Jerry and Tom Get Married
Published on November 4, 2012 by guest author: Keith Ross

When I first meet Jerry I wouldn’t have guessed he was gay. I was new to the island, straight down from northern New Hampshire. He was a redneck from West Virginia, with a thick southern drawl and rotten crooked teeth, emanating Southern masculinity. I thought the other guys at work were messing around with me until I met his “wife,” as everyone put it, Tom.

Jerry and Tom (not their real names) were seemingly polar opposites. Tom was also a southern boy with a thick drawl as well, but no one would doubt which team he batted for. Tom was thin as Jerry was thick. Tom was a lady as Jerry was a man. Tom defiantly was the wife as Jerry was the husband. Tom fit every single stereotype of a gay man in the Florida Keys as Jerry fit into the redneck stereotype. Except Jerry was gay and married to a man. Well, in all our minds they were married, no matter what State or Federal law says. They loved each other, they wore wedding rings, they had committed their lives to each other. They lived as husband and husband.

Jerry and I had become close friends. We would sit at staff parties and talk, a lot about hunting and fishing, and other redneck stuff. I had grown up in the mountains of New Hampshire and had close to the same upbringing as Jerry had in the mountains of West Virginia. The main difference is that my parents and I are college educated, and Jerry had come from a long line of illiterate Appalachians. I would joke with him about the Hatfields and McCoys and he would tease me about "live free or die." We argued politics and religion. No topic was off the table. He talked a lot about his love for Tom, their relationship, and their families.

“Tom and I have AIDs.” Jerry said it very nonchalantly. I tried not to look shocked, scared or repulsed. No matter how much knowledge you have about the disease, when you are confronted with someone who has it, a chill runs down your spine; physically, I felt like I should run. Emotionally I knew that everything leads to one path: This person will die. But reason told me I was safe.

“Full blown or HIV positive?”

“Well, Tom is still just HIV positive. I have AIDs, my liver is succumbing to cirrhosis, that’s why I don’t drink so much, and why I am tinted green.” He laughed, showing his crooked teeth.

I went through a slew of questions. ‘"How long?" How long left? How’d you know?" and such and such. Being a good friend, he answered all of them. It was sad to think that my new friend and his lover were not long for this earth. They partied too hard, had no insurance, and basically had decided to live their lives out, instead of clutching on to a few extra days or minutes at the end.

They eventually left to go back to West Virginia. Jerry had gotten real sick. His liver had gone cancerous; he was green all the time now. He was dying. Jerry had a sister and Tom had some family to help take care of him. The cost of living was cheaper and there was less temptation outside the Keys. Tom hoped to hold onto his husband as long as possible.  Most of their families had never approved. Gay in that part of the country meant you gave up family for love and yourself. I empathized. I knew guys from my hometown who were sent out into the world alone, excommunicated from the family and community when they had been brave enough to finally come out to their family. It had been the same with Jerry and Tom.

Jerry died Mother’s Day. The island was in mourning. Another casualty to the epidemic that had devastated the island.  A shot and a beer and a large tip were set on an empty bar stool in nearly every bar across the town. We cried, we mourned the loss of a very dear and close friend. About five days later, Tom arrived, with a small back pack, the clothes on his back and nothing else. 

There had been no will. Tom was not allowed at the funeral. He was handed a one way ticket back to Key West and told not to return. They let him take one small bag full of clothes. Jerry’s family had never approved of their gay son, and Tom was to disappear, the shame of a gay son with AIDS over with. The small town would only remember the great high school linebacker, not the man who thought he could marry another man.

They did not have any wealth. Jerry had been on social security due to his illness. They had little to no savings. Jerry’s family was declared executor of the will. Tom’s arguments were unheard. The family took what little they had: the dog, some money, furniture, truck, and all the pictures. Tom was left alone, a widower and destitute. The commitment ceremony didn’t matter, the wedding ring didn’t matter, the fifteen plus years together didn’t matter, their love didn’t matter. If their wedding had been recognized, if their love and commitment to one another had been recognized, then Tom would have had some pictures of his life’s love, not just memories.

Luckily for Tom we are all family here in the Keys. He got a job at the bar Jerry used to manage. Every staff member took turns letting him sleep on the couch until he could get back on his feet. He lived with my girlfriend and me every other month. He liked to alternate couches so he wouldn’t wear out his stays. We gave him money. We helped him put his life back together so his last few years would not be so hard or alone.

Recently I had another close friend of mine lose his partner of 25 years. They also had wedding rings and were committed but, unlike Jerry and Tom, their families accepted them. I was happy to hear that family was there for the services, for the support and the love, that is needed when one’s life's love dies. It reminded me that not everyone is so lucky as to have the full love and support of their birth families - only the love and support of the families they have built on the way.

This is the reason why I am for gay marriage. If Jerry and Tom had been married, then Tom would have had Jerry’s social security to help support himself, a dog to comfort him in his loneliness, and at the very least, a few pictures of the love of his life to get him through the dark days. We need to put aside our religious views on this issue; the First Amendment tells us this. Marriage is a matter of love and commitment, not personal beliefs, and religion should play no role nor dictate how we make or interpret our laws. Legal protection is necessary so that people like Tom are not left alone, widowed, with everything stolen from them because someone does not agree with their personal choice to get married, irregardless of sex.

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