The first time Rob Kirby casually mentioned to a stranger that he was married to a man was when he was buying dog food.
"Do you have an account with us?" the clerk asked him.
"It might be under my husband's name," Kirby offered, before the gravity of the moment seized him.
Way to help normalize marriage equality, Rob! he thought. A small but genuine political act ... while buying dog food. Wait'll I tell John. I think I'll go post about this on Facebook.
It seems impossible that Kirby's tiny, radical interaction took place 10 years ago, a span of time that feels both an eternity ago and just yesterday. He tied the knot with longtime partner John Capecci in 2013, shortly after Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage.
A cartoonist, Kirby chronicles his ambivalence toward marriage — and his ultimate embrace of it — during that pivotal piece of our state's history in his new graphic memoir, "Marry Me a Little." (Graphic Mundi, Feb. 21). The scene from the pet store opens the whimsical, 112-page account, which brims with sweet (but not sappy) recollections about love, set in a period of extraordinary change.
"My book is about the weirdness of growing up when marriage was not a possibility," Kirby, who is 60, told me. "It wasn't anything that I particularly wanted or thought about. All of a sudden, we were granted this privilege."
Choosing Capecci as a life companion was not the question. Making it official through an institution as ... heteronormative as marriage is what gave him pause.
"General contrariness," Kirby said with a laugh, when I asked him why he was initially unsure about taking the leap. "When you're gay or queer," he explained, "you're somewhat outside the mainstream. A lot of people do not want us there. Us getting married is clearly a threat to a lot of people because it illustrates we're claiming our humanity, and that we deserve the same things that other people have."
Like so many major decisions in life, what pushed the couple over the edge was taxes. (And social security. And health benefits.) They also acknowledge that being white, male and middle-class afforded them plenty of privileges, including the privilege to hem and haw over whether it was necessary to get married.
Often accused of being unromantic, Kirby eventually succumbed to the exhilaration of getting hitched. His breakthrough emerged just in time.
"I finally came down on the side of marriage when I was actually getting married. I felt kind of floaty. It was surreal in a wonderful way," he recalled, adding that so many messages he'd absorbed about weddings through movies and pop songs only added to the euphoria. "I just went, 'Yep, this is for me! This is great!' "
And it was simple, low-key. Bedecked in button-downs and blazers, the couple showed up at Hennepin County Government Center, "looking pretty much like we'd followed the blueprint for a couple of middle-aged guys getting married," Kirby writes. Everyone there was kind and welcoming, the way people often act when they see a couple about to commit to having and holding each other from that day forward.
The match almost never happened. Kirby and Capecci had met a decade earlier through the now-defunct online dating service PlanetOut.
"It was at the point where we both were like, 'This is so stupid, I'm going to take my profile down,' " said Capecci, who became intrigued once he landed on Kirby's. "There was an authenticity and a wit and a little bit of sarcasm."
Kirby is best known for his syndicated comic strip "Curbside," which ran in gay and alternative presses in the '90s and '00s. In his new book, he pays tribute to trailblazers like Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, who became the first known same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license, back in 1970 in Minneapolis. Hennepin County rejected their application, but the couple fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court dismissed their case in a decision that would serve as precedent for 45 years.
"I wanted to juxtapose their struggles and their incredible pioneering efforts with our relative ease," Kirby told me. "As bad as things can get in modern day, we have so many more advantages than our forebears did."
His memoir also recounts the surge of pride he and Capecci felt in 2013 while livestreaming the state Senate's vote to allow gay couples to marry. His recollections brought me back to that day a decade ago, not even a month after giving birth to my first son, when I considered he would grow up in an era vastly different than mine. It wasn't just the hormones that made me tear up listening to the speeches, including one from a lawmaker who simply said, "Today, love wins."
Part of that victory feels fragile now, in a still-shifting landscape where justices could leave it up to states on whether to deny humans the dignity they deserve. But Kirby points to polls showing how popular same-sex marriage has grown in America, "because the vast majority of people realize it doesn't hurt a soul," he says.
So he continues to mention his husband in those small but political acts. For all those years when marriage wasn't a possibility, he and Capecci had tried out different labels when referring to each other: partner, boyfriend, convivant. Nothing felt right.
As Kirby writes of their life together: It's "a mix of little stuff and big stuff, arguments and heart-to-hearts, personal quirks and private jokes, doubts and commitments, work and play, joy and grief ...... day-to-day life stacking up into years gone by."
Marriage sounds like the perfect word for that.
If you go
Author Rob Kirby will have a book reading, signing and interview at Magers & Quinn Booksellers at 7 p.m. on March 16. The event is free but registration is required.