Will and Erwynn Umali-Behrens, the first gay couple to be married on a military base, have shared their beautiful, moving story with Slate’s Katherine Goldstein. Katherine and the newlyweds took questions on Facebook on Thursday. An edited transcript of the chat is below. You can read the conversation in full here.
Katherine Goldstein: Hi everyone! Will and Erwynn will be joining us shortly to answer your questions. To protect others’ privacy, they will not be answering Qs about their ex-wives or kids, but if you have other Qs for me or them, ask away!
Geoff Lamb: Fine writing and reporting by Katherine, who, in one reader’s opinion, is an exceptional writer. Cheers to Slate for keeping her gainfully employed.
Will Umali-Behrens: Thanks to everyone for joining. We appreciate all the support and love!
Michael Stephens: Have you guys been treated differently since the article and the pictures were published?
Will Umali-Behrens: We have been treated with great respect from our friends and family. Actually this morning, someone in WaWa recognized my face. She hugged me and said thank you. She then bought my Monster and M&Ms for me.
Jeffrey Bloomer: Will and Erwynn, what made you decide to tell your story to a writer?
Will Umali-Behrens: We really didn’t think our story was newsworthy, but as we started to tell family and some friends, they couldn’t believe it and said we ought to put it in writing. It was then that someone had contacted us about getting in touch with Slate and Katherine.
Josh Levin: One of the most uplifting things about this story was the universal support for Will and Erwynn from Erwynn’s military colleagues. Did that surprise you, Katherine?
Katherine Goldstein: That definitely did surprise me. As a military outsider, I really had no idea what to expect about how gay service members would be treated after DADT was repealed. I really asked a lot of different people if they’d heard negative things, and while I don’t think homophobia has completely been eradicated, it was very encouraging to see how supportive and open people are.
Erin McLaughlin: Congratulations! My question: Why did you two decide to hold the ceremony on a military base? And did you experience any push back or hesitation from officials on the base when you approached them about holding the ceremony there?
Erwynn Umali-Behrens: Initially, we were still thinking about where we should have it and we wondered if we can get married on base, so we asked and they were very open about it but said “no one has ever asked us this question before,” so they were very helpful about helping us make it happen, and we did not get any pushback from the base or leadership. The base and leadership were extremely helpful. All they asked was that we be patient because this was the very first one.
Dena Levitz: I’m just curious about the reaction of Will and Erwynn’s families to the article, especially those family members who weren’t at the wedding or who have been less accepting about their relationship. Have any reached out to you since it was posted on Slate? And also I just want to say thanks to them both for being so open about their lives.
Will Umali-Behrens: We have not heard from any family members who did not attend the wedding or disagreed with our relationship. We have heard from many friends from high school and also family members who were in attendance, of course.
Dena Levitz: Thanks so much, and congratulations again.
Thomas Nasvytis: I’m so impressed by your stories and it seems like they have a happy ending, but I am curious about how you felt when you got divorced from your wives. What kept you going? How did you feel? I think it’s amazing that you were even able to start seeing each other.
Will Umali-Behrens: Immediately following my divorce, I broke down and cried in the elevator. My lawyer said to me, “You are not divorcing your children, remember that.” It was tough, because it was a huge part of your life. My number one concern was my children and also what was in store for Erwynn and me. We are both very strong people and just took one day at a time. Not only were we struggling with a divorce, but also struggling to fight to see our kids, protecting Erwynn’s career and also maintaining our work jobs which are stressful just on their own. It was a very trying time for both of us. But it just brought us closer together!
Erwynn Umali-Behrens: I was sad, but I knew that the marriage wouldn’t work out no matter how hard I tried. But I knew that there was something out there and I knew I would find it, but just didn’t know when. Also what kept me going was that my two sons came out of the marriage and I love them very much and nothing can change that, and now they have the love from Will and they love that as well.
