A gay in the life.
by Dinah Cardin, Staff Writer
photographs by Robert Branch

North Shore Sunday
March 26, 2004

A Salem couple tells of coming out, settling down ... and planning a wedding

Salem - Moments spent hanging out these days in their new home, in their matching suede L.L. Bean slippers, on a quiet street off Salem Common are truly treasured by Bob and Gary. The 30-year-olds have worked for it, spending night after night following their commute home from Boston by ripping out old carpet, painting walls and replacing appliances and fixtures. It's now time to breath, enjoy an after-dinner coffee and admire their new cozy pad.

The couple enjoy one of those seemingly ideal, lasting relationships, where they actually cherish their differences. Bob is very social and jovial. Gary is more introverted and domestic. Both are genuinely caring people, prone to easy smiles.

They are good looking in very different ways. Bob has a shaved head, baby face and perfectly straight, white teeth. He can usually be found wearing khaki pants and has childlike mannerisms. Gary has patent-leather dark hair, clipped short and coifed fashionably with product to stand up neatly in the front. His body is more compact and his vibe more controlled and laid back. They have that thing that many gay men do – they and their home appear groomed and polished.

They listen when the other is talking, politely address one another and spend practically all their time together. They guess this could come from both having been raised by single mothers.

Bob loves that Gary is strong-willed and dependable like a rock, but a wearer of his heart on his sleeve. Gary loves Bob's honesty and constant consideration of other people's feelings. Bob has a calming affect on Gary, helping him maintain perspective. Basically, each of them really "gets" the other. And it's been this way for nearly 10 years.

But there are other concerns looming on the horizon, like whether they will be able to take the next step. And that is, to marry. When the state's Constitutional Convention - reconvening March 29 - is in session, their giant TV screen never strays from the channel that broadcasts it - and the issue debated there never strays from their minds.

Out of 'Place'

Both professionals at Fidelity in Boston, Bob Murch and Gary Halteman met in the mid-1990s, while students at the University of New Hampshire. While Halteman long knew he was gay, Murch was in a long-term relationship with the girl from back home in West Peabody, who was also at UNH.

Meeting Halteman and becoming his friend did something for Murch. It made him realize he really, really liked men. It was an instant connection, the kind you know will lead you somewhere important.

It has led them to shopping for wedding rings this week, scouting spots for a small ceremony after May 17 - the date the SJC ruled same-sex marriage would become legal barring a legislative alternative - and taking off a few days later to the island of St. John with a few friends for a honeymoon and much-needed vacation.

Looking back 10 years, the couple can't believe how much easier it is today for people to admit and come to terms with being gay. They are envious of the way it's now almost popular to be gay, when even high school students are coming out of the closet.

Halteman remembers having only the pathetic gay character on "Melrose Place" to relate to when he was in college, which is a far cry from the savvy banter found on "Will and Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Though big fans of those hit shows, they are glad that they don't play to typical stereotypes too much, because in their case people often get to know them for themselves before realizing they are gay.

"People get to know us first and then they have to deal with the fact that they like us," says Murch. (Which is true. Most people can't help but like the two of them.)

The two have been lucky to be the targets of very little discrimination. Although Halteman did hear a cashier at his local grocery store recently call someone a "faggot."

"I looked at him like, are you for real? You said that in front of a customer? I used to make my living as a cashier."

He called Murch from his cell phone on his way home and was mad at himself for not saying something to the guy.

Neither have many gay friends, though they appreciate how the marriage debate has bolstered the gay community.

"Only fighting AIDS has aligned the gay community so much," says Murch. "It's too bad it's taken times like these to get the community to work together, but at the same time, it's wonderful to get the ball rolling and get the community a lot more involved in things."

Coming out

Sometimes Murch and Halteman look at the fun, singles, club-going gay life in Boston that they missed out on by getting together so young. But, they say, they wouldn't trade the stability for anything.

That gay part of a gay life is a tough one to leave, they say, because society offers the community no alternative lifestyle.

"Why should gay people grow up and live a monogamous life?" asks Murch.

"There is no next step like in straight life," Halteman adds.

So many gay people continue to feel as though they are "living in sin," Murch points out, something many straight people do with the mindset that it's merely temporary. Here you have these people who are perceived as promiscuous, wanting a chance grow up, be monogamous and settle down, says Murch, but you won't give it to them.

"AIDS was from God," he mocks. "Look at their lifestyle."

Murch paraphrases his take on President Bush's recent campaign for marriage:

"That's great you want to get married, but sorry, not to the right person."

During the college years of the two psych majors, Murch, a vivacious, extremely open person, told his dorm floor in some kind of formal meeting that he was gay.

"Everyone has seen Gary here, I'm sure," he told them. "Well, I'm gay and he's my boyfriend. You've all seen Gary around."

He didn't lose many friends from it. His attitude was that he was a good, loyal friend that others would miss, if they chose to let this come between them. The one he nearly lost, a Catholic who wanted to go into the Marines, later accepted Murch's path and it eventually brought them closer.

"Who I sleep with is really nobody's business," Murch says, looking back. "Unless you really want to know," he laughs.

Murch never wanted to be what others expected of him. As long as he was a good person, that was what mattered.

"I owe a lot of that to my mother," he says, "which is probably something every gay man says."

