The pair of photographs popped up on my FaceBook feed in the middle of the day. I was sitting in Starbucks idly scrolling down through the various shirtless guys, food entrees, and grumpy cats that my “friends” put out there (and of which I am equally guilty) when two smiling young men appeared. A recent version of them, and then another one taken many years earlier. It was so moving, so raw and natural, that it jarred me out of my FaceBook trance. The way one of the gentlemen was gazing at the other was an unguarded moment of adoration. It was, quite simply, the look of love.
Out of all of the bad news, this small sliver of hope pierced the cynical haze, instantly and wonderfully reclaiming all the goodness of the world in one simple shot. I was touched by the depiction of love, and the resulting follow-up that showed the same two gentlemen in the same pose eighteen years later.
I wanted to do something more than just highlighting those photos – I wanted to give a fuller sense of these two men and what they meant to each other. The world doesn’t always get to see the normality of gay couples – far too often we have to be either perfect or perfectly outrageous, when really we’re just as boring and mundane as any other couple. That said, there is nothing dull about lasting love – and these days it seems to be more and more rare – so when I see a couple like this one, I want to celebrate and spotlight it. This is the premiere of ‘The Couple Profile‘, and it begins with the tale of Wayne and Cody.
Cody (left) & Wayne (right)
Every once in a while, a love story comes along that is destined to last through the ages. It may not be the stuff of swashbuckling action or fairy-tale perfection, but it rings of something deeper and more resonant in the simple way that love occasionally does. Sometimes you don’t need a wedding in a castle – sometimes love is much more than that – and true love, the kind of love that lasts, only requires two partners who find solace in one another. Almost two decades ago, Cody Braswell and Wayne Self found that in each other.
New Orleans has a way of working its charm and magic on the most resilient of souls. If there is a place on earth where it is conducive to falling in love, the French Quarter may be it. From its ornate balconies to its hints of debauchery, it reeks of romance, both ribald and true. From the rollicking fervor and hurricane-fueled excess of Bourbon Street to the richness of the pralines, the gumbo, and the jambalaya so gorgeously influenced by the West Indies, it’s something you can see, taste, and hear. There is music everywhere – small bands, big bands, blues and jazz, soloists, drummers, and drunken serenaders. The city of beignets and bitter chicory coffee, bordered by the Mississippi and emptying into a grand delta, is so imbued with romance and mystery that the secrets to a happy life seem suddenly within grasp, if slightly hidden.
That was the scene of the first photograph, taken in a buggy ride on their first trip to New Orleans together in 1994. Cody gazes at Wayne with unabashed affection. Wayne has the unguarded smile of youth on his face. It is one of those times in life that is exciting and thrilling – the start of a new romance, the possibility of true love, the hope and vision of all that is yet to come. On that day, in the back of a buggy ride, a love began taking root ~ a love that would carry them across the country, across time, and across all the lives they would and will touch. But for that moment, the ride took them just a few blocks. They had the rest of their lives to go the rest of the way.
Their story actually began a while before that, a few hours north, in Shreveport, LA. They made their initial acquaintance old-school style, back when fate or destiny could subtly step in and give a gentle nudge – the kind of thing lost in today’s online shuffle of Match and Grindr. Not contrived, not planned, not sought out – just an old-fashioned and now-quaint meeting that happens when it’s meant to happen, and not a day sooner.
As Wayne remembers it, “I first laid eyes on Cody as he was walking across campus at Centenary College of Louisiana, where we both went to school, but I didn’t meet him until later, at a frat party, where we shared a cigarette. Still later, we had Spanish class together. It was early-morning and I was very busy with editing the campus newspaper, so I rarely made an appearance. When I did, he was always surrounded by so many female admirers that I could hardly approach him. Truth was, he was in a relationship with a friend of mine. I had to wait until he was available before I could pursue, but my timing was always off, since there was always someone after him.” As for whether it was love at first sight, Wayne is more reticent. “It was definitely lust at first sight,” he admits, “But more than lust. Interest. I wanted to know him. I wanted to spend time with him. But he was also the forbidden fruit.”
Cody remembers things in much the same way. “Wayne and I ‘officially’ met in Spanish Class during my Junior year of college… (Honestly, the very first time we met was at a frat party – I think sometime earlier in the year – I forget who bummed a smoke from whom – maybe we just shared one…anyway, I remember thinking then “Wow.”) We really didn’t talk much during class. I was dating someone else at the time and was still in the closet. Wayne was a ‘bad-boy’ – out and proud – [and you were] instantly outed if you hung out with him. We didn’t start talking until the summer after I went through a rather nasty breakup.” For Cody too, it was “more like lust at first sight. I can’t imagine a relationship getting started without that initial physical attraction, right? It was instant attraction at that very first encounter, but as I mentioned, I was in a relationship at the time. Love was quick to come once we actually spent some time together.”
