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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Francis Saba And Victor Rivera, Together 22 Years, Wed In Toronto

They Don't Think Of Themselves As Activists, But They're Now At The Forefront In The Debate Over Gay Marriage

August 17, 2003
Copyright ©2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

TORONTO - The Marriage License Bureau at City Hall opens at 8:30, so that's when Francis Saba and Victor Rivera arrive, in beautifully tailored navy suits, carrying certified copies of their birth certificates.

Francis is all sugary as he asks the young clerk why the blanks on the forms say BRIDE and GROOM.

"Oh, we have so many stacks of forms printed," the innocent replies. "I guess we're just waiting to run out and order new forms."

Francis takes it in stride, as do the other couples here this Monday morning. In just one hour, six sets of partners - four gay, one lesbian and one straight - register to marry. They're from Austin, Texas, and Portland, Maine; from London, Prague, and Havana. They've been together as few as nine years, as many as 29.

Francis, 44, and Victor, 43, a hairdresser and an information specialist, both from Philadelphia, just celebrated their 22d anniversary as a couple.

Could they be standing - here in Canada - at the brink of a new American revolution?

In three months, gay marriage has become a central topic on the American agenda. Since June:

The Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia legalized same-sex marriage - drawing U.S. gay couples seeking marriage licenses. It's not clear what legal force those gay marriages will have in the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that made sodomy by same-sex couples a crime - opening the way for gay marriage to become a key issue in the next presidential campaign.

In his first news conference since the start of the Iraq war, President Bush announced that "our society should respect individuals" - but deny gay people the right to marry.

Pope John Paul II launched a global campaign against gay marriage, warning Catholic politicians that support of same-sex unions is "gravely immoral."

And now, Massachusetts may become the first of these United States to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, pending the outcome of a case before the state's Supreme Judicial Court.

"All this makes me realize that this is a much bigger issue," Francis says. "This goes beyond me and Victor personally. We never thought of ourselves as activists. And I realize by putting our story out there, we're opening ourselves to criticism.

"I guess I feel like we're the reluctant activists."

From dramatically different beginnings, Francis and Victor grew to want something identical, elusive and, in their case, illegal: a happy marriage.

Francis is the youngest of Rosemary and James Saba's four boys, all named from the Bible.

He recalls a middle-class life in Kingston, Pa., with loving parents who presided over roundtable discussions every night at dinner.

"My father was the largest scrap-metal recycler in northeastern Pennsylvania, and owned the largest wiping-cloth business in the world from 1924 until 1972, until throwaways were invented."

These words emerge from Francis like Jessica Lynch reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. They don't make pride like that anymore.

Mom was a political conservative who wrote short stories and taught English to recent immigrants at the local YMCA. She and Dad socialized with straight and gay friends.

"My parents had a 35-year loving marriage, until my mother died of a heart attack," Francis says. "So my views of marriage were 'Get married, stay married, work on issues, work on your problems.' My goal from the time of very early on was to get married."

"And my parents never said I couldn't marry a man. They never said you can't be gay... . So as my sexuality developed I just thought, well, I'm going to marry a man."

Now it's Victor's turn. He speaks haltingly, as if standing on shaky ground.

"I come from a very humble beginning," he says, "I'll tell you that... . My parents were working-class people. My mother worked for the same school I attended, so I had to behave."

He was the sixth of seven children.

Victor was born in Chicago and raised in his parents' native Puerto Rico. He moved back to the States at 13 when his parents divorced. Because he spoke no English, he was different and felt stereotyped, in Bensalem, as a loser.

His mother was working overtime. But she made sure Victor heard her on this: Don't live down to other people's negative expectations.

"I was being looked at as an outsider - not as a person, but as a Hispanic person with a single parent. A statistic."

He starting working early and studying in his spare time. Now, Victor is an information management specialist at Intracor, Cigna's health-care division, and is finishing a degree in communications at Drexel.

Unlike Francis, who wanted what he had seen, Victor grew to want the marriage he imagined: a loving union in which the spouses are faithful, sincere in their devotion, working toward common goals.

"I kind of hungered for stability, having a home and knowing that there was always support," Victor says. "When my parents separated, it left an impact on me. I wanted to have what my friends had."

And what's most important for Francis and Victor now is that their marriage be legal.

The two met at a Halloween Party in 1981. Within a month they were inseparable, and they didn't spend another night apart for the next nine years.

In fact, listing every out-of-town wedding, funeral and business trip since, Francis and Victor can account for each of the four nights they've spent apart during the last two decades.

They are at home in Fairmount, Francis on the damask sofa and Victor sprawled on the rug with Tess, the couple's four-year-old springer spaniel. Family photos line the mantel.

They wear their rings on the third finger, left hand.

"Because that is the marriage hand," Francis says. "But a lot of gay people say the right hand is the gay side."

Here Victor pipes up:

"It gets confusing. In Europe, you do wear the wedding ring on your right hand. But I asked some people about it here - some gay people. I thought maybe it was an issue of gay chic.

"But it turns out that those couples did not want to be classified as being in a conventional marriage. They don't want it to appear that they are trying to be like 'them.' You don't want to emulate something that you are not."

Francis' point exactly.

