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Sweethearts at Last: Native Texans Conrad Fertitta and Gary Barnes Exchange Vows in the Piney Woods of Navasota

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By Henry V. Thiel
Photos by Connor Thompson, JCT Photography

Conrad Fertitta vividly remembers the evening he met his husband, Gary Barnes, back in 1977. “I had been out of my last relationship for about a year and a half, and was enjoying being single. On Friday, October 18, 1977, I went out partying with some longtime friends, and I was still in a partying mood when I left them to go to another friend’s home to meet some of their new friends. That is where I was introduced to Gary.

“He was very shy and a bit reserved,” laughs Fertitta. “Being in the partying mood, I flirted with him, and was a little forward with my advances. When he asked if I had a place where we could talk, so we could get to know each other a little better, I said ‘Absolutely!’

Off we went to my condo, [where] Barnes ended up staying overnight. He has been an integral part of my life ever since—but it took me a while to figure that out,” confesses Fertitta.

“We spent the weekend together, running errands and stuff, because I am always on the go doing something or another,” adds Fertitta. “Since I was not searching for a husband—that was unheard of in the ’70s—I never expected to hear from him again.”

But he did. For the next three months, there were constant phone calls, unexpected visits, and love letters from Barnes. “He was always there for me when I needed him and wanted him. I wasn’t used to being courted, as I loved being single,” he protests. By the time Christmas rolled around, Fertitta had invited Barnes to his annual holiday party.

“I will never forget the moment Gary arrived at the party,” recalls Fertitta. “He was so handsome in his brown leisure suit, and he gave me my very first music box, which now resides in our bedroom. It was then and there that I knew Gary was something special in my life—and I wasn’t even looking!

“About a month later, I asked Gary to move in with me,” says Fertitta.

“In the early ’80s, while chatting with my mother, I told her about my sexuality, and [at first] she didn’t make a comment,” states Fertitta. “I became a bit anxious and said, ‘Well?’ Her response was, ‘Well, what? I’ve known you were gay since you were a small child. I’ll always love you unconditionally. You are my son.’

“The acceptance from my father and Gary’s mom was also unconditional,” adds Fertitta. “Having the blessings from both sides of our families made our commitment to each other stronger.

“That was fortunate for both of us, as so many families reject their children when they fall in love with a person of the same sex,” says Fertitta.

“We celebrated our 25th anniversary in 2003 at our home with 95 guests,” shares Fertitta. “My parents gave us their silver-etched 25th-anniversary glasses as a present. They had always considered us a married couple, even though we weren’t.”

While they often talked about marriage and their desire to be married, they figured it wouldn’t happen in their lifetime. Even though many of their friends were getting married in other states, they decided not to. But it didn’t stop Fertitta from trying.

“I proposed to Gary on a 2014 Gayribbean Cruise in the ship’s chapel on the 12th deck,” Fertitta proudly states. But Barnes’ response was to turn on his heels and walk away. “Gary thought I was kidding and sluffed it off,” says Fertitta, obviously disappointed.

When the Supreme Court announced its marriage-equality decision on June 26, 2015, Fertitta decided it was time to finalize and legalize their marriage.  

“We were invited to Navasota, Texas, to witness the marriage of Daniel Dickson and Justin McKnight on January 2, 2016, at the Grizzly Pines Campground,” shares Fertitta. “I was so moved by this joyous celebration that I looked at Gary and said, ‘Will you marry me next month on Valentine’s Day?”

Barnes said yes, and they were married on February 14, 2016, at the Grizzly Pines Campground, with Kenneth Ingram serving as the officiant and Connor Thompson, one of the campground’s owners, providing the photography.

“Our best men were close friends Jim Schwab and Rigo Rosales, who are also co-owners of Grizzly Pines. Both enthusiastically accepted the honor of being our best men,” says Fertitta with great pride in his voice.

“My ‘stand-in wife’ of 34 years, Gloria Proctor, and Kim Spreen were our ring bearers,” adds Fertitta. “Gloria and Martha Manuel decorated our wedding arch with natural greenery from the campground, and Daniel Dickson, a bakery chef with Edible Elegance, created a one-of-a-kind Italian-cream wedding cake. Longtime friend Jon Shafer made a gracious toast that truly captured the moment.

“We chose to get married at Grizzly Pines Campground because it’s a family of close friends where one can meet and make new friends in a very beautiful and tranquil setting,” states Fertitta. It’s perfect for a weekend or a week, to get away from hectic city life.

“Even though I felt like we were married for the past 30-plus years, marriage was not acceptable for same-sex couples during our entire lives together,” adds Fertitta. “I wanted our union-of-marriage ceremony to be legal and fun, so we asked all our guests to wear red and black (our colors), and we gave each guest a set of heart-shaped beads.

“For our walk up the aisle to the altar, we played Chapel of Love, and Unchained Melody when we exchanged vows, and Finally for our walk down the aisle as two married men,” shares Fertitta.

“One of the guests noticed that when we were exchanging our vows, two cardinals flew out from the arch where we were standing. We knew that was a sign of love and acceptance from our deceased parents,” states Fertitta.

The couple decided to honeymoon—before their wedding—aboard the 2015 Gayribbean Halloween Cruise out of Galveston, for two reasons: a Gayribbean Cruise was where Fertitta first proposed to his future husband, and they also love the tropical Caribbean breezes during that time of year.

Henry V. Thiel is a principal with The Epicurean Publicist. Henry loves Bears.

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