A Love Story
We get to hear a really good story today. But first, I need to set the stage for our guest.
Most of the Bible, our book, is stories told by many people over many centuries. There are stories of conquest; stories of great journeys and spiritual quests. There are stories of famous people doing bad things and simple people doing great things.
And, of course, there are love stories—lots of love stories. Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, David and Jonathon; and my favorite—Ruth and Boaz. That last one a most unlikely love story.
The families of Ruth and Boaz had been enemies for generations. To most of their neighbors, their relationship would have seemed a bad idea; an immoral choice. But love always finds a way; love wins. And the unlikely couple become the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David, the most famous ancestor of Jesus.
Now in most of these stories—and this surprises people because this is the Bible we’re talking about, God is a relatively minor character. This is because these are not, by and large, stories about God. These are stories about people trying to figure out how to live their lives. Occasionally they ask God for help needed or thank God for help given, but mostly they are just slogging through, doing the best they can to survive the day.
We read these stories 2 or 3 thousand years later and it’s pretty obvious to us that God was involved; God’s fingerprints are everywhere. But that’s much easier to see in hind sight; not so easy up close.
Now I’m telling you all this as prelude to the story you are about to hear from my good friend and consummate story teller Sue Huntenburg. Here, too, is a love story; an account of perhaps unlikely partners—think Ruth and Boaz, for instance or even Mary and Joseph; two people who meet, fall in love and commit themselves to making each other’s lives whole through the ups and downs of the decades. This is a very Bible-like story.
And this is how I want you to hear what Sue is going to say. If she had been sitting around a campfire in the hills of Palestine 3000 years ago telling this story to a bunch of Jewish shepherds, it might have become a part of our Bible
—set beside other love stories just like hers. We might have had, right next to the Book of Ruth, the Book of Sue.
We read the Bible looking and listening for the part God plays in the stories. It isn’t always obvious, but it is always there. Today, watch for these fingerprints of God in Sue’s story. You’ll see them if you look. And then this week, look
for those fingerprints in your story. They are there; I promise you. Look, and you’ll see.
“God is still speaking…” we are fond of saying in the United Church of Christ. I believe that’s true.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Sue…
—I am happy to be here talking with you this morning.
—I was born into a family with 4 brothers and 1 sister in a 2 bedroom home in the NW suburbs of Chicago
—We were all very close in age, all being born less than 2 years apart, until the last baby, my sister, who came 4 years after my youngest brother. Ironically, my parents said, she was the only “planned” baby
—I grew up quite shy, but wasn’t afraid to play and tumble with my brothers; at home I felt loved, safe, and included
—Throughout my middle school and high school years, though, I always felt very alone and isolated, having few friends
—I never felt like I fit in with any group in school, but I couldn’t quite figure out why that was
— I was terribly lonely
—After high school, I went to the local community college for 2 years so I could also work full time to earn money to go away to college my last 2 years.
—During that time I lived at home, I had my very first boyfriend, a truly wonderful, kind person, who was loved very much by my family; I thought there was something wrong with me when he told me he loved me, but I wasn’t able to tell him the same; How could I not love this person who was so funny, thoughtful and kind? Fortunately for both of us, he ended the relationship. I was so confused and sad and thought perhaps I just wasn’t capable of loving another person.
—Before leaving for college, I made a deliberate decision that I would reach out to others in order to develop a much needed support base of friends. I am proud to say I continue, after 44 years, to have these wonderful women very much in my life today.
—But I still didn’t know what was wrong with me. Why was I more interested in nurturing the relationships with these women, than even thinking about a relationship with a man.
—I never really heard about gay/lesbian people growing up, and so never even knew there were loving same sex relationships as a possibility.
—It was only after I graduated from college, and started teaching at the age of 22, that I finally discovered that women could love women. For the first time in my life, it felt right.
—But I continued to believe (maybe rightly so), that it was the PERSON I loved, and it could have just as easily been a man (even though it never was before!)
—Obviously, in the late 1970’s, I was closeted in this relationship and feared anyone finding out that I was with a woman; I feared rejection from my family; and I feared losing my teaching job
—While teaching in a small rural school, I distinctly remember being in the teachers lounge one Monday morning feeling terribly sad that I had to be so careful about what I shared; I felt like a 1 dimensional cardboard person. While I think other teachers liked and respected me, NO ONE knew anything about me and my life; I was afraid of being rejected by my teacher friends
—In 1983, at the age of 29, (and 7 years after realizing I was a lesbian), I remember being at my dad’s bedside as he was dying from colon/liver cancer. Holding my hand, he looked at me and said, “Is there ANYTHING you want to tell me?” I looked back at him and cried and finally shook my head NO.
—Even though I was pretty sure he knew I was a lesbian, I was too afraid of what he would think of me if I actually said the words; although I was pretty sure he wouldn’t reject me, I was still afraid he would…….on his deathbed. He finally said, “Then tell me, are you happy?” And to that, I could say YES. I could say YES to his question, not because the relationship I was in at the time was right for me, but that being with a woman was right for me.
—I am still sad that fear kept me from telling my dad the truth, even though I KNOW he never would have rejected me; he loved me; he still does; I think he would be proud that I am standing here today
—I became friends with my partner/spouse, Jill, when my dad was ill and dying. We taught in the same small community. Jill helped me on my difficult journey of seeing my dad die, and helped me begin to heal from my incredible sadness.
