40 great years together and still strong

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Harvey Milk forever stamp 2014

February is supposed to be all about love and valentines, and it is great to have a special time for that, but the more than four-decade relationship of New Jersey couple John and Ernie Rivera-Ramos proves that love and commitment can work all the days of the year. John’s description of their first meeting shows that romantic element of love at first sight:

Ernie Rivera-ramos in 1976

Ernie Rivera-Ramos in 1976

“Ernie and I met on a beautifully moonlit evening on May 19, 1973 at The Abby Bar in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. I noticed Ernie immediately, but he was dancing with someone else. As I was still learning ‘gay etiquette,’ I assumed he was in a relationship. Ernie noticed me as he and the guy he was dancing with turned on the dance floor. According to Ernie… I was awash in a beam of light, not from the lights of the club. (Okay, corny but this is another story for another time.) Needless to say he slowly made his way toward me, while he unceremoniously leaves the [dancing] guy without even an explanation.”

“Now, Ernie of course knew immediately, that I was the one he had been waiting for all his life. But I on the other hand had finally understood I was gay, and the last thing I was thinking about was a relationship,” he says. “To be honest, I didn’t even think one was possible. However, that changed quickly as the night progressed and we both came to feel that we had known each other all our lives.”

John Rivera-Ramos in 1979 while in Miami

John Rivera-Ramos in 1979 while in Miami

Within two years, they were officially living together, though John commented, “We were an official couple two weeks after we met.”

Neither John nor Ernie was entering into this relationship as a first-timer. They both had previous marriages to women. As John told us, “Ernie was a widower, his wife dying in childbirth, leaving him with 3 children. I was separated from my wife and, unfortunately, my daughter. Ernie’s mom and stepdad helped him with the children; I on the other hand was on my own. I had already been quite independent, but Ernie did have problems breaking the apron strings as he was very much a mama’s boy.”

As he matured, Ernie learned that he needed to be who he was even if it meant separating himself from his mom. John, on the other hand, learned that he could be gay and still be a man. He says, “That was the most important realization, my epiphany.”

There’s a lot more to building a marriage than just saying “I do.” As with every new couple, John and Ernie had some new things to learn. In the early days, John says, “There was plenty of jockeying, but I was third in the line of succession, the children were first and his mom second… I was third. Sometimes, I didn’t know where I stood. Soon I learned that many of the problems we did seem to have had more to do with his last boyfriend, and I was paying the price for what came before me. You either decide you are willing to work for it or give up. When you know you have a diamond in the rough, you keep working on it. Then one day, you find yourself in the right space without even realizing you are there.”

John and Ernie Rivera-Ramos in 1974 while in Puerto Rico.

John and Ernie Rivera-Ramos in 1974 while in Puerto Rico.

Forty years ago, there was a vastly different view of gays among the general public. That was bound to be reflected in families, and John and Ernie were not exempt from the stress it caused. John told us, “Ernie’s mother and father were not accepting of our gay life. His mother took time, but years later asked us if we were married. When we said we were not and explained why, she said she thought it was the stupidest thing she heard. His father died not accepting that his son was gay, and he died estranged. Ernie does not feel any regrets. When his wife died in 1971, he knew he could not live his life as a lie, and those who didn’t like it, tough!”

For John, it was different. “With me on the other hand, it was almost an accident,” John said. “I had gone to Puerto Rico on vacation with a friend and met some gay men. Simple. Okay, not that simple. I decided it would be easier to step out of the closet without being so close to family and those who knew me. So I moved a few thousand miles away on an island in the Caribbean. Some of my friends knew and the rest found out anyway, and to most it made no difference except for an uncle who can now rest in peace. To be honest, for us in our time, we didn’t have it that bad. Though we remained mostly in the closet at work and in public, once we made our decision to be together, we were out of the closet as far as we could be at the time. We did not hold hands in public, but you had to be blind not to realize we were a couple.”

“Especially difficult was my jealousy during the first five years of our relationship.” Ernie said. “I dealt with it by realizing that all I was doing was trying to push him away by making it a self-fulfilling prophesy and the issue was with what I thought was the definition of love. Reading a lot of books on the subject but especially reading the poet Kahlil Gibran helped me understand that loving someone does not mean that you own them.”