Cody recalls those early days in the way that we remember the most shaping moments of our lives. They’re the times that inform everything we are to become, and they remain imbued with something more than the average days that come later and eventually run together. Not only was he at the start of a great romance, but he was also on the verge of coming out as a gay man.
“I had made a promise to myself that I would not go into another relationship while still in the closet,” he says. “I came out to my parents before we started dating which added a whole new level of freedom and excitement. He and I had so much in common – discovering that not only could we be falling in love, but we could also be best friends!”
In a way, theirs was a romance written in the stars, sprinkled by some cosmic dust of destiny as they realized they had always been close – very close in fact – and going back all the way to their childhoods.
“We discovered we had grown up just a short distance apart in rural Louisiana – but separated by a swamp/lake,” Cody explains. Not only that, but, “Our parents knew each other back in the 1960’s. Wayne’s Mom worked with my Dad. My parents would go listen to Wayne’s Dad’s band down on the lake on weekends. Wayne’s sister and I had common friends in high school.”
Yet after their initial attraction, there were the usual bumps and hesitancies that accompany every relationship in its infant stages. Wayne especially, while thrilled with Cody, was somewhat reluctant regarding how quickly things were moving, along with what he viewed as the class differences between them.
“Once we finally started seeing each other, after his previous relationship ended, everything happened at speeds that were practically Lesbian,” Wayne says. “Our first kiss happened during our first time alone. Our first sex happened during our first date. We had moved in together within a month. It was pretty-much a textbook case of what NOT to do. I remember feeling very uncomfortable, at times, due to my perceived difference in our status. I come from really “low country” people. Trailer houses. Outhouses. Cars on blocks. The whole thing ~ though my dad was educated, valued education, and strived to make sure I got a good education. Cody, I felt, came from “high country” people, who owned a lot of land, lived in a nice big house, and were generally more civilized and genteel. I remember showing Cody where my family lived with no small amount of shame. And I remember him telling me his own family’s history and kind of forcing me to look past my assumptions. Every family has its struggles, and sometimes they are not at all apparent to an outsider.”
Yet it seemed that both gentlemen had little to worry about, especially once Cody’s parents heard Wayne play the piano. “Cody was newly out to his parents, and I was introduced to them,” he recalls. “I felt like a test case. I remember playing the piano for his Mom and Dad, playing old gospel songs, which are some of my favorite things to play. That won them over.”
The merging of two people into a relationship is fraught with its own stumbles and roadblocks. When the merging of a family is involved, it can become even more stressful. There are choices and sacrifices that need to be made, difficult determinations that must be decided, and these are the true tests that ultimately reveal whether a couple can handle the ebb and flow of life. For Cody and Wayne, that first test ended up lasting a dozen years.
“My Dad passed away unexpectedly close to fifteen years ago,” Cody begins. “We were in Ohio, Mom was left in Louisiana with a big house, a farm, just too much to take care of. She sold everything and stayed with my sister for a while, but decided she might want to come stay with us for a bit. That bit turned into almost twelve years with us. It had it advantages and challenges, but I’m glad we had the opportunity to do that for her and thankful for all she did for us during her stay. I’m also thankful for how well she and Wayne got along. There’s no words to express how grateful I am to Wayne for enduring this experience with me – there are not many couples, gay or straight, that can successfully manage a relationship with a parent in the house. There’s lots of interesting stories there. Before moving again we decided it was time she get back in Louisiana. She’s down there now with a little place of her own next door to my sister, close to her two grand and four great-grand children – it’s really good for her.”
Wayne agrees that it was a definite test, but one which came with some surprising rewards. “That was the biggest challenge,” he admits about that period of time. “We’re not talking about a mother-in-law suite or a cottage on the property. We’re talking about a smallish condo. She didn’t drive or get out much. It was taxing, to say the least. But it had its plusses. It kept us grounded, kept us out of the party scene, and kept us focused on the idea of ourselves not just as a couple of guys, but as a nuclear family, with an important role to play in the larger family to which we belong.”
There are lessons in their story for everyone, particularly for those of us in long-term relationships, as Cody and Wayne have mastered the art of maintaining the sense of excitement and adventure that they’ve had since the early days of their courtship. According to Cody, this is integral to making it work. “We’ve seen a lot of couples have major issues and/or break up, particularly over careers, one wanting to move for a job the other not, one wanting to change careers but the other not willing to compromise with living on a lesser income while the other goes to school,” he says. “None of these had to do with loss of love but rather loss of adventure. Wayne and I have moved several times – big moves… These moves have all been made pretty much blindly – we knew virtually no one at any of these final destinations – we had to start our social life from scratch, relying on each other and make a life together in each of the places we’ve lived.” That sort of courage comes with its own set of difficulties, and both men realize this, but also understand how valuable it can be. “Probably some of the things that make our relationship exciting and interesting are also those things that make it the most challenging,” Cody continues. “Moving to new places, not knowing anyone and having to rely on each other for almost all social interactions can be difficult – sometimes you end up just expecting too much from each other. We’ve learned, adjusted, and obviously made it through.”