—Through the next 3 years, our relationship developed and changed, and on October 11, 1986 we went up north and had our own private commitment ceremony; we promised to love each other through this life journey and committed to work hard to keep this relationship intact, even during difficult times.
—Difficult times did come about 10 years into our commitment; but we chose to stay in the relationship and fight for the relationship, even during the darkest times;
— Our straight married friends who were there for us during this time, told us later that we were an inspiration to them, and that if WE could make it through that time, they could certainly try to do the same in a difficult situation, instead of walking away/divorcing.
—Early on, Jill and I did everything we could to protect our commitment legally; in 1986, we drew up our first will that had to contain language that said we
“purposefully” excluded our biological families from inheriting any of our property and that everything would go to either Jill or I, depending on who survived; this language felt pretty harsh at the time, but our attorney told us that this was the only way to try and guarantee our rights to inherit our property in case of death.
—At that time, we also drew up powers of attorney for healthcare so that we, rather than family members, could make medical decisions for each other. We had financial powers of attorney to help protect our financial decisions as well. We carried these in our car wherever we went, knowing if something happened and we didn’t have this documentation with us, we could be excluded from making medical decisions for each other because we were not biological family, nor were we married.
—In 1991, we moved from Stevens Point, WI to the Madison area. We wanted to be closer to family, and to live in a community that was more supportive to LGBT people.
—I accepted an elementary teaching position with the Middleton Cross Plains School District.
—Since it was very apparent that the district never considered that some kids with 2 moms or 2 dads were entering our elementary schools, and needed to be honored, welcomed and included, I thought it was important to be an advocate for these families.
— At that time, I made a conscious career decision to be open about being a lesbian.
—I am proud to say, I was part of a group of LGBT teachers in the district who helped make the Middleton Cross Plains schools more welcoming to LGBT kids and families.
—There were difficult times on this journey, and the fight has to continue, because even well intentioned straight teachers and administrators forget about these kids and families if there isn’t someone there to remind them.
—In August 2009, Wisconsin allowed to join in a Domestic Partnership, but it was made very clear by the state at that time, that a Domestic Partnership was “significantly different from a marriage”, and it gave us very little protection or rights. But in spite of that, on August 3, 2009 we legally became domestic partners. This felt like a small victory to us, but it was also sad that our commitment was viewed as “significantly different” than a marriage, even though, at that time, we had been in a committed relationship for 23 years.
—In July, 2013, we went on vacation with Jill’s twin sisters to Stonington, Maine, a tiny lobstering village. We were at lunch talking about how great it was that Maine had made marriage legal for same sex couples. We hoped someday, this would also happen in Wisconsin;
—One of Jill’s sisters suggested we consider getting married in Maine! I tearfully said I didn’t want to get married in Maine, because it meant nothing in Wisconsin. And I said, “I don’t want to keep jumping through hoops. If we get married in Maine, then we’ll just have to do it again if/when it becomes legal in Wisconsin.”
—Jill’s sister said, “People get married out of state all the time. When they go home, they are still married.” This never occurred to me that we wouldn’t have to do this again. It was a foreign concept to me.
—The town clerk in Stonington helped us find a minister who might be willing to marry us.
—When we contacted Rev. Stephen York, he immediately said he would be honored to do so when he returned to town that weekend. He had not presided over a same sex marriage yet, but had hoped to do so.
—Making the decision to marry, without the hubbub of a typical wedding day really helped us to focus on what this thing called marriage was all about and what it meant to our relationship.
—You see, I think it is difficult for some mainstream people to consider a same sex relationship a real relationship. But it is. We love, laugh, cry, argue, play, talk, dream, like everyone else. Your dreams are our dreams too.
—As we spent the week talking about our intent to marry, we were moved by the simple beauty and power of this type of union. This thing called marriage. It was not going to be “significantly different” from a straight marriage, as our Domestic Partnership was.
— Even though it wasn’t yet legal throughout the US, this was a marriage by choice, because marriage means something; because it matters. It means deep, abiding love for each other. It was an overwhelming feeling of joy and hope for us.
—And so, on July 28, 2013, a rainy, overcast, beautiful day, dressed in our shorts and best vacation shirts, we were married by the shore of the Atlantic Ocean with Jill’s sisters as our witnesses.
—At the end of our short ceremony,
Reverend York held our hands tightly, and stated, “By the authority given me by the state of Maine, AND in the eyes of God, you are married.”
— We were so overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, we simply held each other and cried.
— We understood what it meant to commit to each other, but we never dreamt a legal marriage could be a reality in our lifetime.
—We chose to get married because it meant something; it was important; it was not different from anyone else's marriage; It was real; it was a public declaration and acknowledgement of our love for each other.
—On June 26, 2015 same sex marriage became legal in the US, and our marriage vows in Maine, carried over to Wisconsin.
—So on July 28 of this year, we celebrated the 5th anniversary of our marriage. And on October 11 of this year, we will celebrate 32 years of our own personal commitment to each other.
—Both dates are important to us. Our 32nd anniversary gave us the time we needed to know we were in this for our lifetime. Our 5th anniversary allowed us to publicly celebrate that commitment.
—I thank you for being here today. And I thank you for being so kind and listening to my story.