Erwynn Umali and Will Behrens: The first gay wedding on a military base.

The Unlikely Story of America’s First Gay Military Wedding

The Unlikely Story of America’s First Gay Military Wedding

The first gay military wedding.
July 17 2012 6:30 AM

The Wedding

Will and Erwynn met at church and fell in love. But they had a big problem—“don’t ask, don’t tell.” The unlikely story of the first gay military union.

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Everyone piles into cars to bring decorations for the reception to the base community center. I follow Erwynn’s car through the driving rain. It’s easy to pick out. It’s the only car with an Air Force sticker and a Human Rights Campaign equality logo on the back. Will’s aunts, uncles, and cousins pitch in enthusiastically to set up the banquet hall. Will instructs everyone to put the placemats an inch from the edge of the table. He suggests fluffing the netting on individually tied favors filled with candies. Erwynn climbs a ladder to hang a “Love” sign over the banquet tables. The kids practice their dance moves, make up rhymes about the wedding, and design congratulations cards to surprise their dads at the reception. They go around giving group hugs to everyone, including me.

Same sex military wedding reception
Will's aunt Patty Garver, along with several other family members who were attending the wedding, helps set up the reception room with table linens and decorations the Friday before the ceremony.

Photo by Jeff Sheng

In Congress, military bases are a gay-marriage battlefield. In May, the House passed—and the Senate later defeated—a provision specifying that military facilities may not "officiate, solemnize or perform a marriage or marriage-like ceremony involving anything other than the union of one man with one woman." But at McGuire-Dix, I find no signs of tension. One person attending the wedding mentions that he still hears homophobic jokes on the base. But two civilians employed at McGuire-Dix say that most folks who are stationed there probably didn’t know about Will and Erwynn’s wedding, and that anyone who’s upset about it would likely keep it to himself. Still, the respectful silence is remarkable. Not one of the nearly dozen people I ask has heard any complaints about the wedding.

Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Garcia, a chaplain’s assistant on the base, says she’s been shocked by the complete lack of pushback she’s witnessed since the repeal of DADT. She’s excited to be part of the wedding. The base’s Wing Chaplain, Air Force Col. Timothy Wagoner, is a Southern Baptist, a denomination that rejects same-sex marriage. “The military community is very professional,” he explains. “I haven’t heard anything negative, only positive things like, ‘It’s about time!’ ” Erwynn is “well-known for being an outstanding leader on base,” says Wagoner. “So it’s important that he feels supported.”


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At 1:30 p.m. on June 23, 2012, around 150 guests take their seats in the chapel. An usher walks Sherwynn and each of Will’s aunts down the aisle to the family section, accompanied by a piano version of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb,” which the kids begged to include in the ceremony. Eric Alva, who was the first U.S. serviceman seriously injured in the Iraq war—and later came out and fought to repeal DADT—gives an opening blessing. He explains the historic nature of the first same-sex ceremony on this base. A friend of Will’s, Cecilia Cox, reads from Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the court opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Paige Martin, a colleague of Erwynn’s, begins singing Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This.” As she does so, the children take turns coming toward the altar, youngest to eldest, beaming. The double doors of the chapel open wide, and here come the grooms. Erwynn is in his dress blues. Will is in a tux. Arm in arm, they walk down the aisle.

The chaplain, Kay Reeb, asks, “Who giveth these grooms away?” It’s an awkward question. Neither man’s parents are here to represent the previous generation. So the union will be blessed by the next generation. The kids form a huddle in front of their dads. Will and Erwynn pretend to look nervous. “We do!” the kids shout in unison. The audience giggles and cheers.

Jerry Souza, a high-school friend of Will’s, sings the Irish song, “A Bird Without Wings.”

Like a bird without wings
That longs to be flying
Like a motherless child
Left lonely and crying
Like a song without words
Like a world without music
I wouldn’t know what to do
I’d be lost without you
Watchin’ over me.

As he sings, Will and Erwynn stand before the assembly, without their mothers, having risked everything to be together. They hold hands and look into each other’s eyes. Erwynn quietly wipes away tears.

The ceremony is decidedly Christian. Chaplain Reeb reads Bible passages and evokes Jesus’ name in her prayers. In his vows, Will points out that they both come from conservative, religious families. He speaks of how glad he is that God made their paths cross. “I never met anyone that it was worth giving it all up for, until I met you,” he says. He closes with, “I give you my heart, my faith. I choose you today—forever and a day.”

Erwynn speaks about all the trials they’ve been through together. After choking up, he jokes, “I’m trying to keep my military composure.” He vows: “Just like I would fight for my country and sacrifice for it, and even die for my country as a member of the Air Force, I would do all of that for you. You are my last love, forever and a day.”