When the word “spouse” took on a new meaning

Palm Beach Post (FL)
Copyright © 2011 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
BARBARA MARSHALL Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

A pot of turnip greens simmers on the stove in Tony Plakas’ and Jamie Foreman’s bright green Lake Worth kitchen, a testament to Foreman’s roots in the Panhandle.

”He’s an incredible Southern cook,” marvels Plakas, the oldest of eight kids in a Greek immigrant family from Pennsylvania. “I’d never had turnip and collard greens before.”

”But I’m learning to make them the healthy way, without salt pork,” said Foreman.

After 14 years together, the two men are a bit giddy, as newlyweds often are. It’s a state of affairs that still surprises them.

Despite 14 years together, Foreman and Plakas didn’t think they were the marrying kind.

Not because they don’t love each other.

They do, deeply, resolutely.

On the fifth anniversary of the day they met, they exchanged platinum rings from Tiffany’s.

And as two of the most visible gay activists in Palm Beach County, they were already widely known as a committed couple.

Plakas is the CEO of Compass, the gay and lesbian community center in Lake Worth. Foreman is a board member of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council and a research lawyer with Thomson Reuters.

But marriage?

”Gay marriage just never seemed like something that was important to me. Jamie and I weren’t even registered as domestic partners even though we tell everyone else to do it,” said Plakas, 39.

But a near-tragedy last spring demonstrated to the two men why the term “partner” was no longer enough. They wanted — needed — to call each other “spouse,” despite the fact the term has no legal meaning in Florida when used in reference to a same sex couple.

Since moving to Palm Beach County in 1997, Plakas felt there were far more critical local issues to fight for and lobby against.

Bullying in schools. Gay-bashing and hate crimes. HIV prevention. Gay rights. Workplace equality. Gay adoption.

Even when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004 and five other states followed, marriage still seemed reserved for other people.

Straight people.

”I’d be in conversation with colleagues about marriages and divorces and it sometimes felt as if they were flaunting the fact that it’s not even an option for me,” said Foreman, 40.

Gay Floridians also wrestle with the quandary of marrying then returning to a state that doesn’t recognize their union.

For Plakas and Foreman, clarity arrived on a May night earlier this year.

On the way to his car near downtown Lake Worth, muggers pointed a gun at Foreman, and beat him before stealing his wallet, cellphone, and house and car keys.

Dazed from a concussion, Foreman fled across backyards to elude his pursuers. Lacking keys, he had to break down his own door to get inside.

At the same time, a worried Plakas was driving around, searching for Foreman.

In the resulting confusion of rescue vehicles and police, Plakas forgot to ask where they were taking the man he loved. He couldn’t leave the house with a broken door and thieves still on the loose with Foreman’s house keys and address.

For six hours, Plakas called area hospitals, looking for Foreman. While sympathetic, hospital personnel could not confirm where Foreman was being treated.

”I come from a generation where it was a brave thing to call someone your partner, but in today’s HIPAA (health information privacy) world, it’s just not enough. It doesn’t have the weight of the word ‘spouse,’ “ Plakas said.

Bruised but fine, Foreman was released the next morning, with a new point of view.

”Something like that makes you rethink your priorities,” Foreman said.

Evolving relationship

The two men are proof of the attraction of opposites. Foreman, soft-spoken to the point of reticence, is a lawyer with a southern accent and deep Panhandle roots. An ardent University of Florida alumnus, he was president of his fraternity and produced Gator Growl as a member of UF’s Blue Key leadership society.

”I’ve learned you don’t talk when the Gators are playing,” Plakas said with a laugh.

Plakas is a dark and gregarious motor-mouth, a writer and scrappy lobbyist for social justice causes, with a history degree from Millersville University in Lancaster, Pa.

In the months before the mugging, they had finally begun talking about marriage.

”President Obama talks about how his views on gay marriage are evolving. Well, everybody’s views are evolving, including ours,” Plakas said.

While in Boston in July, where each summer Plakas attends classes in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, they climbed the steps of Cambridge City Hall and said, “I do.”

”We do so many public events that it was nice to have this intensely personal private ceremony,” Foreman said.

”It was a culture shock, it was so mainstream,” Plakas said.

Afterward, the two men went out for beers and called their families, who weren’t at all surprised at the news. Both men say their parents and siblings are completely supportive of their relationship.

”I’ve seen their strong love for over a decade. To me, they have completely redefined what a relationship, gay or straight, means to me,” said Plakas’ sister, Jade Shue, who teaches at a private West Palm Beach school for special needs children.

And what it means to say the word “spouse.”