Wayne agrees: “We haven’t been afraid to shake things up. We moved away from Louisiana after just over a year together. We moved away from a very comfortable life in Ohio to start over in San Francisco just because we wanted the adventure. We then moved away from San Francisco to see what SoCal had to offer. I think people can get stuck in a rut, and the comfort of the routine can cause people to compromise on stressors that they would otherwise not allow. Your job is terrible, but you stay because you have a house. Your house is terrible, but you stay because you have a job. Things just get tedious. We don’t mind upsetting the apple cart, from time to time, and taking a chance for a better life.”
Those chances have allowed the couple to grow, and to appreciate things about each other that might otherwise have gotten lost in the dull trudge to monotony. They are also quick to point out what they love about each other. Regarding Cody, Wayne is enamored of “his compassion, his sense of humor, his ambition. I don’t mean careerism, because we’re not really like that. But he has a drive to do things right and well, and to make things nice, and to live a good life.”
Cody is equally enraptured, declaring that, “Wayne is the love of my life and my best friend. He’s loving, caring and strong. He’s supportive, insightful and thoughtful. He’s incredibly intelligent, witty and creative. He brings me joy and happiness. He balances me out – makes me continue to grow, think and learn. He challenges me. He loves me, unconditionally.”
On their own they are hilarious, but together they rise to another level. (Witness the fun that ensued when the self-professed “complete opposites” were featured on an episode of HGTV’s ‘House Hunters’.) They may banter as any couple who has been together for almost two decades is wont to do, but it’s apparent that they have fun and genuinely enjoy one another’s company. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it’s the lynch-pin of any good relationship. When asked what traits about each other that they don’t like, the responses are as typical as they are comical.
According to Wayne, “Cody gets car-sick if he doesn’t drive. That would be fine if he were a better driver. Sometimes, I would swear that he drives with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake (he doesn’t).”
Cody has problems with Wayne’s messiness: “Wayne attracts clutter. House, cars – you can tell where Wayne has been. It can be a bit of a challenge for a slightly OCD neat and tidy [person].”
Upon delving deeper, there are issues that might constitute something more than minor annoyances, and it’s here where one gets a better understanding at how their relationship works.
“Sometimes, I feel he gets his priorities out of whack, at least compared to mine,” Wayne says of Cody. “He elevates things that I think are inconsequential and doesn’t think about the things that are really important. Usually, this is temporary, as his priorities do align with mine, but I think he forgets, occasionally, that art trumps comfort, people trump things, relationships trump pique.”
Yet these very variations are what make the couple grow stronger together, and the very areas in which one might need a little work are the strengths of the other. Wayne has reconciled these sometimes-conflicting views, and sees only benefits to them. “I think what makes our relationship work is how different we are from each other, on some levels,” he explains. “I’m into imagination, he’s into his surroundings. I’m into spirit, he’s into science. I’m chaotic, he’s orderly. I’m prone to outbursts of anger when I get vexed, while he’s more likely to fume. I’m overbearing, he’s relatively quiet. I’m a liberal democrat, he’s… a liberal democrat. We have to draw the line somewhere! He’s become more expressive of his passions, preferences, and annoyances over the years, which is entirely a function of having been around me for so long.”
Cody too sees the various disparities between them as enhancements rather than detractions. As he puts it, “We are pretty much as polar opposite as you can get but somehow it works. That being said, we complement each other very well – I keep Wayne’s feet on the ground; he keeps my feet from being set in concrete. I think we appreciate what the other brings to the relationship. Have we changed each other? No. Have we made each other better? Yes.”
Every long-term couple has their own bit of wisdom to offer to the world, and though neither Wayne nor Cody was immodest enough to impose their advice on others, upon further pressing they offered some helpful hints on what has worked for them.
“We have never aspired to heterosexist ideals about coupledom, family, or sex, even if our ideals sometimes dovetail with those,” Wayne proclaims. “We tend to learn what “commitment” means from the straights on TV, or from our straight parents, but that idea of commitment has led to lots of divorce and lots of unhappy couples. I think, before deciding to commit as a couple, people should think hard about what that might mean to them. Are they committing to monogamy? Are they committing to care for one another’s elderly parents? To clean and care for one another in illness? To following one another after crazy schemes and ideas? To putting someone else’s priorities before their own a good chunk of the time? The answers are between those two partners, and should not be subject to the judgments of friends or family, gay or straight. There’s no manual. Don’t let anyone force one on you, but write your own. And if you can’t agree on what commitment means? A partner is not a must-have accessory. It’s perfectly wonderful to be single.”
