Alexander Fernández will never forget his first thought when a friend introduced him to her new boyfriend in the spring of 1995: “Wow, he’s really cute and really nice, and why is he dating a girl? Because he’s not straight.”
“He has a good eye for that,” said the man in question, Alejandro Gutierrez-Pons.
In truth, Alejandro had dated only men in his native Guatemala. But when he moved to the District after medical school and started taking classes at Kaplan Test Prep, he met a woman with whom he got along and decided to give it a try.
“Which is not uncommon,” said Alex, who had tried dating women in his teens and early 20s. “Sometimes you just want to know what’s like to be considered normal. Not that that’s normality, but the perception of normality can be a very powerful aphrodisiac.”
Alex, who taught LSAT prep courses at Kaplan, occasionally liked to tease his friend that he was going to steal her boyfriend. But of course he wasn’t serious.
Soon enough, however, Alejandro and the woman broke up. By then Alejandro had taken a part-time job at Kaplan and was working the front desk one day when Alex was teaching.
During breaks, the two men talked about their favorite Spanish folk singers. “Which was rare — we had really weird taste for people our age,” said Alex, who was raised in Miami by Cuban parents.
After discovering a shared love of musical theater, Alex invited Alejandro to a production of “Master Class” at the Kennedy Center. “And there was something in the way he said yes that I knew it was a date. And he knew it was a date.”
Alex’s nerves morphed into excitement over dinner. “It’s that buzz that you feel in the air when everything is just going correctly and time flies,” he said. “It was very easy because we share a culture, we share a language in addition to English, we share a history. We were both raised in very similar environments.”
The attraction was mutual, and soon they were seeing each other almost daily — a development they confessed to Alejandro’s ex, who reacted with great maturity. But when Alex asked where the relationship was headed, Alejandro balked and suggested they just be friends.
With the exception of one previous relationship, Alejandro had never been in a committed romance before, “and I guess I was just afraid of not knowing what to expect,” he said.
Alex explained that he didn’t need any more friends and cut things off. But the day before he was to leave on a trip to Spain, Alejandro called. “Didn’t I send you to hell?” Alex asked.
“What if I don’t want to go to hell?” Alejandro responded.
“It was completely disarming,” Alex recalled. “How do you respond to that?”
Alejandro went to Alex’s apartment that night and explained that a friend helped him realize that connections like the one they had found don’t come around very often. Alejandro stayed the night, drove Alex to the airport the next morning and spoke to him by phone during every day they were apart. Soon the two were inseparable.
“I didn’t think that I needed to look for anything else,” said Alejandro, who now works as a consultant and is as quiet and calm as Alex is loquacious and excitable.
“Getting him to talk sometimes is like getting blood from a stone,” Alex said. “Well, I can talk to stones.”
“And stones talk back to him,” said Alejandro, 46.
Within a year, they were living together and had merged finances. Alex loved Alejandro’s calm unflappability and the way he felt around him.
“There’s a great line in ‘Torch Song Trilogy’ where Arnold says, ‘And I’m the pretty one,’ to his partner. I said that to Alejandro. I said, ‘And I’m the pretty one.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Yes, you are,’ ” Alex. said. “Nobody had ever said that to me before.”
They introduced one another to their families. Although both sets of parents were warm and welcoming, some of Alejandro’s siblings could not accept the relationship, which the couple considered a marriage long before it became legal in the United States.
“So everybody hasn’t come around. Well you know what? They might not. That’s the reality. Not everybody has to like you,” said Alex, 45, who serves as an administrative law judge with the Department of Housing and Urban Development . “So, you smile and you nod and you love, and that’s all you can do.”
The couple’s constant refrain through the years, particularly during tough times, has been: “We have us. We can count on us.”
The key to their longevity, Alejandro said, has been “not thinking that it’s going to end — and just taking everything as it comes.”
“If you don’t value what you have very much, then you’re not willing to fight for it,” Alex said. “Well I think I’m willing to fight for what I have, and I know he is, so whatever the issue is, it’s something that we fight together.”
The day the Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage, the men realized Alejandro could finally be on Alex’s health care plan. “Does that mean we’re getting married?” Alex remembered asking.
They planned a civil ceremony at the courthouse for Oct. 10, their 18th anniversary. But when the government shutdown put the D.C. Marriage Bureau temporarily out of business, they changed plans and asked a friend to marry them at Yards Park near the Southwest waterfront.
The two men awoke that morning to driving rain, which slowed to a drizzle by the time they gathered with a dozen guests by the Anacostia River.
The pair stood under umbrellas as a friend concluded the ceremony with the Apache wedding blessing.
“Now you will feel no storms, for each of you will be shelter to the other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other. . . . You are two persons, but there is one life before you, and one home.”