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Gay St. Petersburg couple celebrate 50 years of togetherness

ST. PETERSBURG

Their meeting was practically a cliche. Eyes locking across a bar, an immediate connection, and a sense that this was the one. Half a century later, Robert Pope and Lawrence Konrad's relationship has been anything but ordinary, surviving normal trials that beset any couple but also pervading prejudices against their sexual orientation. In February, the men celebrated 50 years together.

It was an anniversary that coincided with weekly headlines about increasing political and cultural acceptance of gay unions. For the two men, sitting in the living room of their Fifth Avenue S home, the milestone presented a chance to talk about a lifetime of shared love and experience.

"I learned stability," said Konrad, 74. "And I learned to dig in, and I learned to love unconditionally. And forgiveness. That's the biggest thing in any relationship. And to allow each other personal growth and to make mistakes."

General public attitudes have changed largely because "gays have gotten rid of their own homophobia," said Pope, 77. "We have to accept ourselves as having self-worth."

It hasn't always been that way.

The men spoke of the time in 1964, when they barely missed getting caught up in a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office vice squad raid at the Gate, a gay bar in Madeira Beach. The names, ages and addresses of those arrested were published in the St. Petersburg Times the next day.

"It was harassment," Pope said.

"At that time, it was pretty hairy in terms of being a gay man or woman, because of the raids," Konrad said. People believed "that we are all bar people, we don't form relationships, we don't live as other people live," he said.

"We live a normal life, just like a heterosexual couple."

That has not translated into feeling completely comfortable to be affectionate in public, though.

"I am still a little bit reserved in that aspect," Pope admitted.

"For years, when I arrived back from a trip, I would never hug or kiss Lawrence after I got off a plane. I don't think twice about that now. Going down Central Avenue, I don't hold hands. … I will in Paris."

The gay rights movement in the United States is traced to the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, "when the drag queens and transvestites said, 'No more,' " Pope said.

"One of the low points was Anita Bryant," added Konrad, referring to the former Florida orange juice spokeswoman who campaigned against gays.

The two men have made their own contributions to the movement, with Pope serving on the board of the Florida Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which lobbied the Florida Legislature. The organization was the forerunner of Equality Florida, Pope said.

Konrad cofounded the first AIDS support organization in Pinellas in 1985. It provided counseling services, buddy training, housing and nutritional advice for those with HIV. It originated in the King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church, where the couple are active.

The men, who both served in the military, are pleased the Pentagon has lifted the ban on openly gay men and women serving. Pope was a special agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps of the U.S. Army and recalls being questioned about his sexuality.

Konrad served in the Navy and was a radar operator aboard the USS Massey.

"My first relationship was with a man who came aboard 'to clean ship,' to deal with the homosexuality on the ship," Konrad said. "It turned out that every time I was on watch, he always seemed to be around. He was in love with me, he said.''

In 2004, they walked into Toronto City Hall to pick up a marriage license. Their marriage took place at Metropolitan Community Church Toronto.

Getting married was "one of the high points" of his life, Konrad said.

The couple operated two retail stores and a snack bar on the boardwalk in Daytona Beach for a few years, then moved back to Pinellas County in 1968. In the 1970s, they opened Kitty's, the area's first dance gay bar, on Fourth Street S. They also owned the former Wedgewood Inn nearby, which they operated as a gay resort.

Pope, a graduate of Stetson University College of Law, was a senior partner in his law firm, Pope and Henninger, and practiced criminal defense before retiring in 2005.

These days Pope and Konrad are now immersed in their church and hobbies. Pope says he can cook, but defers to Konrad.

"He is so much better with his ability to put things together that taste so wonderful," Pope said. "He does a chicken in a big iron pot with potatoes and carrots and onions, and he uses some kind of a sauce like beef stock and chicken stock and wine. It is so delectable. He does country ribs that are just to die for."

Decades after their first meeting, the men still enjoy talking about that initial attraction.

"I was sitting at the bar and he walked in and sat directly across from me, and that smile was just radiant," Pope said.

"He was unlike anybody else in that bar. He just seemed to be more centered," Konrad said. "There was something that clicked, and it was immediate."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Gay St. Petersburg couple celebrate 50 years of togetherness 04/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 10:03pm]

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