"It's not that I want to be like them," he says. "We are them! I'm not different. We have a home, a car, a 401(k), like everybody else. So it's important that we wear our rings on the left hand."

What do they call each other?

In the business world, Victor finds he can't use the word partner without confusion. He prefers spouse. Francis uses husband.

"The word I detest is lover," Victor says. "It degrades the other person. It leaves it open for people to think you have multiple partners."

Francis and Victor were relative newlyweds when they took their first trip to Provincetown, Mass., a renowned gay beach town.

"We were such innocents," Francis laments. "We paid for three nights in a B & B and stayed just one. We couldn't stand it."

They were headed farther north to explore Maine when a friendly waitress said to stop at Steve's Restaurant in Ogunquit. They loved it.

Only after their return from a wonderful week in Ogunquit did the novices learn that the town had a reputation for being the Provincetown of Maine.

"Everything that's in Provincetown is in Ogunquit," Francis says. "But it's behind closed doors, where it belongs. We're not prudes. But there's a place for everything."

As in any marriage, Francis and Victor's early years were spent socializing with the old friends. But in time, as the men moved from Bucks County to Center City and their careers and interests shifted, their social circles changed, too.

Today, they find themselves with more straight friends than gay.

Victor explains: "Our dogs are all about the same age. They grew up together, they were pups together. So these people became our social group."

They bought Tess to assuage Francis' need to nurture.

When traveling, they still refer to their guidebook for gay-friendly places, but their priority now is a place that welcomes dogs.

Victor worries that he and Francis are not visible enough as a couple - to younger gay men or to the community at large - and that this feeds the false impression that there are few longtime gay couples.

"We don't go out that much," he says with some regret. "So you don't see us."

Time was when the government outlawed interracial marriage and specified that women who married became the property of their husbands.

So the idea of government having a say in what some insist is a religious institution is not unheard of.

"We know we love each other," Francis says, and Victor nods. "We don't need a minister or a government official to tell us that."

They never had a commitment ceremony, "because we are spiritual people, but we're not religious," Francis says.

All they ever wanted was a legal ceremony, to get "the same legal recognition all other married couples have," he continues.

Power of attorney, insurance crossovers, joint trust with right of survivorship - these are the protections Francis and Victor sought and obtained.

So when Victor was critically ill in January with what's classified as catastrophic morbidity headache, after a biking accident, physicians readily accepted Francis' role in medical decision-making until he recovered.

Still, their protections are not foolproof, and without legal marriage they cannot inherit each other's Social Security benefits. They cannot do something as simple as buy a family insurance policy or as serious as make funeral arrangements for each other without threat of legal action.

And if they had children, the legal situation would be that much more tenuous and complex.

In 2000, Vermont started offering "civil unions" to gay and lesbian couples. It wasn't marriage, but it was legal recognition, so in August 2001, Francis and Victor went to Putney.

A justice of the peace performed the ceremony in her eight-acre garden. The setting enchanted Victor, a novice gardener, who even today lingers over the snapshots.

"It was like a Monet painting," he says dreamily.

But their civil union is recognized only in Vermont.

Francis and Victor are willing to be part of a class-action lawsuit, should one be filed, to force Pennsylvania to recognize their Vermont union. And should a suit be filed to force the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages by U.S. citizens in Toronto, they'd join in that as well.

"I want my marriage to be legally recognized all over the world," Francis says. "And if I have to go all over the world and be married over and over again, one place at a time, so be it."

As soon as gay marriage was legalized in Toronto on June 10, Francis and Victor started calling travel agents. Now it's July 21.

Ted Bates and Nick Franjic, the gay couple who run the Toronto bed and breakfast where Francis and Victor are staying, will be the required witnesses for the couple's noon ceremony.

Francis and Victor have their license and three hours to spare - just enough time for things to go wrong.

They go to brunch at a Sheraton across the street and then window-shop in the concourse below. At brunch, they revive their boutonnieres in water, leave the restaurant without them, and have to run back.

With moments to spare, Francis forgets the license in a jewelry shop. Luckily, he had told the jeweler of his wedding plans (whom hasn't he told?), and she dashes with it over to City Hall.

Panting now, Francis and Victor arrive at the privately run Marriage Chapel on the second floor of City Hall, where George McConnachie is primed to perform the ceremony.

Again, the form is outmoded, but McConnachie will substitute spouse for husband and for wife.

The carpeted room is nice enough, with seating for 12 and a corner with potted plants where Francis and Victor stand, joining hands now, to recite their vows.

Francis surprises Victor with new wedding bands, which will be inscribed later with the letters L.F., for "love forever."

"Just something we got into over the years, signing notes to each other that way," Francis said earlier. "My parents used A.S., for Amore Siempre, and Dad put it on Mom's mausoleum."

"May these golden circles be the sign and seal of a pure and imperishable love, now mutually pledged," McConnachie says.

Ted and a journalist from a Japanese newspaper, here for a story about gay marriage, wipe tears from their eyes.

McConnachie declares Francis and Victor "legally married spouses."

They kiss like teenagers with the porch light on.

McConnachie cues the stereo, releasing Etta James' lusty solo, and Francis takes Victor in his arms to dance:

At last, my love has come along.

My lonely days are over.

And life is like a song.

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