Let me tell you about Don and Ken.
I can’t remember if those are their real names, precisely. What I can tell you is that I met them 13 years ago in Nashville, Tennessee, at a national gathering of Mennonites brought together to celebrate the merger of two formerly disparate strands of the church.
Only, I didn’t meet them at the convention, precisely. A group that ministered specifically to gay and lesbian Mennonites had been forbidden from a formal presence in the convention center hall, so the group set up shop in a hotel across a street and —as I remember it — a very large parking lot. They held afternoon worship sessions every day of the convention, and while I considered myself liberal, it was curiosity as much as anything that led me to join those afternoon sessions.
Don was in his mid-50s, thinning on top, gray around the fringe. Ken, his partner, was a few years younger: Dark hair, dark mustache. And they told their story.
Ken, it turned out, had had a heart attack a few years earlier. Don had been with him through the entire illness, feeding him and cleaning him and helping nurse Ken back to health. It was an awful time in their relationship, but they’d persevered and emerged stronger. I wept at hearing their story.
Because their story wasn’t — or at least, wasn’t just — about gay love. It was about love. The kind my parents had for each other. The kind that, years later, my own wife would show for me when I was incapacitated due to massive, life-threatening abdominal surgery. And it was beautiful.
It was, I’m embarrassed to say, my first real, 3D exposure to what it meant for two men to really love each other. And it changed everything.
In about a year’s time, I’d be gone from the church — for a variety of reasons, but in part so I wouldn’t have to argue with other Christians about whether the love Ken and Don was “real,” or whether it had God’s approval. (If God could disapprove of that, I decided, it was God who was wrong.) When I did get married, it was with an intense pang of regret that my gay and lesbian friends couldn’t fully, legally share the all the rights and privileges I received by virtue of being straight.
Understand: The story of gay marriage – of Tuesday’s triumph in Pennsylvania — isn’t my story. I’m not the one who has been discriminated against, made to feel lesser. I won’t be the hero of this movie when it’s made.
But, lordy: If you can diminish the love that Ken and Don had for each other, if you can say that it shouldn’t somehow count or matter, well then, you’re scorning the very nature of love itself, the way it makes us bigger than we’d be on our own, the way it calls us to work and sacrifice for each other. If straight marriage was somehow threatened by gays in recent years, it was because of this: Love, true and lasting love, became something that conservative attorneys and intellectuals tried in recent years to turn into a mere accessory to the baby-making contract that is supposedly the sole proper purview of state-sanctioned marriage.
They are, of course, wrong.
I’ve been, as I say, lucky enough to have that kind of love in my life. I’ve been able to practice it, in part, because I learned from the example of my parents. And the examples of all my friends who got married before me and figured out how to make it work and last through the rough patches. And from the example of Ken and Don.
Thanks to them, it wasn’t just gays and lesbians who won a victory Tuesday. The world is a little larger for the rest of us, as well.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.