But he made the mistake of telling his mother as she was driving him home one day from college.

Though she nearly drove off the road, this liberal-minded woman - who had always taught her son to not define himself according to others - later conceded she practically heard his words in her head before he had said them. Her initial worry was that her son's life would be harder and that people would talk badly behind his back.

Telling his stepfather, however, wasn't as easy. The idea of being gay simply wasn't in the man's realm of thinking.

Bob: "You know that guy Gary you met, well, he's my boyfriend."

Father: "You have lots of boyfriends."

Bob: "Gary and I are together."

Father: "Oh, he's in Massachusetts now."

Mother: "Oh, for God's sake, they're sleeping together."

Though the idea took some digestion, he wasn't that upset in the end. Murch quickly checked off his list. Meanwhile, Halteman was still playing "Mr. Straight Guy" and keeping the truth mum.

He told no one about his sexual preference, not even his closest friends. Studious, hard-working and putting himself through college at a gourmet food store, he nearly made himself sick every time he finally did fess up to one of his friends or longtime co-workers.

He confused his best friend by visiting her house every morning for nearly a week with a cup of coffee and then fleeing before she woke up. He finally broke down, telling her he had horrible news, to which she assumed he surely must be dying and was relieved to hear he was merely gay.

"His straight world was so big and his gay world so little," says Murch.

"Suddenly, the straight world became smaller. They swapped."

Family matters

Looking back, Halteman says he would have never seen the point in coming out if it weren't for Murch, though he thinks Murch would have lived an openly gay life no matter what.

Halteman's parents emigrated from England when he was a year old. His devoutly Catholic, Irish mother wasn't at all prepared to hear about her son's homosexuality.

Terrified of her reaction, he finally left his mother a note one day that he wanted to talk after work. When he got home, his mother - who had figured it out - exclaimed dramatically that she was seeing visions of his dead father. She wouldn't speak to Murch for a long time and when he would call the house for Halteman, who still lived at home, she was rude or didn't deliver the message.

"I would ask mom, did anyone call? She would say no. Then Bob would say, I tried calling you five times," he laughs, admitting he's thankful Murch never gave up trying.

Now, Ms. Halteman proclaims her love for Murch, referring to him as her son's "life partner." Murch says he thinks of her as a real mother-in-law, whom he can always turn to.

"It's easy when you're liberal. But to have someone do that because she cares this much about her son is a huge thing," he says.

After years of looking up to an older brother who used to beat up on the "fags" at school, Halteman now also has a great relationship with his siblings, who love Murch. His sister, then living in California, was excited when her brother came out because it meant that the two could go shopping together.

At one time, the men lived with Murch's mom for four years as partners. Carol Sapol knew her son and Gary would remain together all these years, simply because they are committed to everything they do. The time they all lived together was important because it was a time when they needed family support, she says.

"We knew that they were going to have a harder road and we wanted to be there to make sure that they were OK and that we could get to know everybody and they could solidify that bond and move on with their lives together," she says.

She wonders if the law will allow the wedding she hopes to attend.

"You certainly don't bring a child into the world to have them be considered a second-class citizen without rights like everyone else," she says.

Her son was raised to know he would be loved no matter what, says Sapol, which has made him turn out to be not only someone she loves, but someone she likes and admires. This is also how she feels about his choice for a partner. Sapol, who has gone through a divorce, thinks her son and his partner's commitment and hard work at maintaining their relationship is an inspiration.

She also hopes one day they will have children.

"You can imagine what these two individuals could give to a child," she says, hoping maybe they can adopt from Russia, as her friend at work did.

"As a mother, you have the same dreams for your child, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual," she says. "You want to see your child happy. You want to see them fulfilled. You want to dance at their wedding. You want to be there for the birth of their child. It's the same thing."

The big day

Over the years, the couple has owned two condos together. They have also started a business called Spirited Ventures that sells a Salem version of the Ouija Board game. It was a big risk for Halteman, who was always taught to save money and who was suddenly investing in a business based strictly on Murch's hobby of collecting spirit boards. The four-year-old business, with Halteman at the financial helm, broke even last year.

They commute home together each evening on the train and enjoy talking openly about each other at work, no longer calling the other their roommate or pretending to have a girlfriend. That had to stop. They had gone through too much to pretend.

And they've gone through too much to pretend now. That's why they want to get married, for real. It's surreal, they say, that soon they will be husband and husband ... at last.

Family and friends are pulling for them to make this happen. Friend Christian Day helped Murch gather 56 signatures in two and half hours last weekend from local business owners and people walking down the streets of Salem, as part of a state-wide effort by Mass Equality to send postcards with signatures and personal messages to the state's legislators. Murch, who is well connected to the business community in Salem, joked that going door to door was like selling Girl Scout cookies.

For now, the couple will sit around their new burnt -orange living room and mustard-colored kitchen and run their joint business venture from their iBooks and travel to their jobs in Boston and enjoy close relationships with friends and family. But soon, there will be a wedding.

Or, if legislators amend the constitution to ban marriage between a man and a man, Murch and Halteman will still be living together. They will still be down the street from straight neighbors. And that's not going to change.

"Do you think it's going to stop people from loving each other or living together?" asks Murch. "When it's all over, I'm still here and I'm still gay."

E-mail reporter Dinah Cardin at dcardin@cnc.com

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