging evidence is still being sent to me by the members of that Committee, who are irate that the dean violated due process and hired a candidate who had received absolutely no support. More typically, job applications for advertised positions never receive answers at all.

We have been no freer from domestic harassment. In August 1975, after a year of investigation, HUD found our complaint true that a local realtor had discriminated against us in housing because he considered us to be criminals. Still HUD had no enforcement powers; the realtor refused to conciliate; and no lawyer would take the case for contingency fees, knowing, as one lawyer said, "the predictable response of the juries in this part of the country." Meanwhile, in the white lower middleclass neighborhood where we live, nightly as I jog I am spat upon and verbally reviled by the 8-, 10-, and 12-year-old children on bicycles, as their parents sit on their porches relishing their vain hopes that thereby their children will not grow up to be queer. Night after night, as Ernest has returned from cosmetology classes, he has feasted on their verbal ingenuity, purposely taking up to ten minutes just to get his kit out of the car. There would be no help in protest. The police would only arrest us for "child molestation" or "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." The local Baptist preacher has already sent us a copy of a letter which he sent to the sheriff urging investigation.

Our friends here for a long time wondered why we do not at least keep a lower profile by not mentioning our relationship. It is important to Ernest and me that our relationship is public. We are not in merely a sexual union, but in a complex coupling that integrates all our life together. Whether we are entertaining or being entertained, even when we are just shopping at the local Piggly Wiggly, it is important for us to know that we know that they know. We can even sometimes get into enjoying their games with knowing, as when the employees all dash behind the butchers' one-way mirror to watch us wink at them when we pass. As Ernest puts it, "Honey, you may gloat, but we're the stars!"

White men have been having sex with black men in the South since 1619, yet such homosexuality has always been related negatively to straight institutions and defined as adultery, fornication, or sodomy. Our living openly as a married couple obviates these definitions. The effect is sometimes to move friends and neighbors into a new state of consciousness. Barely if ever before on my almost all-black campus has a dude proudly and publicly sported his white male spouse; rarely if ever before has a white man in Georgia proudly notified his family, prep school, even his chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, of his happy marriage to a black man. If the profile is memorable, far more important is the seriousness we ourselves have experienced in this bonding.

Some of our friends elsewhere have accused us of masochism, saying that we ought to leave as soon as we get employment that is as challenging and fulfilling as that we now have, but no place is clearly enough a haven for gay persons to justify our leaving at a cut in pay or our taking jobs that we would not find fulfilling. It may very well be an indictment of the so-call liberal white American universities that they leave to a small, struggling, rural black college the admittedly difficult tasks of adjusting to an outspoken gay scholar. Interestingly, the same persons who accuse us of masochism frequently control or at least influence jobs to which we might flee. At times it is difficult to stifle the bitter awareness of the eloquence with which they would write of our being lynched.

Our economic resources have been diverse, including Ernest's earnings from nursing and then from various student employments while studying cosmetology, including his unemployment checks for which he qualifies only because the state refuses to recognize our marriage, and including my salary as an associate professor, which remains conspicuously below that of unpublished but nongay colleagues of the same rank, as revealed in the Georgia state auditor's annual report. Speculations are legion as to why I have not been fired. I prefer to think that it is because I am lucky enough to have a chairperson who knows that I am a good teacher. She feels that none of my life, public or private, is of any concern to her unless it relates directly and immediately to my function on my job. Bosses higher up are more mixed. One official called me in almost immediately after my serving notice to students and officials that I am gay; he said that he respected my courage. So did the chairpersons of at least two other departments. One very prissy boss, however, is threatened and brings visitors periodically to tut outside my office. When Ernest similarly refused to do the work of an orderly while having the rank of an LPN, the hospital employer called him "uppity." When he tried to organize the black aides to demand rights being denied them, they balked in fear and the hospital fired him.

One of the lowest points in our marriage was an occasion when I asked Ernest, "If you get that job with the cosmetics firm in NYC, can I live off your earnings so I won't have to stay here in Georgia the rest of this year?" He did not answer. I waited out the long silence almost half a day, and then he said, "Did I ask you could I `live off your earnings' when I moved here from Atlanta without a job first? I had momentarily lapsed from the more pervasive economy that our marriage effects. Were we autonomous, at each trysting we would come at each other unequally. I would be the wealthier, Ernest the younger; I the more experienced, Ernest the more spontaneous.... In marriage everything is given once and for all. For us marriage ended trading and introduced sharing. The money is ours. The youth is ours. The spontaneity is ours. And whatever is exhausted or whatever is incremented is ours.

We find the marriage changes in kind the range of our personal and material security. Expressed negatively, Ernest gave up his fashion training in Atlanta to become a low-paid LPN in a rural hospital; I gave up a Fulbright to Turkey, where he would have no chances of employment. Ernest gave up his LPN so that we could be together for my summer as an NEH fellow at Berkeley. I took on our full support for several months while he was in school.... But the negative way of viewing our material existence ignores what we gained. By such choices (we do not even call them sacrifices), we have effected the very possibility of working together. Both careers give and take from a union that is richer than either career or than any of our possible independencies. At least we perceive ourselves richer, and as Geraldine says, "What you see is what you get!"

Although we are not likely to be altogether free of them ourselves, we find that many heterosexist ways of merely asking questions about relationships create problems for the relationships. "Who makes the money?" "Who spends the money?" "Who owns the car?" "Who owns the fur coat?" "Who owns the motorcycle?" "Who pays the rent?" "Who does the dirty work?" "We do!" is our answer to all these questions.

