On June 24, gay marriage became legal in New York State. Or, to put it more realistically, marriage became legal for everyone in New York State. The first couple to be wed in New York City on that Sunday were FOFs Connie Kopelov, 85, and Phyllis Siegel, 77. We had the pleasure of chatting with Phyllis last week, and we learned that she and Connie were never looking to be pioneers or heroes. They simply took advantage of an opportunity to feel equal.
How did you and Connie meet?
We met at SAGE, sometime in the late 80s. (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders). We were both attending a women’s discussion group. At first we knew each other just enough to say hello–we never had conversation. A year or so after that, we were both at another SAGE event–a Christmas social. We found ourselves standing next to each other, and we started to talk. We talked for a very long time. I couldn’t tell you how long, or even what we talked about. As they say, the rest is history.
Had you ever been married prior to meeting Connie?
Never married. I had a 16-year relationship before. In between that, I was just dating.
Did the subject of marriage ever come up between you and Connie before recent events?
It wasn’t an issue for us. There were civil unions, but I thought that was like throwing a bone at us. It didn’t stand for anything, it didn’t have any entitlements.
And then came Governor Cuomo, who many people credit with making this happen. Do you agree?
I listened to Cuomo’s inaugural, and everything he said came through to me – about balancing the budget; how he was going to do that. And I said to myself, ‘This guy is a doer.’ I didn’t have a problem believing him, which is kind of unusual with politicians. I don’t remember what he said specifically about the gay community, but somehow I had knowledge that he was pro. He stands right up there and he rears up and he roars and he says what he means, so far.
Did you watch the state legislature vote?
So how did you find out?
TV, radio news maybe.
When did you start to think seriously about it?
When he signed the bill (two weeks before it became law), I thought, ‘Do I want to do this? I have a right to do this. What do I think about this?’ I let it roll around in my head. I felt I wanted to be married. And a couple of weeks before the 24th, I said to Connie, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ She shrugged her shoulders. I waited for some time to pass and I asked her again, and she grinned from ear to ear. I took that as a positive sign.
What made marriage so appealing to you suddenly?
I’m not sure I can answer that. I felt good about being an equal person. It was there for me to have, so I just took it. And I’m glad that I took it. I love Connie dearly. The county clerk who married us – I listened to his words, as I’d never listened to them before, and they got through to me. I took it seriously. This is not a whim.
Once you decided to do it, what did you have to do?
It was the last week before (the law came into effect). I went down to City Hall, to the licensing bureau, and I said ‘What do I have to do to get married?’ A man explained it to me and gave me a piece of paper, and I said ‘Well, Sunday would not be a good day to come down here. Maybe we should come later in the week when it isn’t so mobbed.’
And yet, you and Connie turned out to be the first ones married–and there was a lot of fanfare. You were in all the New York papers. How did that happen?
After I went to the courthouse, I had occasion to speak to a friend. I told her ‘We’re thinking about getting married.’ An hour later, she called back. She said she had spoken to somebody, maybe the executive director at SAGE, and the next thing I know, we’re whisked away on this. We didn’t have to do anything. Christine Quinn’s office, and people at SAGE, did everything. (Quinn is the Speaker of the New York City Council.)
Why do you think SAGE chose you?
I think they were looking for an older, female couple. And there we were. I didn’t ask any questions. They sent a car service for us and whisked us down to City Hall. And they filled out all the papers and took wonderful care of us. It was so surreal and wonderful.
How far in advance did you know it would happen?
May have been 24 hours.
In a few weeks you went from not really thinking about it to being married.
Did you have any sort of reception?
No. It was so sudden. Nobody besides the people around me knew about this. And then there it was on television, newspapers, everybody.
How does it feel to be the first?
In a nutshell – I’ve been a private person and suddenly my privacy has exploded. I’ve been getting calls from radio stations across the country, all congratulating me and wanting me to say something over the air. Most of them want me to be encouraging, but I can only say what I feel.
How do you feel?
I’m very happy to have done it. But I don’t usually advertise, I don’t wear a sign. If it comes up in conversation, I do mention it, it’s there. And since this happened, people in my building have come up to me and congratulated me. People on the street have come over to me and congratulated me.
What’s it like to know you’re an inspiration to others?
I have to tell you, it feels good to come out. And it feels good to be noticed for a positive reason, in a positive way. And I want to say that if you’re in high school, if you have a problem, talk to your guidance counselor. Talk to an older person who is compassionate, who can understand you. Please do that before you do anything else.
What makes you say that?
We know that for many people, high school is when they realize they’re gay. It scares them, and they think they’re being unnatural. There is nothing unnatural about feeling love.
When did you first realize?
I may have been a day or two old.
So your whole life.
When did you come out originally?
I’m not sure if that happened.
It was more fluid.
Has there been any downside to marriage thus far?
This is good. There is nothing negative. This is all good stuff.
Was this a life-altering event or does it fit in seamlessly because you weren’t striving for it?
I’m not sure. It is life-altering to some extent. The relationship now is formal. It’s legal. It’s mutual. Everything is a “we.” “I” becomes “we.” I don’t have to parse my words anymore.