Cross their threshold, and you’re not just entering a home, you’re celebrating a lifestyle, a shared experience of progressive action, spiritual uplift, and compassionate community. The air is charged with a 1960s vibe as the language of civil rights and social justice idles over the kitchen table. Kay Osborn and Barbara Milton were among the eight same-sex couples who were married by Mayor Steven Fulop in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 21, 2013.
Outwardly, they embody the notion that opposites attract. Kay is a tall, thin 66-year-old. Her face is beautifully etched, reflecting a life richly lived. Barbara, 54, is shorter, a robust, full-figured woman given to bursts of projectile hugging. She is a recent bladder-cancer survivor.
“We’re from different classes, different races, different heights, and different life experiences.” Kay says. “Our first reaction is often to think divergently.” Barbara enjoys sports and cooking. Kay enjoys gardening and hiking.
But they both like to travel, and their lives are as finely woven as a Persian carpet. They met through political activism, a lifelong passion that has united their public and private personas.
Barbara, a clinical social worker, is director of clinical services for the Urban League of Hudson County. She writes a twice-monthly, teen-positive column for the Jersey Journal called “Our Pride and Joy” and hosts the cable public-access program “Focus on Teens” on Channel 51. Kay is an interfaith minister and hospice chaplain, who found her calling after stints as a massage therapist, telephone operator, and worker in the Hoboken shipyards.
“I fell in love with the tool belt,” Barbara jokes.
The women have been together for two decades. Like many same-sex couples, they might have married earlier had the State been more cooperative.
That’s not to say that they didn’t make up for it with a patchwork of ceremonies, anniversaries, civil unions, and domestic partnerships, including a 10-year anniversary bash at Puccini’s.
Barbara is an only child who grew up in Camden. Kay was born in London, but you would never guess it from her accent. “I’ve been here for 40 years,” she says. “I’ve made the adjustment.” She laughs that she not only sounds like an American but like a New Jerseyan. She has dual citizenship.
Kay was married to a man in 1976 and they have two kids. Kay and Barbara dote on two beloved grandchildren. When Kay divorced her husband, she bought the house on Grace Street, where she and Barbara now live.
Kay and Barbara have been in each other’s orbit since the mid-1980s in a universe of citizen action and organizing. Barbara ticks off the causes: El Salvador, apartheid, the Rainbow Coalition, women’s rights, the reproductive-rights movement. “We had a political relationship and friendship before looking at each other in other ways,” Barbara says. “I always thought she was adorable and gorgeous.”
But it wasn’t smooth sailing at first. “It was a hard transition because of my family,” Kay relates. “They were shocked by my decision. I didn’t feel very understood in coming out. My brother couldn’t say the word ‘lesbian,’ though he managed ‘homosexual.’”
But both families have come around. Barbara says that now her family is proud of her and happy that she is happy.
Given their politics, when the chance to marry presented itself, there was some ambivalence. “In the past we had a lot of reservations about marriage; it was a bourgeois, patriarchal institution,” Kay says, “but we live in a different time, and it is an important right for gay people. It came so quickly.” She said she did not think it would happen in their lifetimes.
Barbara credits “the power of lobbyists and a youth culture that is more tolerant and accepting. It was the power of the sustained erosion of the conservative rock. It was a long, sustained effort with lots of bloodshed.” She points to the well-publicized case of Tyler Clemente, who jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, after being outed by his college roommate.
Oct. 21, 2013
“It was fabulous,” Kay says. “There were six gay male couples and another lesbian couple. There were lots of people, friends, supporters, photographers. A mass wedding is an interesting thing. Beforehand I thought it was kind of weird to be in a crowd. But it was special with everyone saying their vows together. There was a lot of love there with all these loving couples, it was really great.”
Kay, who has performed numerous gay and straight weddings, chuckles at the mayor’s lack of “cadence” in performing the vows. But they both agreed that it didn’t matter and they praise him for being “out front” on the marriage equality issue.
In fact, the mass wedding had its humorous moments. One participant said, “Without this ring I thee wed.” Another said, “‘til death us do part and then some.”
In November, Illinois became the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage. “You expect a backlash,” says Barbara, “but it’s disheartening. There has been an astonishing rash of attacks in the last weeks and months. Kudos to the activists on the front lines.”
Says Kay, “The danger I see is gay people becoming complacent. There are still many things for gay people to strive for. The chief concern is how we relate to other disenfranchised people in our society. Do we notice or not notice what is happening to people of color, immigrants, transgender people, and other marginalized people. The situation for gay people in other countries is desperate.”
They want to see the day when same-sex marriage goes national. “Now you travel to the South or a red state, and the marriage is null and void,” Barbara says. “It isn’t recognized federally. It should teleport with us like it does with heteros.”
Still, both women maintain a positive attitude, drawing strength from a phrase quoted by Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Life in the hood
Kay and Barbara’s home is in a classic Jersey City block in the Heights, with row houses, short driveways, and neat little backyards. “Our pure presence here has shifted attitudes of people,” Barbara says. “We’re ordinary people, working folks with ordinary jobs making a modest living. Our presence here makes our neighbors reckon with the difference of our relationship. They see us together. They see marriage-equality signs in the window. We raise consciousness by being on the block.”
Kay points to an older Italian neighbor who gave them persimmons from his sister-in-law’s tree and Barbara says the Caribbean-Islander family across the street always asks after Kay. “Just by shoveling snow and dealing with blackouts and car problems, we’re ordinary folk,” Barbara says.
Barbara and Kay take advantage of Jersey City’s parks, the arts scene, and many restaurants, including Rita and Joe’s, Hard Grove Café, Fusion, Bright Street Tavern, Brownstone, Rumba Café, Ceviche, Gia Gelato, all the restaurants on the “Indian Strip,” and their favorite—ME Casa.
“We always had eyes for each other,” Barbara says. “We were in Kendall Park, New Jersey, in 1993 at a fundraiser for a candidate running for state senate. The singing group the Righteous Sisters was playing. We were talking and I asked Kay to give me a hug. We were under a dogwood tree, at least we think it was a dogwood. It was a glorious day, Sept. 11.” Kay recalls saying, “I would be happy to give you a hug, it was a long, very long hug. Time stopped. People left and went home. The sun went down, and we were still hugging. Afterwards we were wooing and cooing one another over the phone and with flowers.”
When they first became a couple, Kay says, they decided to try living together for a week or a month to see if it worked out. “We’re both fiercely independent, and we’re still checking it out.” Kay says. “It’s our ritual. We celebrate each year we are together.”
Says Barbara, “I love Kay after many, many years.”
When I visited with them in November 2013, Barbara was sorting through their mementos at the kitchen table, while the family cats, Solomon and Sheba, slalomed around her legs. In the public/private domain that is Kay and Barbara’s life, they expressed hope for “the erosion of the rock of prejudice, ideology, sexism, and religious conservatism,” so that we could “swim in a sea of justice.”
They were still wooing and cooing. Let’s hear it for one more year.—JCM