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People Are Awesome: Trailblazing Gay Union Ceremony on U.S. Military Base

The grooms marched into their reception, under a traditional military honor guard saber arch, and danced with their children to "It's Raining Men".

On a Saturday afternoon in late June gay rights history was made in an unlikely location—the Airforce's McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst base in southern New Jersey. Before 150 of their favorite people (but with no parents) Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali donned his dress blues to wed his tuxedo clad groom, Will Behrens. Never before had a gay union ceremony—not a "wedding," this is Jersey after all—taken place in a U.S. military institution.

Umali is the son of strict Catholic immigrants from the Philippines. Behrens is the son of a fundamentalist Baptist minister. Each men had been previously married to women and each had two children. They met in the Baptist church where Behrens served as the choir director. Nothing about their biographies, points out Slate's Katherine Goldstein, would indicate that these two men would be gay rights trail blazers.


Goldstein details the painful lengths they went to during their courtship to evade neighbors, friends, and colleagues in order to not be outed and risk Umali's removal under Don't Ask Don't Tell.

He caught a member of the church surreptitiously taking photos of him and Will together at Wal-Mart. Was she building a case to turn in to the military? Erwynn didn’t know. The couple strategized about how they would get by on one income if Erwynn was discharged. Whenever they went out to eat dinner or buy groceries, they scanned for familiar faces. Even on trips to Philadelphia or New York City, they ran into people they knew. Nowhere felt safe.

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In the summer of 2011, with the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell imminent, Behrens got down on a knee and proposed to Umali. They moved into a tidy townhouse just a short drive from the base. Umali came out to his fellow airmen:

Erwynn announced that he wanted to thank a particular person for support and encouragement in helping him succeed. Everyone assumed he was referring to a colleague. Instead, he announced that this person was his partner and fiance, Will Behrens. Two beats of dead silence were followed by a standing ovation.

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Their house is the easiest to pick out of their suburban neighborhood—it's the one with them most American flags out front, writes Goldstein. Last month Umali and Behrens marched into their reception, under a traditional military honor guard saber arch, and danced with their children to "It's Raining Men," and then all flew to Disney World for a week. Now that's American, no matter what the President of Chick-fil-A says.

Images courtesy of Jeff Sheng

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