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February 14, 2013

Michael & Michael: Building a Life Together in Harlem


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In honor of Black History Month, the SAGE Blog will feature a post on LGBT aging in the black community every Thursday during the month of February. This is guest blog post by Michael Johnson, a SAGE constituent who married his spouse Michael Roberts in 2011. Michael and Michael were also featured on CNN in 2011; see the video here.


We are Michael and Michael. I am African American and 56 years old. Roberts is an English expat and now an American Citizen. He is 83.

I have a BFA from the University of Florida, and I lived in Florida until graduation. The day I graduated, I flew to New York City. There, I quickly found my way to the Village and Joseph Papp and the House of Barbara Matera (costume design.) Then Roberts came into my life and the world went a-tilt.

Roberts came to the U.S. on April 12, 1956 with a Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemistry, a trunk of clothes never worn, a trunk of books (lost) and two letters of introduction, one of which got him instantly hired by IBM. For this story, all that matters about his time at IBM is that he stayed there until retirement, at the end living in a ranch house in Connecticut for tax reasons.

Now the story becomes our journey together. We met at an organization called BWMT (Black and White Men Together) in the summer of 1981. We count our "get together" date as the West Indian Day Parade Sunday that same year. (Roberts says I fell in love with his old dog Butch more than with him.)

We bought our home, a brownstone, in Harlem on May 17, 1982. At the time, I was convinced Roberts would not be able to live in this neighborhood—but I was wrong. When we first moved in, the house had 14 tenants. Our house was built by Christian Brand in 1868, and brutalized into a rooming house in 1935. Over time, the tenants moved out and we renovated the house to its original state (read more about the renovations in the New York Times article, “Patient Restoration on Harlem Brownstone Block”). I am convinced, were Brand to return today, he would recognize it.

Because of the tax and inheritance laws that did not acknowledge same-sex couples’ relationships, we created a company, Uptown Gambit, Inc. We hold 50% of the stock each and hold all our properties in it, except for our home, which is held by us at joint tenants with rights of survival.  We had also created trusts and those were redone when we got married. Add in living wills, powers of attorney, etc.—we could sail round the world on what it all has cost us. Having marriage equality in New York State is great but the death of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is what we really need.

Still, despite these extra obstacles, we have made a good life for ourselves and we are considered a major force for good in the community. We created the first Condominium conversion in Central Harlem. The Attorney General thought it was a racket and insisted on a formal deposition of each of our buyers. We put up an outdoor Christmas tree long before the State Office Building or the local community association followed suit. We host an annual party for the neighborhood in our home during the New York City Marathon.

When we decided to get married, there was no getting down on one knee, but there was buying rings—we already had rings; not the right sort though! We just decided that on the first day it was legal to get married in New York, we would go to City Hall. All in all, married life is not so different from before. We are happy to be there for each other, now and always.

This is Roberts talking now: Truth is life is profoundly different. Marriage is much more than a word. It is an open statement to society we are here; we are not hiding. Any relationship you are in is fine by us but we have rights and responsibilities too and we claim those rights overtly, not surreptitiously. By this summer the Supreme Court of these United States will make it clear that this is so.



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