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After 31 years with partner, woman celebrates Pride parade with new perspective

ST. PETERSBURG

They rented a trolley because some of the couples in the group had grown so old together that they could not walk the mile-plus parade. • The trolley came in handy when the rain fell as they waited for their turn to march Saturday in the St. Pete Pride parade. They packed inside, crowding each other, and so Amy Grabowski held close her sign that said "31," the number of years it has been since Laurie Kozbelt asked her one night, in college, "Do you ever think about..?" • "No!" Grabowski had said. • "Me neither." But they both had, and they had been together since. Three decades later they were co-president of Florida Gulf Coast Couples, an organization for people in long-term, same-sex relationships, about to march on St. Petersburg. • The women have also marched on Washington. They've volunteered for a political league of gay women voters. They've lived together since college. They had a "holy union" ceremony in Pittsburgh. In 2011, they married in Boston. When the federal Defense of Marriage Act was struck down Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court, they were not just excited — they were proud. They wanted to tell everyone. • But to do so, Laurie needed to make a phone call that she hadn't been able to make for 31 years. • "Hi mom," she said into the receiver. "I have something I need to tell you."

• • •

Sharing a parking lot with drag queens and body-painted teens who celebrated the downpour with the song It's Raining Men, the Florida Gulf Coast Couples looked like uncool parents. They wore thick white socks and tennis shoes and smiled at point-and-shoots for group pictures. Many couples were matching, most of them accidentally.

When the rain stopped momentarily, Amy stepped off the trolley and found Laurie. They kissed. Amy picked a piece of lint off her wife's t-shirt.

They met as freshmen at a Catholic high school in suburban Pittsburgh, not realizing they had feelings for each other until college. After graduation, Amy and Laurie moved into the city together.

It was 1985 in Pittsburgh, and they would drive down a long, winding road to a gay bar a couple towns over. Amy worried someone would recognize her 1970 Buick Skylark in the parking lot. They had a friend who was stabbed while leaving a gay bar.

At the office they'd edit themselves. Vague answers met "How was your weekend?" Pronouns changed: "We" to "I." "She" to "he."

Laurie says she was afraid of rejection. She didn't want to know if someone couldn't handle who she was. Amy didn't want to be defined. She wanted to be seen first as an employee, a daughter.

One day Laurie told a friend she wanted to talk to her about something serious. "Oh, thank God," the friend replied when Laurie told her that she was in a relationship with a woman. "I thought you had cancer."

It was a relief. So Laurie told another person, and another. And no one turned on her.

But as the women felt around in the dark, they touched walls. When Amy's father asked her why she was buying a house with Laurie, Amy um-um-um-ed until she told him it made financial sense. He hadn't been kind when Amy's older sister had come out. Why, he asked, "did they have to ruin the word 'gay' "?

In 1996 the United States passed DOMA, defining marriage as a commitment between a man and a woman. Laurie says she acted like she didn't care. But a part of her wondered why her country thought she was worth so little.

After DOMA was repealed, the Tampa Bay Times asked Laurie if they could speak with her for a story about the Pride parade. She was days away from marching through St. Petersburg and declaring that she had been in love for 31 years.

But Laurie's parents get the newspaper, so she said no. She had never told her parents about the nature of her relationship with Amy. She did not know how they'd react. She did not want to find out. They were not at her commitment ceremony. They did not know she got married.

But the decision nagged at her.

Thirty-six hours before Laurie was to march in the parade, she dialed her parents' number.

Her mother's response: "Oh, I've known for years."

They talked about it for a few more minutes before her mother moved on to a conversation about her day, and her doctor, and switching doctors, and whether the insurance . . .

"I think I was surprised that it was such a nonissue," Laurie says. "I'm delighted it wasn't. My goal was not to be different, or special. Just the same."

• • •

So the couples marched.

There was Daniel Jagielski and Richard Jahnke, who met at a bar. There was Emily Montes de Oca and Froila Pacanins, who met during a job interview. There was Dale Fleishman and Ron Jenkins, 72 and 73. A long, long time ago, they met at church.

And there were Amy and Laurie, out front, holding hands and hoisting the number "31" above their heads.

"Congratulations!" said a woman fanning herself with a cowboy hat.

"Yeah!" added a man eating vodka-soaked gummy worms.

"You go, 31 years!"

"Four and a half! Four and a half, right here!"

"Congrats! We're 27 years!"

By the time they hit Central Avenue one scream was indistinguishable from the next, but Amy stopped walking for a moment and stepped to the side, toward a woman who had shouted good and loud for them. Amy told her, "Thank you for your support," The woman nodded. "Thank you for your love."

Lisa Gartner can be reached at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

After 31 years with partner, woman celebrates Pride parade with new perspective 06/29/13 [Last modified: Sunday, June 30, 2013 12:25am]

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