After the Wedding

Family, loss, and facing homophobia: One year later with the first gay couple married on a military base.

Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali (right) and Will Behrens (left) at the McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst chapel, where their civil union was held on June 23, 2012.

Photo by Jeff Sheng

A year ago this month, Will and Erwynn Umali-Behrens became the first gay couple to publicly announce their same-sex wedding ceremony on a military base. I attended their wedding and wrote about their extraordinary life stories here on Slate. Erwynn is a tech sergeant in the Air Force and an airmen leadership instructor, while Will is a civilian who works in financial services. After the story was published, the couple received a deluge of attention from friends, colleagues, and readers. Overnight, they went from living quiet ex-urban lives to being recognized by strangers at WaWa, with their wedding photo turned into a viral Facebook post promoted by George Takei. I checked back in with Will and Erwynn just before their anniversary and learned that they had a very eventful first year of marriage.

In terms of everyday life, the couple still “lives for our kids”—they each have two kids from previous marriages to women—and are giddy with excitement about an upcoming vacation planned for all six of them. They recently got a dog and have continued to be involved with gay service-member groups. They still attend Hope Church and feel very much at home there. They have even started singing in the choir.

Both Will and Erwynn say they’ve felt very supported since the wedding by the military leadership and officials at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a joint military base in Wrightstown, N.J. where Erwynn is stationed. Will was recently included in Erwynn’s re-enlistment ceremony, and Erwynn talks openly about Will and their family during his leadership seminars. Unfortunately, not everyone accepts them. But if you believe people being out in the military will ultimately lead to more tolerance as service members actually get to know more gay people, Erwynn has had some compelling experiences to back this up.

At the end of one of his leadership training courses, a young airman gave Erwynn a typed letter that detailed over several pages how, due to his religious upbringing, he was very uncomfortable at first with having an openly gay instructor. He had teased the only other gay people he’d known in the past and believed being gay was wrong. As the weeks went by, he struggled with how to reconcile how he was raised with the respect he felt for Erwynn, and by the end of the course, he found himself defending Will and Erwynn to some other students who were making disparaging remarks about them at a base volleyball game. He stated in the letter that the airmen leadership training had been one of the most “life-changing experiences” he’d ever had.

As detailed in the original article, Will’s father was a fundamentalist Baptist minister, and he was raised in a very strict home. At the time of their wedding, Will was estranged from his parents, and they vigorously disapproved of his relationship with Erwynn. The estrangement continued until this April, when Will got a call that his father had a heart attack and was in critical condition at a hospital in Philadelphia.

Over the course of the next week, Will and Ewynn began a nightly ritual of leaving work early and driving an hour to bring home-cooked meals and supplies to all the family camped out at the hospital. But crisis didn’t do much to thaw the frosty relationship with Will’s mother and immediate family. Erwynn felt so unwelcome around them that he’d often spend hours out of sight in the car until Will was ready to return home for the evening. The last time Will saw his father, he spent two hours by his bedside reading him his favorite Bible passages. His father never regained consciousness before he passed away on May 2. Will attended the funeral but sat with his extended family. Erwynn was not invited and waited in the car.

While the death of Will’s father did not fix all of the family relationships, the couple remains very close with their beloved aunts. Will and Erwynn were also recently able to reconnect with Will’s 87-year-old paternal grandmother. A year ago, she wouldn’t invite Will into her home while she visited with his children, and now she’s come as far as to have both Will and Erwynn over, has promised Will a special wood carving done by his late grandfather, and has even offered to baby-sit their dog while they are on vacation this summer.