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Breaking Tradition

Corey Rothermel '96 and Doug Neff '96 are wed in a celebration of not only their love but the love and commitment of gay couples everywhere.

by Maura Stephens


Doug (left) and Corey
 

At 8:00 a.m. on a Monday in August 1992, freshman theater major Corey Rothermel stumbled into the first meeting of Kevin Murphy's Introduction to Poetry class. He looked around sleepily. A tall young man in a red-and-black flannel shirt caught his eye. "I took one glance at Doug," Corey says now, "and I said to myself, 'That's the man I'm going to spend the rest of my life with.' "

It took a little longer for music major Douglas Neff to come to the same conclusion. "Corey was a couple of years older," says Doug. "He'd taken a year off from school and attended DePaul University before transferring to Ithaca. And he was already 'out' -- had been since high school." It was different for Doug, who considered himself "thoroughly straight."

"But I was crafty," says Corey. "I introduced myself to him at a poster sale. I made some dumb comment about Sylvia Plath. Then I managed to get into a study group with him." Being in a poetry class together didn't hurt. "There's always some romantic poetry," Corey laughs.

The two quickly became friends, recognizing that they had many common interests. "We seemed to be on the same wavelength in so many ways," Corey says. "Our interests and how we view life were very similar." He was sure they would make a great couple.

"Corey was very important to me," says Doug, "but it took a lot of long talks for me to open up to the possibility of being with a man." Corey remembers that time: "It was heartbreaking for me to be held at a distance that first year. But it was new to Doug, and I had to respect that."

Eventually Corey's persistence and patience paid off. The couple began dating seriously on September 22, 1993, a little more than a year after they met.

They stayed together all during college, growing closer. Doug became a double major in music and religion, and Corey majored in theater with a religion minor. They made many lasting friendships, and both had one especially influential faculty member: religion professor Alice McDowell, now retired. "She taught, among other things, Eastern Religions and 20th-Century Mysticism," says Doug. "She got us to think about things on a higher plane. That contributed to our relationship, that kind of spiritual connection. We would spend so much time with her during her office hours [that] it was almost like therapy."

After graduation Doug and Corey moved west to California so Doug could attend graduate school. Corey has been writing and directing short films ever since, and for the past three years he's worked for the Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board. The board, which was created by public ballot, promotes sustainable consumption and disposal patterns; it is responsible for waste reduction, recycled product procurement, and market development programs, as well as making grants to nonprofit organizations. Corey is very committed to the organization and its mission but has recently decided to return to school to study for a master's degree in filmmaking. "I'm a storyteller, basically. I like the idea of writing and telling stories," he says. With a wide scope of interests, he has projects in mind from documentary to feature films.

After graduating with a master's degree in consciousness studies, Doug worked in long-term health care for five years with a program called the Eden Alternative, which is, as he puts it, a "national movement to transform nursing homes into homelike spaces with plants, animals, and children. You have to do a lot of cultural transformation, getting staff to understand and look at their jobs differently." That's where Doug came in, training staff and giving organizational development seminars. He enjoyed the work immensely, but last year he decided to make a change. "I went out to find my dream job," he says, "and at the final hour this job -- teaching religion at a high school -- materialized. I feel like I'm exactly where God has always wanted me to be. All the things I've learned my whole life, I'm using now. This feels like something I'd been waiting for since college, like the universe funneled me down into this position."

Happy in their careers and very happy in their relationship, Doug and Corey recognized that they were fortunate. But even living in San Francisco, one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, they still felt that something was lacking. They'd often wished they could marry, to share in a ritual that would honor their love before friends and family. Before they left Ithaca they'd even had an "engagement" ceremony and exchanged rings. "We were living a married life, really," says Doug. "But we thought we couldn't have that traditional married life and didn't think we could have the ceremony."


Filling out the application to marry.

This February, when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, gay and lesbian couples in droves descended on City Hall to marry. "The day after they announced you had to have an appointment," says Corey, "we said, 'We have to act now.' " They began calling the city clerk's office to set up an appointment, but the number was busy for hours on end. They sat at the phone for hours hitting "redial" again and again. By the time they were able to get an appointment it was early March; they were given two dates to choose from: Wednesday, March 10, and Friday, March 12. "It would have been easier if we'd taken Friday," says Corey, "to give us the weekend to celebrate and more time to prepare. But we felt we had to jump at the earlier date, because who knew how long the weddings would be allowed to continue."

It was a good thing they chose the Wednesday; on March 11 the California Supreme Court ordered an immediate halt to same-sex weddings in San Francisco and said it would hear arguments in May or June on whether Newsom had the authority to allow the marriages.


The wedding ceremony

Although they were and are at the forefront of a raging controversy that has plunged the nation into a new civil rights battle, on the day of their wedding Corey and Doug thought about only their happiness and the vows they pledged to each other. "Ministers Barbara and Bill Hamilton-Holway, our dear friends, officiated," says Corey. "Each of us had a ring-bearer and a witness. The city hall people were wonderful, so exhausted from all the weddings but smiling and gracious -- and happy and excited for all the couples. We chose our spot in the beautiful city hall for the ceremony; we wanted to be on the steps of the rotunda. We were facing each other, and the ministers were on the side between us. Suddenly I saw their eyes, and Doug's, go wide. The media descended on us. Cameras were all over us, a boom mike was in our faces. CBS -- Charles Osgood, actually -- caught the whole ceremony on video for his Sunday morning show."

But the hoopla didn't bother the couple; in fact it seemed almost necessary. "It is a historic event, a historic time," says Corey.

And despite the media attention, the important thing is that they are happily married, a state that changes things in an intangible way. Doug tries to put it into words: "I was overwhelmed by finally doing this ritual that's been done by millions of people for many centuries, by making this public proclamation of our vows. And our friends, and CBS, and being surrounded by all the happiness that was at city hall that day. Being married now, it feels different somehow. It's official, it's legal, and it's public. You're supposed to go through that wedding day; there's a reason why that ritual exists. To proclaim in public your love and your commitment to each other, be all nervous, have a spiritual moment when you say your vow -- there's something about sharing that experience together that makes it all more real." In a word, poetry. 

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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 29 April, 2004