By Henry V. Thiel
Photos by Barb Mabry
Mike Stargel and John Sweney met at a gay disco in West Orange, New Jersey, in the fall of 1983. Stargel walked in and saw Sweney playing pool for money with women. Skilled women. Stargel thought Sweney was either the bravest man or the biggest fool he had ever seen.
So he hung around to find out.
After Sweney lost the pool game, Stargel struck up a conversation. By the next spring, they were living together—with two dogs and a cat—and haven’t had a dull moment since.
A few years later, the couple moved to Houston, and out of the blue one afternoon, Stargel suggested they go look for rings. That was in the pre-Internet days, so they went to their local mall and looked at “men’s rings.” They visited several retailers, all of whom touted the quality of their rings by handing the men a loupe to see for themselves.
They chose a handsome five-stone ring from Helzberg Diamonds. “Back in those days, stores didn’t stock identical pairs of rings for men,” says Sweney, “so we went to another chain store and bought a nearly identical ring for less money.”
“We popped back into Helzberg to ask about the big price difference,” states Stargel.
“When we asked for a loupe to examine the rings, the salesperson smiled knowingly and nicely informed us that you cannot really see anything with a loupe,” Sweney recalls. Indeed, all of the rings looked nearly identical when viewed through the loupe. “Then he pulled out a microscope! You could see everything, deep into the diamonds. The diamonds in his rings were nearly perfect, with just a speck here or there. The diamonds in the rings we had just bought were riddled with imperfections, visible only by microscope. Naturally, we ordered another Helzberg ring to match, and returned the other store’s cheaper ring at once.”
A few days later, they picked up the matching ring and returned home. Standing just inside the door, they stopped. “Hardly saying a word, Mike put my ring on my right hand,” adds Sweney. “And I put his ring on his right hand. Our dogs were our witnesses.” Three decades later they would move those same rings to their left hands.
Sweney and Stargel always felt that if they were to marry, it should be in their own home with friends and family attending, and not in some other state or country. In the summer of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this idea. After the historic court ruling, their friends wanted to hear Sweney and Stargel’s verdict on another case: “When are you going to get married?”
It was amusing to be asked this question after 31 years together. Almost as amusing as the answer: “Well, no one has asked me!” the men said, almost in unison.
Eventually, while out to dinner with a married straight couple, the question came up again. But this time, Sweney asked Stargel to remove his 31-year-old commitment ring and hand it over. Sweney then offered the ring back to Stargel, and proposed that they get married in just a few months as the perfect way to mark their 32nd anniversary together.
“We got married in suits with matching vests at sunset on our 32nd anniversary in our home in Garden Oaks, surrounded by family and friends,” Sweney states proudly, “with Dora, the rescue dog, at our feet.”
The ceremony began with their officiant, Harris County district judge Mike Engelhart, saying: “Today is a celebration—a celebration of love, of commitment, of friendship, of family, and of two people who are in it for forever.”
“We chose our home [for the ceremony] because after 32 years, a low-key, intimate ceremony was most appropriate,” Stargel explains. Their home has been the focal point for love and friendships, holiday gatherings, birthday parties, and family dinners and brunches.
“Our home was the only place that held true meaning for our wedding,” adds Sweney.
In planning their wedding, the men chose vendors that they had come to rely on over the years, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“We asked our friends who have been a part of our lives, and who have helped us entertain over the years,” recalls Stargel. “They were as much a part of the wedding as our other guests.”
Indeed, the flowers were provided by florist and decorator Tony Huffman. The food and servers were from Backstreet Café, one of their favorite restaurants. Mark Moore, a classical guitarist, played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” for the ceremony, and also provided music during the reception. Even Judge Engelhart is a good friend.
“Weddings are about families, and ours was no exception,” shares Stargel. “Each of our families welcomed their son’s partner with open arms and complete acceptance. Our brothers and sisters were present—aunts and uncles too, as they have been during our entire relationship.”
Many traveled from homes in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Wyoming, and California to act as witnesses.
“During the ceremony, we mentioned by name each parent or sibling who had passed, or was not present, so that our immediate families were with us, either in person or in spirit,” explains Sweney. “I was very moved when all our guests affirmed, out loud, to support our marriage and continue to participate in our lives.”
Both agreed that their favorite moment of the wedding was provided by Judge Engelhart, who said, “By the powers vested in me by the State of Texas, I now pronounce you husbands for life. You may kiss your husband.”
Henry V. Thiel is a principal with The Epicurean Publicist. He can’t wait to kiss his husband.