Elliott Mitchell remembers the moment that he knew he was in love with Clark West. He searches back toward the beginning of their 41-year relationship - before they managed a business together in Florida, before they took a trip to Hawaii and were joined together in civil union, and before they moved to Tennessee in order to keep their committed relationship a secret from co-workers.
It was 1972, and Clark and Mitch were students living in Tuscaloosa Alabama, working together at a shoe store. They had just had a disagreement that developed into an argument, and words were exchanged in the store. "I said some things that were really nasty, and I felt really bad about them later," Mitch said. He and Clark had only been dating for a few months, and Mitch thought for sure that this argument would undo their relationship.
At the end of the week, however, Clark surprised Mitch with a gift. He had taken his entire paycheck for the week and purchased a bracelet for Mitch. "He gave me the bracelet and told me that he loved me," Elliot explained. "That's the moment I knew I was with the right person - that someone would love me enough to take everything they earned for the week and buy something for me and tell me they love me was unbelievable."
"I still probably think about that once a week," he said.
Despite that love - the love that has spanned decades, states, and a lifetime of decisions, setbacks, and triumphs - Clark and Mitch are not married. They've lived in so many states during their time together - Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida - but even now, in 2013, same-sex couples like them do not have the freedom to marry in any of those states.
Since the early 1990s, Clark and Mitch have lived in Sarasota, Florida. And now that the central part of the so-called Defense of Marriage has been struck down and legally married same-sex couples are eligible for the federal protections of marriage, they're considering flying to California and getting married. But they know that when they return home to Florida, they'll be viewed as unmarried, with their 41 years of commitment disrespected by the state they love.
The men also expressed that even as they watch the news tracking a steady stream of victories - including decisions by the Department of Defense, Department of the Treasury, and Department of Health & Human Services ruling that married same-sex couples living in any state will be eligible for the federal protections of marriage - they still feel uncertainty about whether they'll run into problems down the road if they keep living in a state that does not respect their marriage.
"We don't want any questions about any federal benefits," Mitch said.
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Clark and Mitch never thought they'd be able to marry.
They met at the student union building at the University of Alabama, the day after Clark's 18th birthday in August 1972. Mitch was back at school completing his degree in accounting after serving for three years in the Vietnam War with the U.S. Marine Corps, and Clark was a freshman beginning school.
"When I met Clark, I was excited for a relationship, and I realized that I wanted a relationship with another man," Mitch said, adding with a laugh, "If I sent you pictures from when Clark was 18 years old, you'd understand why."
"We were fairly stable people," Mitch said. "We both worked, we went to class, and we we came together at the right place at the right time. After a while, we kept staying together and staying together." The couple counts November 21, 1972 as their "official" anniversary date.
In the years that followed, Clark and Mitch moved around the Midwest and the South, relocating as Mitch moved up the ladder in the corporate world. From Tampa, FL to Knoxville, TN to southeast Georgia, the men moved, keeping their love and relationship a secret from Mitch's co-workers for fear of experiencing an anti-gay backlash at work.
In the 1990s, Mitch became the CEO of a company that pioneered fragrance and scent inserts in magazines across the country, while Clark became licensed in therapy and, later, in real estate. They moved to Florida, where they began working together in real estate development, investing in their community. Along the way, they began living their lives openly, sharing their relationship with friends and neighbors, and eventually becoming essential members of their community.
"Today, at our ages of 59 and 64, we have the ability financially to not worry about what people think," Clark said, acknowledging that they also have the financial ability to take time off and fly to a state where same-sex couples can marry. "We recognize that our problems with DOMA are different than the typical gay couple," he said. "We recognize that not all couples have the luxury of picking up and marrying someplace else."
Last year, on November 29, 2012, just a week after their official 40th anniversary, Clark and Mitch flew to Hawaii and were joined together in civil union. It was a wonderful day, a great celebration of their life together – but their civil union from Hawaii affords them no legal protections in Florida or through the federal government. In order to be viewed as married by the federal government, they'll need to legally tie the knot in one of the 13 states or the District of Columbia where same-sex couples can marry.
Couples like them need the freedom to marry in their home state. "Marriage matters because it would give us validity, commitment, respect, and a feeling of safety that we will know that we will be there for the other without fear of the court system intervening with our family wishes," Clark said. "Having the freedom to marry in any state would mean that we have finally made it to the top of the mountain."
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"We live in Sarasota, we're involved in our community, and we love it," Mitch said. "We're accepted by our community. But at some point down the road, one of us is going to outlive the other, and we have to prepare for that day."
Couples across the country who have been together for years and years are being denied the freedom to marry, and that needs to change.
"We've stuck by each other for so long," Clark said. "And today where we sit in 2013 is indeed a blessing. It's an incredible blessing that we sit together after 41 years together, stronger and greater than we've ever felt."
It's time for all families in all 50 states to have the freedom to marry. It's time to honor the love that these couples share each and every day when they begin families together, build businesses together, and become a fixture in their local communities. It's time for Clark and Mitch to finally be able to think back to those early memories – of Clark giving Mitch the bracelet, of Clark supporting Mitch in his corporate career, of Mitch and Clark promising their commitment to each other in Hawaii – and know that soon, they can share another great landmark: a marriage that is recognized in every state across the country.