On the eve of same-sex marriage equality in New York State, nearly five-decades of love has endured for one Brooklyn couple.
“It’s about time!” Jean Rowe and Thelma Simmons of East Flatbush say simultaneously. Often finishing each other’s sentences, it’s clear these women have known each other a very long time—49 years and eight months, to be exact. But who’s counting?
Jean is in her 70s and Thelma is 82. They are both African-American women. They have a gentle nature but possess subtle personality differences that clearly complement each other.
Their love took root while they were in their late 20s and early 30s, and together, over the past fifty years, they have seen the world change: They’ve watched economies bottom out and rise again and wars start and stop.
So many social and political revolutions have happened as they went about their lives during a time when it was unheard of for gay couples to be out about their relationship, much less consider same-sex marriage.
Marriage. Do they want it? Do they need it?
The Marriage Bill was approved last month by the New York State Assembly. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law which will take effect Sunday July 24, 2011.
Thelma Simmons and Jean Rowe have weathered family disputes, illness, career changes and buying property. They quip about the other’s shortcomings but also are quick to sing each other’s praises. They are a married couple, in every sense of the word. And from Sunday onward, if they choose, they can put it on the books at City Hall.
“We’re still discussing it,” says Thelma. The pair makes it clear love cannot be legislated. But both recognize the practicality of tying the knot.
Jean, the spitfire of the two, is quick to point out, “All the rights that straight people have when they get married, a lot of people like us don't have these here rights."
"If she goes into the hospital, who goes in to see her? I know I'm going in. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Jean said emphatically. But, technically without that paper, there could be problems. And the two are painfully aware. “It would be for the legality and we are still thinking about it,” says Jean.
In a light-hearted turn, Thelma leans in to me quietly and says, “She’s a talker. She’ll keep on going. You’ll have to stop her if you want to get a word in.” I chuckle and imagine that the more soft-spoken Thelma and her gregarious partner Jean have a yin and yang that makes me wonder how any couples, romantic or not, could stay together for so long?
“There were never any disagreements,” Jean jokes, “I was always right.”
Thelma, who is a deacon at the in East New York, softly adds, “If you've got the love, you got everything else."
It sounds simple enough.
Thelma and Jean met when Thelma was working at a Sweet and Low factory. Thelma says she’s been committed to Jean ever since: “I had to win over her father. I showed him respect.”
But despite all the respect given, Jean had a very tight-knit Christian family, and her father simply was not willing to allow Thelma, or “T,” as she’s called, into his Brooklyn home.
“T would stand outside for hours and hours, even in the cold to show him she was serious about me and that she respected him.” Jean said.
Finally, one day, another family member who rented out part of the senior Rowe’s home invited Thelma and Jean up together, shouting out of the window, "I pay rent up here, and this is my home. So if your father won’t let T downstairs, you are welcome up here.” Eventually her father came around.
The two black women lived openly as lesbians—extremely rare for that time. Thelma decided to quit her job at the factory and get a city job to help put Jean through nursing school.
“We were always around people, and they knew we were a couple,” said Jean.
They’ve owned two homes together and managed the household. They came to the table with children from previous relationships and collectively they have nine grandchildren. Jean affectionately goes by the moniker “Mamma Jean,” and it suits her, because she makes those around her feel welcomed and loved.
In recent years, their families began celebrating their anniversary. In fact, said Jean, it was their families who waited all these years for same-sex marriage legislation to pass.
The ties that bind.
Jean Rowe and Thelma Simmons, like so many others like them, hold an impressive candle to what naysayers argue against gay unions. They list family, faith, patience and hard-work as their defining pillars, as in any other union.
They certainly are loved and celebrated by all at their church: “The love is there before that paper, it doesn't change anything, it doesn't prove anything; it's just the love you carry through your heart," said Margarita Carmona, of Washington Heights.
“Their story is so amazing” adds Bishop Zachary Jones of The Unity Fellowship Church.
The women will celebrate 50 years together in October. They both say they hope to come to a decision by then about whether they will take full advantage of legal marital status in New York.
After nearly half a century together for this dynamic Brooklyn couple, what more do they really need? And how do they reflect on such a breathtaking journey?
“Honestly, it feels like it was just yesterday,” Thelma says in the most authentic tone.
She smiles and grabs Jean’s hand. They look at each other as if no one else is in the room.