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For Half of a Century, Love Endures

A couple contemplates same-sex nuptials after nearly five decades together, on the eve of the marriage equality act going into effect in New York State

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.

 

Early challenges.

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.

pashaun July 23, 2011 at 07:25 PM
You go 'head wit ya bad (wonderful loving) selves, Ladies. You make me very proud to be an African American gay male. Stay in love.
Betsy Warren July 23, 2011 at 07:32 PM
Congrats to you both, may you have many happy years to come!
Rosemary McNatt July 23, 2011 at 07:56 PM
I am so proud to be an African American straight woman and to live in the same world as these wonderful women! My husband and I are at 27 years and counting. I hope we can do as well as you all. Congratulations!
Beryl Kreisel July 23, 2011 at 09:58 PM
Beryl Kreisel This is a beautiful and truthful love story. It makes you wonder why people are arguing about what clearly is no one else's business.
Red Roses July 23, 2011 at 11:17 PM
Congrats ladies!!! God bless you!! Now.. that's what I call LOVE!
paulette July 24, 2011 at 02:51 AM
So inspiring and so important to hear of African American women together as life partners. My partner and I will marry tomorrow, the first day it is legal in NY, and will celebrate 25 years together next month. It is humbling that these two amazing women have been together twice as long as we have! Thank you for your example. Much peace and happiness to you both!
Renea Henry July 24, 2011 at 07:14 PM
A beautiful love story, finely written.
luvLocs July 24, 2011 at 09:56 PM
Wow, this is such a beautiful and inspiring story thanks you two for standing up for love! Also you look good doing it.
Marzetta Jenkins July 24, 2011 at 11:01 PM
Wow! As I read this story, tears filled my eyes!! My partner and I are at a bad time right now, and it makes me wonder if what we are at odds about is even really worth it! We Love each other and have been together for three years...we have to work it out because I want 50(and more) like these beautiful ladies in this story :) Congrats and may God continue to bless you both!! Thanks for being an inspiration for me.
Shari-Lynn July 24, 2011 at 11:15 PM
Everyone loves a love story - and this one truly warmed my heart. I wish them all the best and am happy that their relationship has endured to see this opportunity come to their home state. God Bless!
TeeJai Justiniani July 24, 2011 at 11:22 PM
Wow! This is a blessing to see, neva thought it was possible 2 see a same-sex couple 2gether this long...especially an african american couple...God Bless u both
Carla July 24, 2011 at 11:33 PM
It is relationships like this that give my lifestyle legitamacy. So often you hear the negatives its awesome to see these wimen display the positive. Thank you so much ladies
erica July 25, 2011 at 01:24 AM
Awh that's a true testament of what love is and I pray me and my wife get to this point God bless you ladies
shatawn July 25, 2011 at 01:32 AM
Love is love...wat you ladies have is truly more than a friendship...IT'S A BOND..THANKS 4 KEEPIN IT REAL...
DAVON July 25, 2011 at 02:09 AM
Wow I hope to find love like that...
Denise Du Vernay July 25, 2011 at 03:34 AM
Best wishes to you and your wife, Paulette!
Denise Du Vernay July 25, 2011 at 03:35 AM
I hope you do, too. Davon.
Kordero July 25, 2011 at 03:38 AM
True Love has no boudaries!!! Kudos ladies! Whatever they choose, their commitment to each other trumps Church and State!!! Beautifully written Marina!!!!!
Ken Wilcox July 25, 2011 at 04:15 AM
Fantastic article and shows how much all this conversation just comes down to the fact that these two people just really love each other, and that is all that should matter in marriage and in life!
Jessica July 25, 2011 at 11:40 AM
Now that's longevity..commitment ...no matter what true authentic love triumphs the challenges of oppression. The heart is so powerful! Thank you ladies for sharing. I would just love to sit and listen and hear your journey...learn from you both. Can't wait to have the same testimony!
Drake Hicks July 25, 2011 at 07:30 PM
Ms.Jean & Ms.Thelma prove love is love whether one is gay or straight.Their relationship should be a rolemodel for anyone,no matter their sexual orientation,who are in a relationship or beginning one. Ms.Jean & Ms.Thelma,continued peace & blessings to you both.
Teresa Abrams July 25, 2011 at 08:19 PM
Congratulations to you both. What a beautiful and inspiring love story!
Kim Pinkney July 25, 2011 at 10:15 PM
Thank you so much Mama Jean and Deacon Thelma, you two are truly an example of everlasting love!
idell small July 27, 2011 at 08:19 PM
Pastor teach God is love and love is for gay people too.
Mignon Moore July 27, 2011 at 11:53 PM
Certainly something to aspire to! Thank you Ms. Jean and Ms. Thelma for inspiring us all.
Henryisha July 28, 2011 at 11:04 PM
Wow this is what you call TRUE LOVE. Thank you ladies for sharing your story I knw now that it is possible for 2 young african american women to love eachother unconditionally and hve true love till death do them part and not let what other people have to say tare them apart. I can't wait till they legalize it in Arizona so me and my woman can get married.
Tiafa October 29, 2011 at 01:53 PM
Love conquers all! Beautiful love story ladies:)
Russell Smith September 14, 2012 at 03:01 PM
This story brought tears to my eyes. Love is the key. Love is the foundation. That's all that matters.
C. Zawadi Morris September 14, 2012 at 03:23 PM
Russell, I just re-read this story, and it still makes me tear up. It reminds me of "Fried Green Tomatoes," one of my fav movies of all time (sniff)!

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