Cody has a similar take on what makes their partnership function so well. “You have to be best friends and share all the things you do with your best friend. Don’t gossip or talk about your partner/relationship with your friends – talk to your partner (your best friend),” he advises. “Other friends may not necessarily have the best interest of your relationship at heart – just a good friend agreeing with your gripes can seed resentment and discontent in the relationship. Wayne and I have never broken-up in the eighteen years we’ve been together – not once, it’s just never been an option for us. If you allow it as an option, then you open the relationship up to being dependent on every argument hinging on who’s going to toss out “let’s breakup”. We’ve never spent the night apart in anger. That being said, we’ve sat up quite a few nights because we don’t allow ourselves to go to bed angry at one another. You both have to be equally invested in the relationship. You have to put each other and the relationship first.”
It’s a testament to the enduring qualities of their love that they have crafted such a relationship in a country where the majority of states have not passed marriage equality, and it’s both startling and sad to think that a couple like this has been denied such a basic right. “Straight couples have the privilege of marriage and societal acceptance to help bind them together,” Cody says. “Wayne and I have not had that – we’ve simply had to rely on our commitment to one another – nothing is legally holding us together with the exception of a joint checking account and a house title.”
A couple that works not only to make their own relationship work, but to remember and honor the relationships of the gay men and women who came before, and who will come after, deserves special appreciation. Love can lead men to do great deeds. It can inspire us to accomplish dreams, and in the best circumstances to become better than we would be on our own. Cody and Wayne are a living testimony to this. This summer will hopefully be bringing them back to the place where they had that first buggy ride, in service of Wayne’s new theatrical production, ‘Upstairs’, a musical documenting the 1973 arson fire that destroyed a gay bar in New Orleans and killed 32 people. He hopes to have the funding in place to mount a production in time for the 40th anniversary of the fire in the city where it happened.
It’s a fitting place to end this story, back in the city that spawned that first photograph. Looking at the picture again, it takes on new meaning now that we know them a little better. What had first struck me was how simple and normal it was, but also how powerful it was because of that. After having to fight for rights for so many years, it seems many of us have forgotten that the most significant way to effect change is simply through living our lives openly and honestly, without fanfare or hype. I am suddenly touched by how deeply the love between two people can change the world, inspiring some or reminding others of how things might be. There will always be something worthy in the telling of a love story, some sense of reason and right in an often-mad world.
“Our relationship hasn’t changed my life – it is my life,” Cody states with an elegant simplicity. “He and I have been together the vast majority of my adult years – I don’t really have another point of reference – what little I do have cannot even begin to compare to what I’ve experienced in this relationship. We’ve shared and been through so much together, I can’t imagine Wayne not being the most important part of my life. We do our thing. We are who we are. We help our family and friends as best we can. We try our best to set a good example. There’s not much more you can do.”
Wayne credits his partner with just as much, revealing a new take on the picture that inspired so many: “Cody didn’t just change my life; he saved it. It’s not at all apparent in that picture, but I was what you’d call an “angry young man.” Angry at myself. Angry at the world around me. Angry at God. AIDS was a fear, bigotry was rampant, and I was condemned to hell by my religion. What was the point? I wasn’t at all suicidal, but I didn’t think I’d live to see 30. This didn’t manifest with drugs or alcohol, but with a tendency to give the finger to authority figures in general, an assumption that I had no future, and general rage and nihilism. I didn’t care. Cody gave me something to care about, something to work toward, a reason to try. Today, I care about so much, and that is independent of Cody. But it was Cody who got me over that patch of nihilism and gave me reason to hope for the future, for myself and for gays in general. And just look how those hopes have been rewarded!”
As of this writing, Cody and Wayne are finishing up furnishing their new home. A FaceBook post reveals that the curtains and rods are being hung, along with a new chandelier. Both gentlemen are also busy at work on ‘Upstairs’. As has been the case over the last eighteen years, they’re in the midst of a happily shared life. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s the simplest things that most move the heart.
Wayne Self’s new musical play, Upstairs, is about the 1973 arson fire that took 32 LGBT lives. This deadliest crime against LGBT people in U.S. History has been virtually ignored by the media and its victims largely forgotten. Wayne’s play, currently in workshops, tells the amazing stories of many victims and survivors, but he needs your help to bring the play to New Orleans in time for the 40th Anniversary of the fire. To become a Kickstarter backer, follow this link: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1050849868/upstairs-a-new-musical-new-orleans-anniversary-sho