Thomas Nasvytis: I think I’m reflecting on some of my own experiences with shame and guilt from a conservative religious perspective, and I think it’s wonderful that you were able to overcome that negative outlook. You’re both really strong, and I wonder what your secret is.
Ellen Tarlin: Do you feel a bit on display now that the article has been published?
Will Umali-Behrens: Ellen, yes we do feel on display! =) We are both pretty calm people so this is all something new to us. It is our goal to be an encouragement to others through all of this. There are many other people struggling with who they are and they know there are a lot of risks involved if they reveal who they really are. Our goal isn’t to be in the spotlight, but to help those who are struggling in the “shadows.” Hopefully that makes sense.
Jackson Cavanaugh: Congrats! As a straight ally and veteran I am pleased to see this happening; the military has long been a vehicle for social progress.
Erwynn Umali-Behrens: Thank you Jackson! And thank you for your service.
Katherine Goldstein: Will, many people have commented to me on your aunts and how they were portrayed in the story. I thought they were incredibly loving and supportive women, but some people have wondered if you all felt like they were supportive enough since they don’t completely “agree” with gay marriage. What are your thoughts about this?
Will Umali-Behrens: We have said from the beginning that we understand that people will not agree. We greatly respect and love our aunts. They come from years of religious upbringing and being taught that it is wrong. Now they are faced with the fact that their nephew is gay. I was so impressed by not only by their acceptance, but also their complete honesty with us in telling us that they love us to death and still struggle with the idea of accepting us being gay. I think this is where a lot of families might be right now in America. Kudos to the greatest aunts in the world for putting aside their personal opinions and loving us and supporting us! They were a huge help on Friday and Saturday! I literally cried seeing my big burley uncles running from table to table setting up for the reception. It was very moving!
Philip Ehrenberg: I spent a long time here trying to articulate a question that I think Katherine has put really well above. I’m wondering how you feel about their support and their characterization in the article. Do you feel they themselves are internally conflicted, or is that just something they’ll shrug off?
Will Umali-Behrens: I still think they struggle a little bit with it. However, they also see us as a loving couple and normal family that love each other. The aunts are very open on how they love us but also how they still somewhat struggle with it. I would rather have that any day than a family member who says they support us, but don’t really support us. Again, we totally appreciate their honesty. Family is about LOVE. Whether you agree with everyone or not, LOVE is first and foremost.
Ellen Tarlin: What has the reaction been to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” among the military members that you know: friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.?
Erwynn Umali-Behrens: The reaction has been great! The support has been phenomenal and actually overwhelming. The military has policies that we must follow and we are doing so and it has all been great.
Katherine Goldstein: One of my favorite things Erwynn pointed out to me was that the military is really good at following orders, and since repealing DADT was an order, people are very good at following it. It was really interesting to hear Will’s aunts say they had been against the repeal until they learned how negative it had been for Will and Erwynn. I think sharing stories like these give people a lot more empathy for what the ban was actually like for people.
Ellen Tarlin: Did the article come out differently than you expected it to?
Erwynn Umali-Behrens: We actually didn’t [know] what we expected, but it is great and Katherine did a phenomenal job!
Ellen Tarlin: Well congratulations and best of luck to you! And thank you for sharing your story with us. I’ll leave you with my secret to a happy marriage: a good cleaning woman. Though I think when it’s been so long in coming, you’ve got a head start on happiness.
Katherine Goldstein: Will and Erwynn keep the cleanest house I’ve ever seen, so I don’t think this will be a struggle in their marriage!
Erin McLaughlin: One more (and thanks again for doing this!): Despite your legal commitment to each other, you two don’t have the same level of legal rights as heterosexual married couples. Can you talk a little bit about that? How it affects your relationship, your family, and what you’re hoping for on that front in the future?
