By Henry V. Thiel
Photos by Molly Stark
Meet Mary & Ellen
The story of Mary McGowan and Ellen Klimenko began in 1988, in the basement library of their church, Resurrection MCC. Along with the now-deceased (but not forgotten) Rev. Ralph Lasher, McGowan was the facilitator of a very active AIDS/HIV ministry. She was teaching a class on death and dying when she looked up and, across the room, noticed a very new face in the group—and a lovely face at that.
“I had seen this face mostly in the Sunday evening service,” remembers McGowan. “I wasn’t even sure of her name, so I took a quick sideways glance at the sign-in roster to try to identify this intelligent-sounding and beautiful lady. (Just so I could respond to her inquiries concerning the meeting appropriately, of course—or so I told myself.)
“Her name was Ellen Klimenko. Our eyes met across the long table. They sort of locked, and for several moments, we were both unable to see or think clearly. I remember thinking, ‘No, God, this is not a good time. I’m not ready for a new relationship yet. I may never be ready, God. Are you listening to me?’
“I did not hear an answer,” McGowan says. “God had already picked out my partner, my life-mate, and now my legally married spouse. I, of course, was still unaware of that fact,” she laughs.
They didn’t see each other again until one hot summer night in July while attending a potluck in the fellowship hall of the church. McGowan was standing in the line for dinner with longtime friend Jeff Kaler when she caught a glimpse of the same beautiful, suntanned lady, sitting with Rev. Lasher and his partner, Harry Gibson. McGowan stepped out of the line and, using the couple as an excuse to approach, began a conversation. McGowan asked Klimenko if she was there with anyone, and Klimenko quickly responded.
“No I am not.”
“I said, ‘Great, because you are having dinner with me,” McGowan recalls. They had a wonderful time that evening, eating, talking, and laughing. As Klimenko was leaving, McGowan walked her out to her truck where they kissed goodnight, and a whirlwind courtship began.
Klimenko and McGowan have been together for 28 years. When they began talking seriously about marriage, it still looked as if Texas would never catch up to the present century. There was never a formal proposal. It was just understood from their many discussions that they both wanted to be legally married.
“To us, it was still very romantic the way we came to our decision on getting married. This was a mutual agreement, and we knew it was right for us,” Klimenko recalls.
“Since we had to have a destination wedding, and our longtime friends Douglas Stark and Michael Clark were already in the midst of planning their wedding in Niagara Falls, we decided to join them,” she explains.
“It was the perfect place, since my parents honeymooned there and Ellen’s parents married there.”
Since both sets of parents are deceased, they felt like they were carrying on a family tradition.
Meet Douglas & Michael
Douglas Stark and Michael Clark met through friends at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church on October 2, 1982.
“And sparks started flying!” Stark admits.
Their first date was to House of Pies for coffee after a membership course at the church. True to those simple beginnings, there was no fancy ring or fabulous dinner when Stark and Clark got engaged. Nor did they need the five carats or the four courses. From the time they had that first coffee date, they felt something they had never felt in any other relationship before.
One night in bed, they were talking about how they felt about each other. At the very same moment, each began to say, “Would you marry…” Before they could finish their sentences, they both said “Yes” at the same time.
They called the church two weeks later and asked if they could have a Holy Union ceremony, the only option available to gay couples in 1984. “We had the Holy Union to show our commitment to each other, and to our friends and family,” shares Stark.
Thirty years later, Stark and Clark were making plans for a legal wedding. “The beauty of a gay wedding is that you can mix the traditional with the untraditional,” Stark observes. “So Michael and I decided to join our good friends Mary and Ellen and get legally married in Niagara Falls.”
The first thing the foursome did was send out joint “Save the Date” postcards, followed by an invitation from one couple or both, since they have many friends in common. The couples rented a house where they hosted four days of wedding events.
“Mary found the house in Niagara Falls, Canada, through Trip Advisor,” explains Stark. “The references were wonderful, as were our hosts. They worked with another house down the street, so we were able to get housing for almost all of our guests within walking distance.”
The couples had their version of a “rehearsal dinner” the night before the big day at a restaurant they also discovered on Trip Advisor. “We were not disappointed,” nods Clark. “The dinner was a great way for everyone to get acquainted. In a traditional wedding, you have two families to bring together. In ours there were four families.
“We chose to go informal,” says Stark, “with unassigned seating, at tables of nine that each had one spot reserved for one of the four of us who were getting married. That allowed the four of us to rotate among the tables, so we got to meet everyone and make sure people were talking. Our guests were a delightful mix of people, about 50/50 LGBT and straight. We had a buffet, an open bar, and the service was incredible.”
Douglas Stark and Michael Clark were legally married at Niagara Falls, New York, on June 20, 2014, at 6:30 p.m. in the Bridal Chapel of Niagara Falls. Longtime friends Mary McGowan and Ellen Klimenko were married at 7 p.m. Ellen and Mary had been together 28 years, and Douglas and Michael for 31.
“We waited a long time for this opportunity,” says Klimenko. “I am so glad more than 60 of our friends and family were able to join us. It made the day that much more special.”
For Stark and Clark, who had already been “married” in their home church, the ceremony was an affirmation of their relationship. The legal component was important to McGowan and Klimenko as well, but no more so than the deeply personal spiritual meaning of the ceremony. It’s customary for one to cry at a wedding. So at a wedding where four people are tying the knot, it’s no surprise there was not a dry eye in the house—or in Michigan, North Carolina, Wales, and Galveston, where friends gathered to watch the weddings via Skype. Stark and Clark’s children and grandchildren were the witnesses. McGowan and Klimenko chose two best friends to stand up with them.
“We had two separate cakes that copied the theme of each couple’s invitation, and a local smokehouse did a great meal that could compare to one in Texas,” Clark explains. “The jalapeños, smoked cheese balls, and shrimp were the big hits.
“Later in the evening, we all changed clothes and had a very casual bonfire,” Clark remembers fondly. “What a great evening.”
“It felt so good to be able to marry after all these years together,” adds Stark, “and to have my relationship with my stepdaughter be legally recognized, since Michael and I raised her together,” he says, fighting back a tear.
“Love is love, and only love can make a family,” says Clark. “After all these years, to finally have equal rights under the law, it’s just amazing. I am so happy that now everyone can marry the person they love, just like we did.”
Henry V. Thiel is a principal with The Epicurean Publicist.