Two men became the first same-sex couple to marry on a military base when they held their wedding ceremony last month at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
Tech Sgt. Erwynn Umali and his partner, Will Behrens, married June 23 on the base where Umali, an active member of the Air Force, had been stationed. It was a decision that would have been unthinkable just nine months ago, before the law requiring them to keep their relationship a secret was repealed.
“We asked [about holding the ceremony on the base], and they were very open about it, but [said], ‘No one has ever asked us this question before,’” Umali said in a Facebook chat hosted by Slate. “We did not get any push back from the base or leadership. All they asked was that we be patient because this was the very first one.”
Both men say this positive reaction is the same sort of response they have gotten since going public with their relationship to Umali’s peers in the military. After Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed last September, Umali decided to open up about his relationship with Behrens.
At a farewell luncheon hosted for him on his military base before he left for a special assignment, Umali came out in a very public way. In a speech in front of 40 fellow airmen, he thanked his partner and fiancé. His fellow airmen responded with a standing ovation, according to Slate.
About 150 friends and family attended the ceremony, which was officiated by Evangelical Lutheran Church Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb.
Not everybody has been so accepting of their relationship, however. Both men grew up in strict religious families. Behrens’ parents don’t approve of his homosexuality, and Umali’s parents in the Philippines are still struggling with his homosexuality.
Both Behrens and Umali were previously married to women, and both have two children, all of whom were at the wedding.
“One thing that we know and want to show our kids is to be true to yourself and love everyone no matter what,” Umali said. “This is a victory for us because our kids still love us and we love each other and that is what they see.”
The family of six all went to Disneyland after the ceremony.
Despite their civil union, the federal Defense of Marriage Act means they don’t have the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples, something they say they would like to see changed.
“It is our goal to see equality, but we also know that our country is not quite there yet,” Behrens said. DOMA prevents Umali from extending his military heath care to Behrens’ children, and when Behrens’ visits Umali on base, he still needs a guest pass.
For now though, the newlyweds are just happy to be able to live their lives in the open, beginning with sharing a first kiss and a first dance in front of their family and friends at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Behrens in a tuxedo, and Umali in his Air Force uniform.
“I never thought I’d be able dance with a man like this on a military installation,” Umali said.
“We fully understand we are going to have more battles, however, they only make us stronger,” Behrens said. “We have gone through a whole lot already and we are ready for the future and to push forward.”