Will Umali-Behrens: We don’t look at ourselves any different. However, we know many people do. It is our goal to see equality, but we also know that our country is not quite there yet. With planning a wedding and with our children it was very difficult to get involved too much in the legal rights movement. However, we plan to get involved in that in the near future. How does it affect our relationship? It doesn’t affect us because we see us as a normal couple. We fully understand we are going to have more battles; however, they only make us stronger. We have gone through a whole lot already and we are ready for the future and to push forward.
Will Saletan: On the Slate comments board, the most difficult criticism I’ve seen is that this marriage (I consider it a marriage, even if New Jersey doesn’t) was made possible by the ending of previous marriages, and children were involved. No matter what your perspective, it’s tragic when kids can’t live with both of their original parents together. What should we, as a society, do to reduce the incidence of this kind of tragedy in the future?
Erwynn Umali-Behrens: We didn’t end our marriages to be together; our relationships in the marriages wouldn’t have been true if we stayed in them. But one thing that we know and want to show our kids is to be true to yourself and love everyone no matter what. We don’t consider this as a “tragedy.” This is a victory for us because our kids still love us and we love each other and that is what they see. Showing them what we are teaching them. We were living life for other people and how life is “supposed to be.” Now we are living our lives true to ourselves and for our children.
Katherine Goldstein: One really interesting thing I talked about with the couple was how they never had any role models or knew any happy gay couples when they were growing up. I think it’s a huge leap forward that young people now will actually have good role models for happy gay relationships. I think that will lead to less people feeling compelled to have straight marriages when they aren’t straight. Obviously, Will and Erwynn adore the kids from their previous marriages, but hopefully young people will be able to skip some of those steps of struggle this couple dealt with.
Will Saletan: About the lack of role models, one of the things that struck me most in reading your story was the weirdly absent and vague way in which Will Behrens became aware of being gay. It sounds like it wasn’t so much attraction as an absence of feeling in the life he was living. Maybe one of the things this story can do for young gay people is to help them identify, earlier on, what that feeling might mean, before they have kids.
Katherine Goldstein: Will and Erwynn, have people from your church reached out to you since the article was published? What are you expecting when you go to church on Sunday?
Will Umali-Behrens: Katherine, we did hear from Pastor Rick. He said it was a very good article. He is excited about getting us more involved with HOPE’s ministries and can’t wait to go to dinner to discuss more with us. He also stated that this article has helped him and his wife understand us even more.
Katherine Goldstein: That is great to hear, Will. I really liked Pastor Rick.
Andrew Rahn: Will, do you ever think you’ll reconcile with your parents, even if the relationship falls short of full acceptance?
Will Umali-Behrens: Maybe one day, but based on their beliefs, I don’t think that will happen.
Kori Ella Weisser: Don’t feel too bad, Will. There are plenty of people (myself included) who have never done anything their parents would consider “shocking” who don’t have relationships with their parents either. I see it as “life happens.”
Kori Ella Weisser: Katherine, do you read the comments that are posted on your articles? I make it a point when I read an article to also read the comments section. I feel that America’s view on the story is just as important as the story itself. It broke my heart to read all of the ignorant crap posted by people. What are some of your thoughts on the comments?
Katherine Goldstein: I definitely scan the comments, but I don’t let them bother me too much. We just got a wave of homophobic ones, but generally the discussion has been pretty good. What I like to remember is that most people who read a story don’t comment, so it’s not representative of what everyone thinks. The reactions I’ve had on Facebook and from people I know have been incredibly positive, and I value that more.
Kori Ella Weisser: That’s a good point. I wonder if I have such a negative view of this country mainly because I read article comments. It makes me feel a lot better to hear that you got a lot of positive feedback.
Erwynn Umali-Behrens: I’m sorry all! I have to go for now. Katherine, thank you again for the great article and for hosting this chat.
Will Umali-Behrens: Thanks everyone! We both have to get back to work. If you have additional questions please feel free to send both of us a message through Facebook and we will do our best to answer them. A special thank you to Katherine for writing a great story. Thanks again everyone for your kind remarks and support!
Katherine Goldstein: Thanks Will and Erwynn for being here.