51. Because We Blazed the Trail for Gay Marriage

L-R: Dietz (left) and Madson in their Brooklyn Heights loft, 2008; the couple in Key West, 1983.Photo: L-R: Alyson Aliano for New York Magazine; courtesy of Richard Dietz and Ronald Madson

Richard Dietz, 61, a furniture-sales representative, and Ronald Madson, 62, an artist and retired teacher, met on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade on June 16, 1970. Challenging the way New York City treated gay couples was not the first thing on their minds.

Dietz: I was out with my dear friend Gene, at the cruisy spot near Montague Street.

Madson: I followed you off the Promenade to what is now Design Within Reach.

Dietz: I stopped to look in the window.

Madson: It was then the Women’s Exchange! You were just waiting for me to catch up.

Dietz: Do you remember what you said?

Madson: Some corny line? I was all of 23.

Dietz: The most important thing you said was that you lived nearby.

Madson: It was about a year before I moved into his place, in Flatbush. It was momentous. A declaration of a relationship. But we had to learn how to live with each other.

Dietz: When we argued, I’d say, “I’m still young enough to get another boyfriend.” You’re 28, you think time is running out.

Madson: Mostly we cared about our families not knowing. We used to separate our beds when they came over, until I said, “The hell with it, let them worry about it.”

Dietz: Even with the beds apart, you’d have to be blind not to know.

Madson: But in those days nothing was ever said. Especially if you were a teacher.

Dietz: Later we opened a business together, needlework and crafts. It was in Brooklyn Heights, so we wanted to move here. We found this loft, put down the money, but when we went around to banks for a mortgage, they treated us very rudely.

Madson: One loan officer said, “You don’t meet the requirements.” I asked, “What requirements?” “I’m not telling you,” he said. It was just another example of discrimination.

Dietz: There were many.

Madson: My medical insurance from the schools was excellent, but Richard couldn’t be on it. We had to pay for his separately.

Dietz: These things rankled, but the thing that really galvanized us was AIDS.

Madson: Gene got sick, and we were his primary caretakers. When he died, in 1986, I was looking for somewhere to put all that energy. I started going to the gay-teachers association. I learned that Lambda Legal was looking for couples for a case against the Board of Education to obtain domestic-partnership rights. The city started offering domestic partnership, but it was a bunch of crap, a wrapper with no bread. We had to win the lawsuit to put the bread in. Lambda thought teachers would make the perfect plaintiffs, because they’re supposedly stable. I said to Richard, “I think I found our niche.”

Dietz: I agreed, but I had concerns. Coming out publicly at the time was not so easy. Ron was on 20/20, we were in the papers.

Madson: At school, I went from being the golden boy to not having my garbage collected. One kindergartner was brave enough to say, “My dad says you’re sick.”

Dietz: It wasn’t all bad. We had to get together lots of records, to prove the nature of the relationship. After seeing all the things we’d accumulated, it looked pretty substantial. It made our relationship very real.

Madson: The case took five years. The Dinkins administration fought us and the other plaintiffs tooth and nail. Finally, in 1993, they agreed to our terms. We went to Gracie Mansion and had a lot of pictures taken.

Dietz: After that, we picked up our friend Irv at the hospital to take him home to die.

Madson: Ironically, because Richard by then had health insurance from his new job, we didn’t sign up for the new benefits. They’re considered income by the government and are therefore taxable, which isn’t true for married people. So all this civil-union crap didn’t mean very much.

Dietz: I think it meant something.

Madson: But we didn’t feel any more married than before.

Dietz: That was fine with me. Everyone I knew was divorced except for our parents.

Madson: And they should have been. Also, there was a lot of negativity around aping heterosexuality.

Dietz: Marriage was a closed club. There was nothing attractive about it to us.

Madson: Except fast-forward to nine months ago, when Richard asked me to marry him.

Dietz: The thing that changed my mind was when Governor Paterson said he would recognize marriages from other states. I told Ron, “I guess we’ll have to go out to California.” And he said, “Are you proposing to me?” And I said, “I guess I am.”

Madson: No ring, no bended knee.

Dietz: We decided to get married on November 12 and have a nice honeymoon. When they voted for Prop 8, we canceled the trip, but we felt, well, that’s our date.

Madson: So we went to Provincetown, where we’d had our first “honeymoon,” in August 1970. We kept it a secret. It was about us.

Dietz: Although we hope whatever we do will benefit the community at large. To know a couple who have been together so long can be inspiring, especially because we look so marvelous. If we looked haggard, it wouldn’t be so inspiring.

Madson: We got married at the Pilgrim-landing site—so much for the Puritans.

Dietz: We were stunned and happy.

Madson: And then it was over. We’re married. It’s two in the afternoon. What now?

Dietz: Now we just wait for death.

Madson: I mean, after 38 years, how much more married can you be?

Dietz: It’s not that I feel different per se, but when it’s such an ingrained societal thing—that you never think you’ll be part of and have even felt defensive about—well, to be able to do it then is a very transforming experience. It’s invigorating.

Madson: I feel less changed by it, though I have to tell you I was lying in bed the next morning and just for a minute I was thinking, What the hell have we done? Before we could have just said a messy good-bye.

Dietz: Now we’d need a messy divorce.

Madson: But everyone in my family was thrilled. My most conservative sister burst out crying when I reached her at work.

Dietz: Not my mother. She said, “Well, if that’s what makes you happy. But isn’t life complicated enough without all this mishegoss?”

51. Because We Blazed the Trail for Gay Marriage