For 45 years, Nino Esposito and Drew Bosee have been married in almost every sense of the word. Both retired, they spend their days in the garden and the kitchen, where Esposito kneads his own Italian bread. There isn’t a day that one will leave the house without the other, not for doctor’s appointments or groceries or anything else.
Together with their giant schnauzer Yuri, in a townhouse in a quiet Pittsburgh suburb, the two men have long had every assurance that they’re family. Every assurance, that is, but a legal one.
Esposito, 78, and Bosee, 68, sought to change that in 2012 — before Pennsylvania legalized same-sex marriage in 2014, before the Supreme Court did the same for the entire country last summer. The legal route they chose seemed to be the most favorable one available at the time, and it was one that had been taken by many same-sex couples frustrated with the courts’ longstanding refusal to recognize their love.
It amounted to more than just a matter of reaping the financial, medical and legal benefits of being family under the law. It was a way, after all, of establishing that their union was as real as anyone else’s.
“We had always considered ourselves a family,” Bosee told The Washington Post. “But legally and officially, we could have been strangers as far as anybody else was concerned.”
He sighed. “When a heterosexual couple wants to get married, nobody says, ‘Oh, they’re saving on the inheritance tax.’ We just wanted to be legitimized, and everything else would be icing on the cake.”
So Bosee allowed his partner to adopt him. As both of their pairs of parents were deceased, they had no issues with legal guardianship, and they chose to make Esposito the “father” by virtue of him being 10 years older.
They walked into the courthouse three summers ago wearing black suit jackets, khaki pants and colorful ties. They came out, for legal purposes, as father and son. But of course all it really meant — all that really mattered to them — was that they were now officially kin.
The adoption process was easy. Three years later, after Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his opinion for the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, declared that the “enduring bond” of marriage should be available to “all persons, whatever their sexual orientation,” Esposito and Bosee have found that claiming their newfound right to be husband and husband is a lot trickier.
Pennsylvania is one of 25 states and territories that considers relations between adoptive parents and their adult children within the definition of incest. And anyway, Esposito and Bosee thought it wouldn’t be right to get married without having their adoption annulled first.
When they started getting their paperwork together this March, they didn’t anticipate any trouble. Another same-sex couple they knew in nearby Harrisburg, a couple that had actually followed the same adoption route on their recommendation, had not long ago annulled the parental relationship and gotten married.
So they were excited to go before Allegheny County Judge Lawrence O’Toole this June. O’Toole had a reputation for being progressive on LGBT issues; he signed one of the first same-sex marriage licenses to be legally recognized in the state.
But in this case, O’Toole’s response was curt, sympathetic but uncompromising. He told Esposito and Bosee that while he understood their situation, he didn’t think that state law gave him the authority to dissolve the adoption.
O’Toole chose to defer to the appellate courts, scrawling “Denied” across the order.
The couple was shocked. They had brought along $80 to pay for a marriage license as soon as the proceedings were over. Now that cash would go unused.
“Our clients were deprived of their rights twice,” their lawyer Andrew Gross told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They did the only thing they could do to become a family, and now they are getting hit a second time.”
Esposito and Bosee have filed their briefs with the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and arguments for the case are slated to be heard in early December. This Monday, Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.) penned a letter to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch asking the Justice Department to offer guidance on these cases.
“LGBT couples should have the right to obtain a marriage license, no matter the state or jurisdiction in which they reside,” Casey wrote. “In adoption cases such as these, the law has changed dramatically since the adoptions were first carried out.”
This much is certainly true. In the time that Esposito and Bosee have been together, the legal landscape for same-sex couples has transformed before their eyes.
An era of change
When the pair first met at an Easter gathering, the year was 1970, less than a year after the historic riots at the Stonewall Inn. They exchanged just a few words, but nothing more. It was Bosee’s first weekend in Pittsburgh: he was a recent college graduate who had come to visit a former roommate, and he had instantly fallen in love with the city. It was the first place in which he felt he could truly express his sexuality.
The “City of Bridges” had Bosee in the kind of thrall that caused him to act alarmingly out of character. In a few months, the 23-year-old quit his job, withdrew his enrollment from the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school and packed his bags into a car bound for Pittsburgh. He went nearly five weeks without talking to his parents — a major feat, Bosee said, because he had a habit of calling them every night.
“It was so impulsive, and I’m anything but impulsive,” he said. “I really have no answer for it, other than that I knew I was gay and had never expressed it in any way.”
“For someone who had not been living a gay life,” Bosee said, what he found in Pittsburgh was “very much out there.”
It was this desire to fully embrace his sexual identity that brought him to a bar on Friday the 13th in November of 1970. There he saw Esposito sitting by himself with a drink. It was a small place, they both recalled, a nondescript establishment near Duquesne University, where Esposito got his bachelor’s in music.
They started dating almost immediately after the chance encounter, and Bosee moved in with Esposito within a few months. Right away, they said, they “knew.” They were interested in the same things, like music and theater. Bosee had been used to living a “sheltered kind of existence,” but not so with Esposito, who took him to his first opera, and to visit his father’s side of the family in Italy.
“We both were the type of people that needed nurturing,” Bosee said. “We saw that right away.”
This October, the New York Times magazine profiled several same-sex couples who had undergone adoption but then were able to marry, recognizing that those struggling with legal binds are “stranded in a kind of limbo.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which has filed a separate amicus brief in support of Bosee and Esposito, told CNN that while it doesn’t have hard numbers, it believes that there are numerous same-sex couples around the country that have found themselves in the same situation. Many state adoption laws don’t offer an easy path to annulment.
“The ACLU is hopeful that the Superior Court will apply established legal principles to allow annulment of adoptions by same-sex couples so that they can finally partake of their constitutional right to marry,” ACLU Pennsylvania legal director Witold Walczak said.
Esposito and Bosee will be celebrating the anniversary of their bar meeting next week, on another “unlucky” Friday the 13th. Esposito said finally getting married will give them “confirmation,” but it won’t change anything, because “it just can’t get any better than it is.”
“It’s just going to stay the way it has always been,” he said. As for the $80 they had prepared to pay the marriage license bureau, it’s “still there, ready and waiting, for the right time.”
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