When Gary Payne and Dick Dehn met in New York City in 1957, they could not have known they would still be together 54 years later. Back then, according to Gary, a "long-term relationship" between men meant two weeks. For a couple to be together for a whole year was “something to look up to". Gary came to the city to find work, he says, but also to be by himself, "so if I got into any problems, it wouldn't reflect poorly on my family".
I met Gary and Dick in their Upper West Side apartment in the heat of July, a week after New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed a bill legalising same-sex marriage (which became law this week). My colleague had found Gary and Dick riding a rickshaw through the Gay Pride parade in the West Village, proudly displaying their time-worn commitment to each other. They welcomed me into their home, provided I steer my cameras away from the remodelling in the kitchen.
Gary and Dick have lived in Chelsea, Poughkeepsie and Florida, but they were happiest describing their life on the road. A few years into their retirement they "sold everything they owned", bought a motor home, and drove it for more than a decade up, down and across America. They joined the Family Motor Coach Association. "I always said if I'm going to be in an organisation, I'm going to be a part of it," said Gary. And so he was: secretary, treasurer, vice president and then president of a chapter of the FMAC called the "full-timers". When they owned a boat and kept it at the Poughkeepsie Yacht Club, he and Dick served as treasurer and secretary of that organisation.
Speaking has become more difficult for Dick, who is 88 years old, so he chooses his words carefully. Over the years, if asked about being gay, he'd reply, "what, are you writing a book?" and leave the subject at that. Dick’s stoic approach fits his generation. He’s a veteran of the second world war and saw action in the Philippines when he was with the Coast Guard. As Denny Meyer, editor of Gay Military Signal, a veteran's advocacy publication, told me, there are many gays in the military and always have been. “Bullets don't discriminate".
Gary and Dick never came out, "never felt it was anybody's business". But after leaving their jobs in corporate America and taking to the road, they did not have to hide quite as much. "Then again, how could [they not have known]," Gary says. "We were living on a motor home, and they knew we slept in the same bed. And we were not the least bit hesitant about inviting them on board any time." They always made time to fix a guest a drink (they have a tasty recipe for Manhattans), and their parties were popular, sometimes raucous. On their boat on one occasion, two women threw punches over an argument concerning the arrangement of stuffed peppers on a tray.
Gary never imagined he would live in a country with openly gay firemen and politicians, let alone legalised marriage. Will they get married this year? Probably. But they’ll wait for the queues to get a little shorter.
Are Americans, on the whole, tolerant? "Yes," says Dick before I finish the question. Gary begins, "I think the average American—" but Dick cuts him off "could care less". "We're just normal human beings," says Gary. "We hurt, we get old, just like anybody else".