Will Behrens, 35, and Erwynn Umali, 34, hold a civil union ceremony at
the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. Umali is an active
serviceman in the U.S. Air Force.
When Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali and civilian Will Behrens wanted to seal
their commitment in a civil union in New Jersey, they chose a venue that
nine months ago would have been unthinkable: a military base.
The grooms said their vows on June 23 before 150 guests at the chapel
at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst — the first time a civil union or
gay wedding has been held in such a facility in the United States.
While the couple says there’s still a larger battle to be won before
they can live in true domestic bliss, they hope the significance of that
ceremony will not be lost on others in the military who want to live
“It’s a struggle that Will and I have gone through and so many people
are going through,” Umali, an active-duty serviceman in the Air Force,
told the Daily News on Wednesday. “Now I can introduce Will as my
partner or my husband instead of my friend or my boyfriend. We don’t
have to live in fear.”
Entrance to the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, 18 miles south of Trenton.
The U.S. military ended its 18-year-long “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy
last September, allowing homosexuals to serve openly without the
possibility of getting discharged.
Civil unions have been allowed in New Jersey since 2007. Gov. Chris
Christie vetoed a bill in February that would have went a step further,
making same-sex marriages legal.
Umali, 34, and Behrens, 35, still wanted a wedding for their civil
union. The ceremony was captured by Jeff Sheng, a Los Angeles
photographer who did a series on closeted service members.
He told The News that he met the couple through the project, and when
they decided to get hitched, they wanted a photographer they could
“I never shoot weddings,” Sheng said. “But historically, this was
important, and it was significant on a personal level as well.”
Behrens (r) kisses Umali (l) on the forehead at a side room in the chapel before the wedding.
Umali said coming out to his squadron wasn’t a problem for him, and when he introduced Behrens as his fiance, people applauded.
“Prior to doing all this, we were nervous,” said Behrens, who works in
the financial industry. “We talked about losing our families, and there
are plenty of people we know who are living a hidden relationship and
they’re worried that their family will disown them.”
At their wedding last month, Umali wore his Air Force uniform, Behrens dressed in a tux.
Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, officiated the union.
Fellow servicemembers hold up sabres with Behrens and Umali entering their reception hand in hand.
At the reception, they walked hand in hand as Umali-Behrens.
“As some of you know, we don’t have a lot of family here,” Behrens told his guests, according to Slate.com, which documented the pair’s big day. “But you all being here shows us that friends are our true family.”
After their first dance, Umali expressed his amazement.
“I never thought I’d be able (to) dance with a man like this on a military installation,” he said.
The couple shares a dance during their reception, where about 150 guests attended.
Absent from the festivities were the two grooms’ parents. Behrens’ said
his father and mother disapprove of his relationship. Umali, who was
born in the Philippines, said his parents are still struggling with his
sexuality, although they’ve met Behrens.
Part of the struggle is that both men were previously married to women and each had two children.
They also grew up in religious families. They even met each other in
2006 through a church in southern New Jersey, where Behrens was the
At the time, Umali was divorced, while Behrens was still married.
After years of a friendship that grew into a relationship, Behrens came clean to his wife and his family.
The happy couple shares a kiss and wears a rainbow flag at the reception's photo booth.
But now, even as they live openly, the federal Defense of Marriage Act
keeps them from having the same rights as straight married couples.
Umali would like to extend his military medical benefits to cover Behrens’ children.
And when Behrens visits Umali on the base, he must use a guest pass that has to be renewed every 30 days.
“How am I going to get my husband an ID card?” Umali asked.
While others have celebrated their relationship, they recognize that not everyone will be so accepting.
After the ceremony, the couple took their kids for a vacation to
Disneyland, where a man in a U.S. Marines Corps shirt sneered his
disapproval at them, Behrens said.
“We shrugged it off,” he added.
Behrens and Umali stand in front of the altar at the chapel of the military base in New Jersey.
The couple, meanwhile, said they’d like to be active in getting the
government to expand gay rights. They’d also like to tie the knot in New
York, where gay marriage was legalized last year.
For now though, they’re just enjoying being together after so many years in the shadows.
“We were two worlds living the same lives separately that has come
together,” Umali said. “We wouldn’t change that for the world.”
on Jul. 19, 2012 at 9:46 AM