John and Ernie in San Francisco in 2003. Says John, "though we remained mostly in the closet at work and in public, once we made our decision to be together, we were out of the closet as far as we could be at the time."

John and Ernie in San Francisco in 2003. Says John, “though we remained mostly in the closet at work and in public, once we made our decision to be together, we were out of the closet as far as we could be at the time.”

According to John, “Dealing with Ernie’s very large family and three small children to boot, was difficult as I came from a small family. Ernie’s jealousy was almost the deal breaker. I realized after two years the need to allow people to evolve, as they don’t change, just because you want them to. Accept baby steps in that evolution, as all that is worth having is worth waiting for. At least for me, it was worth waiting for. However, I have seen from observation that sometimes tough love is the better love. For some, only the pain of having been let go can help them grow.”

Their relationship has lasted through not only family and personal pressures but also through an era of major crisis and world-changing political activism. So how did the AIDS crisis, the rise of LGBT political activism, and the focus for marriage equality affect them? “The AIDS epidemic created a fear in the gay community even deeper than the persecution that came before it. The fear was so acute at one time that Ernie did not want to be intimate with me for more than a month,” John said. “Then there was loss, loss of so many friends and seeing so much suffering as well as loss of some family members. The drive for LGBT political activism came also because of HIV/AIDS. We saw so many ‘loving’ families come out of the woodwork, and disregard partners and literally throw them out in the street and strip them of their possessions. We learned then that we needed to protect ourselves.”

John says they have always been involved in the frontline, educating others on LGBT topics and why equality is so important. “We marched on Washington D.C., in New York Pride, Asbury Park Pride. We appeared on T.V., in newspaper articles, spoke on the radio and worked and supported GLAAD, Garden State Equality, and attending several rallies. We have also been asked on various occasions to speak on gay relationships. We were married on February 14, 2004 in Niagara Falls, Canada. It is amazing what we have reached; never in a million years did we think we would be able to marry legally. Well, at least in Canada, and a few other countries around the world. All right, in a few states too; it just kills me that we are still so far behind so many nations.”

Our example is not how long we have been together— our example is that we are still together."A relationship is hard but the payoff is the time of shared history and all that it means, the good, the bad and, yes, sometimes the ugly, but always worth the effort," says, John seen here with Ernie in 2009 while visiting Florence Italy.

“Our example is not how long we have been together— our example is that we are still together. A relationship is hard but the payoff is the time of shared history and all that it means, the good, the bad and, yes, sometimes the ugly, but always worth the effort,” says, John seen here with Ernie in 2009 while visiting Florence Italy.

What advice would a couple whose marriage and relationship has lasted this long give to young gay couples just beginning their lives together? John told us, “We have two granddaughters that are lesbians. They are both in a relationships and for them life is so much easier. We are continually amazed how their straight friends and gay friends are so close. We have heard from so many young men and women that they can see a future because of our example. Our example is not how long we have been together— our example is that we are still together. A relationship is hard but the payoff is the time of shared history and all that it means, the good, the bad and, yes, sometimes the ugly, but always worth the effort.”

“Our advice to young lesbian and gay people would be to keep the doors open to communication and, most importantly, to trust,” said John. “If you fear what you are going to say to your partner, then you should fear for your relationship.”

“If trying to get ahead and wanting to give your partner all the things that you think are important, costs you the very person you’re doing it for, then it’s worth nothing,” the couple said. “Don’t forget for whom you are doing all those things in the first place.”

“Try, and we mean try,” they said, “Never go to bed angry and without giving him/her a kiss and saying I love you. If you do, when you wake, let that apology and smile and kiss— you can brush your teeth later— be the first thing you do. Trust us when we say you won’t remember most of the time why you were angry or upset a year, or a month from now. Oh, but if you do, it should be because you learned from it not because you are holding on to something that is not of any use. After all, it was your decision to commit to this relationship in the first place.”

 

February is supposed to be all about love and valentines, and it is great to have a special time for that, but the more than four-decade relationship of New Jersey couple John and Ernie Rivera-Ramos proves that love and commitment can work all the days of the year. John’s description of their first meeting shows that romantic element of love at first sight: