Eat, Drink and Be Gay Married!
After 27 years together, one couple finally has its big, fat, Mexican, recovering-drug-addict, HIV-positive, ex-transgender gay wedding
In the tiny marriage-ceremonies room at the old Orange County courthouse, where friends and reporters squeeze in to witness the couple's exchange of vows, Alfonso Guerrero can't hold back the tears when the officiant asks him in Spanish to repeat the words "I, Alfonso, take you Manuel as my legal husband . . . in health and in sickness, I promise to love you . . ."
Guerrero's face glistens with tears. He had made this promise to his partner, Manuel "Bibys" Chavez, 27 years ago after their first kiss, then again in 2000 when they registered as domestic partners in California, then again in 2005 when they celebrated their 25th anniversary and exchanged silver anniversary wedding bands.
During the course of their decades-long relationship, Guerrero had nursed Chavez back to health after he was given three months to live, the couple battled heroin addiction and homelessness together, and both have weathered the tribulations of living with HIV.
Even if the promise to continue to love and care for each other seems redundant on the warm morning of June 17, Guerrero's hand still shakes as he places the ring on Chavez's finger. "This is important for us," he had said earlier. "It's important for people to see that homosexual people aren't jumping from one relationship to another, that there are stable, long-term couples out there."
The couple is the third to wed in downtown Santa Ana on Tuesday, the first to do so in Spanish. Minutes before their ceremony, Guerrero and Chavez stared nervously at the clerk-recorder's office attendant who helped them complete their forms. "My car was broken into and my ID was stolen about a week and a half ago," Chavez said. "I couldn't sleep last night because I didn't know if they would let us get married today."
California's same-sex-marriage roller coaster has experienced its share of highs and lows in the past decade. In 1999, the state permitted same-sex couples to register as domestic partners with limited rights. In 2000, a state ballot initiative banned the recognition of same-sex marriages. In February 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made national headlines when he defied California law by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Couples flocked to San Francisco from around the country, with 4,000 getting married within a month. But the fairy tale was interrupted when a state judge, spurred by gay-marriage opponents, halted the weddings and the state Supreme Court voided the marriages.
Two dozen couples filed suit following the court's ruling; that suit led to the Supreme Court ruling last month, which overturned the gay-marriage ban and ruled it unconstitutional. The court also rejected a last-minute appeal by anti-gay-marriage groups, who had sought to stop the issuing of marriage licenses until after voters decide on a November ballot initiative that would change the state constitution to ban gay marriage.
Sixty couples had appointments to receive their licenses in Orange County on June 17, the first full day the state would hand out legally binding licenses to same-sex couples.
* * *
The night before their wedding, Guerrero stares at the big-screen TV in the living room of the snug Pomona home he shares with Chavez. He is watching the video from the couple's 25th-anniversary ceremony. Chavez, who was dressed as a woman for the event, walks out of the room during the part when Guerrero places the ring on his finger. "I can't watch this part," he says, fanning his face.
Captivated, Guerrero lets the tears run down his face. "I just can't believe it's been 27 years," he says, smiling. "It doesn't feel like so much time has gone by, but it has. And we've been through so much."
It was November 1980, and the setting was a dusty, large supermarket in Guadalajara, Mexico, called Plaza Frutas. There, a slender boy of 15 with oversized oval eyes and full lips noticed Guerrero, a taller, clean-cut young man of 20 who was stuffing strawberry baskets.
Guerrero saw that the young Chavez was assigned to peeling onions. "I could tell he hated it," says Guerrero.
The pair were only a few days into their new jobs. After passing Chavez a few times and making small talk, Guerrero pulled him from the onion line and gave him small baskets to fill from the mounds of ripe strawberries.
They chatted. Guerrero told Chavez about his six-month visit to the U.S., his stay in Santa Ana and his decision to come back to Mexico. Life there seemed lonely, he told him. They talked about their brief forays into the dating world, their old parejas.
At the end of the day, Chavez, who is known to be shy, pulled Guerrero aside and offered him a strawberry. He placed it in his mouth, and the usually gregarious Guerrero hesitated. "I got close, and he didn't back up," he says. "So there was nothing left to do but grab the strawberry."
"We have been inseparable since," says Chavez.
The time and place weren't exactly hospitable to young gay couples. They pretended they were friends and began spending nearly every night at each other's family's homes. Soon, they were making plans to come to the U.S.
* * *
Chavez and Guerrero arrived together in the U.S. in 1981, when Santa Ana was still an economically strapped city in the middle of Orange County's burgeoning wealth. They had little money; Guerrero soon returned to the welding work he had done during his first stay in the States. Chavez—at 16, still too young to work many jobs—lied about his age and got his first job as a janitor at South Coast Plaza. They roomed in a house with friends in a Santa Ana neighborhood where drugs were openly bought and sold, says Guerrero. "We always said no," he says. "In Guadalajara, we didn't even know what drugs were."
It was a game of wills for Chavez, who says he relished being able to say no repeatedly. But the solicitations eventually wore on them. One day in the mid-1980s, Chavez and Guerrero decided to test themselves by sampling a morsel of heroin.
They soon became addicted. They used cocaine until their noses began to bleed in public. They then switched over to heroin full-time. "We started using syringes so our noses wouldn't bleed," says Guerrero. "It was so, so wrong."
Needle sharing in the mid-'80s would prove deadly for many drug users—a mysterious, blood-borne, immune-crippling disease was beginning to surface in hospital special-illness units across the country. Chavez and Guerrero were sharing unwashed, unsterilized needles among a group of 25 friends.
In 1994, on a trip back to Mexico, Chavez was rushed to the hospital with severe stomach pains. His gall bladder had ruptured, spreading bile throughout his abdomen. "They literally were washing his intestines out with hoses," says Guerrero.
Thin and unable to eat, Chavez was not permitted to leave the hospital. Guerrero, who had to return to work in the U.S., was forced to leave Chavez behind to be taken care of by his family. He sent money to Mexico for Chavez and got a second job. "But the worst part was that I was still using drugs," Guerrero says.
Chavez's lungs filled with water; he was forced to stay in the hospital for four months. A few days before Christmas, doctors in Guadalajara performed blood tests on the frail 29-year-old and discovered he was HIV-positive. "They didn't tell me directly; they told my mother, and I remember hearing her just cry and cry in the hallway," says Chavez. "For me, the hardest part was what my family was going through, to see how much they worried and how much suffering I was causing them."
A few weeks later, when the medical counselor in Laguna Beach told him he was HIV-positive, Guerrero sighed with deep relief and thanked God. The counselor stared at him and repeated the grim news. "I don't think you understand," Guerrero recalls the counselor telling him. "You're positive. It means you have HIV."
"I thought at the time that Manuel would last two months, maybe a year, and then die," says Guerrero. "And I thought, 'I don't want to remain here alone without him by my side.'"
Motivated to give life and their love another chance—and worried about the rumors he'd heard that Guerrero was now seeing someone else—Chavez made his way back to the U.S. as soon as he was released from the hospital. Aided by his younger brother, Chavez made a precarious trip over the mountains with a catheter still gurgling from his stomach. "I ran out of catheter bags and had to use a coke can to drain," he says. "I didn't know if I would make it."
Guerrero, who wasn't seeing anyone else, nervously awaited his arrival.
Once back together, the men decided to check themselves into a methadone rehab clinic and began antiretroviral drug treatments. They spent six months at the clinic and emerged optimistic. "It helped us get rid of the anxiety and the cravings," says Chavez, "but it didn't kick the addiction."
Soon, they had returned to work—but they also began using again. "We kept buying drugs," says Chavez. "The treatment helped us while we were there, but we kept using."
The two hit rock-bottom after Chavez had been jailed for drug possession on three occasions. The third time, he spent three months in an Irvine jail he called "el rancho." When he got out, he found Guerrero in a worse state than he had been in before: He was missing work and was beginning to spend all of his time getting high. They were spending between $900 and $1,000 per week on drugs. They even spent a couple of days homeless when they couldn't pay the $50 monthly rent for the garage where they were living.
"Manuel said, 'We have to do something. I don't want to see you like this,'" Guerrero says. So Chavez took Guerrero to Mexico for an aggressive, joint detox. A few weeks of harrowing withdrawal at a relative's house almost drove Guerrero back to using, but the two reminded each other that if they didn't fix themselves now, they would die.
They returned after several months and only relapsed once or twice. They are now sober, grateful and surprised they really made it, they say. They are among four surviving members of their old group of 25 needle-sharing friends. "Everyone has died of AIDS or of drug overdoses," says Chavez. "We're the only ones left."
Their experiences prompted both Chavez and Guerrero to begin warning others of the mistakes they'd made during their years of drug addiction. They began volunteering at soup kitchens in the community and soon discovered the Center Orange County, now located in Garden Grove. It was there that Chavez discovered the Miss Hermosa y Protegida transgender beauty pageant—and where the next chapter in the couple's life would begin.
* * *
Guerrero says he would have liked to marry a woman. He tried, he says, three times. "Mostly because I love children. I would have liked to have children." But he eventually accepted that women weren't in his cards. He liked men, and he didn't want to lead a woman down a confused path.
What Guerrero didn't expect was that after 18 years together, Chavez would decide to live his life as a woman, something he had always wanted but never acted on. Chavez had learned about the Miss Hermosa y Protegida transgender beauty pageant sponsored by the Center and decided to participate. In 1998, the couple started therapy and Chavez began the female hormone injections that would give him breasts, a smoother face and preliminary hips.
"It was hard," says Guerrero. "I told him I supported him, but that he ran the risk of losing me because I had never really been attracted to people with boobies."
What he discovered, Guerrero says, was that he loved Chavez beyond his physical form. "I loved him for who he was at his core. We just kept communicating and talking through everything. Thankfully, his transition didn't negatively affect our relationship."
Chavez participated in the beauty pageants and wore a white floor-length wedding gown to the couple's 25th-anniversary party. But the combination of hormone treatment and antiretroviral drugs proved too harsh for his liver. In 2003, Chavez stopped taking the hormones and halted his transition. "My health was more important to me for us," he says.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Today, Chavez coaches pageant contestants at the yearly pageant and works with HIV patients as a community-outreach coordinator for a health-care group. Guerrero coordinates the entire pageant [see "There (S)He Is . . ." March 28] and handles all the Latino-outreach programs at the Center. "Our work has now become about educating people," Guerrero says. "And no amount of money could be as satisfying as the work itself."
At their wedding ceremony on Tuesday, the two men stood tall in their suits, Guerrero in white pinstripes and Chavez in a dark suit with green-speckled vest and a soft purple shirt. He's comfortable living as a man, he says.
A thin line of sweat trickles down Guerrero's face as he kisses his groom nervously after they are pronounced spouses for life. Hugging friends and witnesses outside after the ceremony, the newlyweds' smiles dazzle from their clean-shaven faces. The trio of protesters gathered outside the courthouse does little to sully their moment. They walk down the courthouse steps, smile, turn their backs to the protesters and kiss jubilantly before the cameras.