My own neurotic compulsions with these middleclass perceptions have frequently inhibited my full enjoyment of our marriage. While I enjoy cooking, sewing, and more limitedly, keeping house, more and more my writing and my organizing activities have preempted the major portions of my energy. Ernest is a better cook, a much more efficient housekeeper, and an expert shopper. Once I came home late on a rainy night to find all the washed wet clothes in the refrigerator. "What on earth!" I exclaimed. "Lord, chile, you sure be white tonight," he laughed; "I can tell your mama never took in washing. It's the way to avert the mildew."

My learning to enjoy my man's househusbandliness as much as I enjoy my own is in many ways parallel to our enjoying all parts of each other's anatomy. The first question most gay friends ask us is, "Which of you is the husband? Which the wife?" We honestly have no way to answer respecting this dichotomy. We are not thus differentiated. We both like gentle perfumes, and we both like poignant funkiness; we both enjoy our gracefulness as well as our toughness.

We are not mirror images, however. Our careers are different and we do not compete. We make no special demands about productivity, but we are both aware that a marriage is dead when either fails to want to contribute. Ernest respects the summers I spend not making a dime but writing away as if I'll not have another such season. I respect his taking off a year to go to school or his taking off time to do hair of women in the state mental hospital.

We also easily resist unhealthy veneration of each other. He is wisely suspicious of much of the pomposity of the academic community and I of much of the vanity of the cosmetic industry. Each of us is mature enough in his own career not to need much reinforcement, at times even to require deflation. I doubt that the two of us could thrive very long together if we did not know that we definitely can "make it" apart. We are committed to a relationship precisely because it is "unnecessary." Of course, in a temporal sphere that we choose to cohabit we do need each other and we are able to be vulnerable, but we are careful never to require a longer rope than can pull each back to his own boat and anchorage. We are not drowning men clawing at a lifeguard, as seems to be the model fashionable in much nongay media these days.

At the risk of being still more invidious, I suspect that of the many nongay couples who break up, many break up because society's alleged supports of heterosexual relationships are falsely advertised and hypocritical. After the honeymoon is over, once the careers pull at each other, once Jan and John realize that their parents might even expect them to divorce, that their priest has divorced, that their friends and neighbors are too busy with their own relationships to care (except possibly for the value of self-congratulation that attends efforts to seem to care), non-gays choose to walk away from each other in bewilderment, or to remain together only by law. Gay relationships may be paradoxically blessed by not having the chance even to expect such support systems.

Ernest and I wrote our divorce contract at the outset: each would take half. We made our wills to structure property guarantees. We both own together all that each makes. We have had to make our own structures, knowing that major efforts would be exerted to deny even those plans. We have instructions about funerals, burials, etc.

We have had some few but very significant resources in our community, namely, in our friends. We are both gregarious and affable, and we are invited to many parties. Often he is the only black person or I the only white present, so segregated are the others in our community. We are avid dancers, and always do courtesies of dancing with our hosts' spouses. Maybe some index of our integration is the fact that only one couple has ever said that we should feel comfortable to dance together at their parties, and even there the other guests do not have an ambience about them that would make us feel comfortable doing so. Also, our gay friends would be much too vulnerable for us to invite to gay parties any of our nongay friends.

In many ways we did not even anticipate, our coupling is itself our career, so much does it alter our professional expectations, our job security, our work climate, etc. Everyone knows that gay folks are reasonably harmless if we remain at the baths, the bars, the adult movie houses, the tearooms, and other such restricted areas. Ernest could have met a new Louie and I a new Ernest every night at the Atlanta YMCA for decades, and no one much would have bothered. Possibly a Tennessee Williams might have celebrated our waste, or maybe even a Proust. Certainly my priest would not have shouted, as he did recently, that we are "making a mockery of Christian marriage and the home." Then my bishop would never have written, as he did this week, "I am weary of almost constant pressure applied on this office by a movement which I do not fully understand, but which I wish to grow in understanding"--this while virtually telling me, probably his only regular gay correspondent, that I persecute him merely by calling attention to my needs and the needs of my people. Were Ernest and I still just tricking furtively at the YMCA, my students would see me as they used to, as the linguist, the rhetorician, the literary critic, the poet, the jogger--and not, as so often now, merely as "that smart sissy." It is only when we couple openly that the heterosexist culture marshals its forces against us.

The bonding we share has made us take greater risks in thought and action. As open gays actively fighting a very hostile environment precisely because of our sexual orientation, we have at home the quiet strong security of our love always attesting to the rightness of our public claims and countering the wrong attitudes about us that even we might otherwise find hard to resist. It has been impossible for us to doubt the beauty and the holiness of gay love in general when morning, noon, and night we have known the beauty of our gay love in particular. In the past I somewhat tentatively fought from the closet for gay rights for others to be happier than I had ever been or expected ever to be: today I would fight openly to the end just for the two of us to be as happy as we are. Paradoxically, with "community" thus strongly narrowed to just the two of us, I simultaneously feel much more fully a part of the struggle of all gay sisters and brothers everywhere and for all times.

Ernest & Louie Clay-Crew on September 2, 2004

Their Certificate of Domestic Partnership on the same date (9/2/2004)

Ernest & Louie Clay-Crew on 38th Anniversary, February 2, 2012

Moments after their legal marriage in Rockland County, New York, August 22, 2013

Their marriage certificate, 8/22/2013

On October 29, 2013 the Social Security issued Louie and new SS Card and the NJ Department of Motor Vehicles issues him a new drivers license, as Erman Louie Clay. He took his husband's last name.