Allies of the LGBTQ community often attribute their support to sibling ties, parent-child bonds, or close friendships. In Casey Garhart’s case, love guided her decision to become an active ally, but her inspiration came from a far more nuanced relationship with her gay ex-husband’s partner.
After divorcing, Casey found Bill and Phil found Peter. But out of choice and circumstance, neither couple obtained a marriage license. This left both Casey and Peter in a legally vulnerable position once their partners fell ill and passed away. Empathizing with the legitimacy of Peter’s commitment, despite state laws that defined things otherwise, Casey felt compelled to become an ally in the campaign for equal rights.
Straight and Gay: Falling In Love
Newly single at age 32 and living in D.C., Casey decided to try her luck at the precursor to online dating—a personal ad in the paper. Her tagline, “Not perfect and not trying,” caught the attention of Bill Harper.
Countless baseball dinner dates turned into a ten-year relationship that bypassed wedding bells and a marriage license. Instead, the couple adopted two 15-pound Maine Coon cats, a breed comparable to toddlers in size and curiosity.
Up the coast in New York, Peter Hajduk was scraping by in the theater business. Eager to meddle in his love life, two of his friends set him up on a double date with Phil Stone, Casey’s ex-husband. The two men immediately fell in sync, discussing their passion for theater while sipping martinis.
Half a year later, the couple moved to Brooklyn, where they knew it would be easy to rent an apartment together. They became homebodies, never tiring of each other’s company in the two seamless decades they were together.
Peter would have preferred to validate his commitment by way of a marriage contract, but he explaines, “I was ready and the state wasn’t.”
Straight and Gay: Becoming Caregivers
By the time both couples had hit a domestic stride, health complications threatened to throw them off course.
Shortly after moving to Madison, Bill started to experience debilitating pain in the soles of his feet. He was suffering from pustular psoriasis, a severe skin condition, prone to sores and infection. The condition forced him to go on disability and placed Casey in the role of caregiver, while she continued to hold down a full-time job.
Around the same time that Bill’s health was deteriorating, Phil’s diabetes took a turn for the worse. A foot infection led to an amputation of his leg. Then Phil’s kidneys failed, forcing him to follow a strict dialysis regimen for the last two years of his life.
Peter was determined to continue caring for his partner, working full time while driving Phil from one appointment to the next.
“My life, pretty much for the last two years, was not really my own. It was a real tough grind,” says Peter. ”Being a caregiver is not an easy job, so when I see other people doing it, I have great sympathy for them because I’ve been there.”
Straight and Gay: Losing Partners
Everyone witnesses the stages of the lifecycle, but Casey was caught off guard by death. Coming back from a routine business trip, Casey was annoyed that Bill had not showed up to get her from the airport. When she made it home late that night, she found him dead in the living room. There was nothing to do but call 911 and wait.
When the coroner arrived, Phil’s son, Dante, had to be notified as the legal next-of-kin, since Casey was not technically his wife. Even in her state of shock, Casey described this acknowledgment that she wasn’t in full control of the situation as a sort of “sting.”
“If we had been married, it would have made his death easier, in some respects, because I would have been the next-of-kin,” says Casey.
Phil also died at home. Around 10:00 on a Sunday evening, Peter had called 911, but Phil’s heart gave out before the paramedics arrived.
Fortunately, Phil’s legal next-of-kin, his mother, recognized Peter as her honorary son-in-law. She may have replaced the king bed in the guest room with two twin beds to assuage her feelings, initially, but her acceptance turned to a respect that grew into love, once she realized Peter was not going to abandon her son as his health slowly deteriorated.
“Believe me, I was really grateful for [her acceptance], because it could have been really ugly,” says Peter. “I was lucky.”
Sitting at Phil’s funeral in the front row alongside Peter, Casey also realized how lucky Peter was to have found an accepting family. While she found solace in their shared experiences with love, commitment, and grief, she also realized that Peter could have been legally rejected as a gay widower.
With this new perspective on the importance of marriage equality, Casey joined the Madison chapter of PFLAG about ten years ago. As a member of this LGBTQ advocacy group, she serves as an “interface,” confronting discriminatory attitudes and politics with a remarkable story of empathy and acceptance.
“For most of us, to get really involved in stuff,” she says, “somehow or other it has to become personal.”