Villagers Chris Benvenuto and her wife, Katie Green, have been together for 18 years—married for two years. Both had successful careers—Chris in the military and Katie in interior design. Their marriage is a strong and loving one, and like other married couples living in The Villages, they have an active social calendar—dining out with friends, participating in sports, sometimes going to one of the squares in the evening, or just spending a quiet night at home. In fact, they’re a pretty average couple.
Recently, they agreed to discuss the one thing that many might say was “different” about their marriage—Chris and Katie are a same sex couple. It is their hope that by being open and honest about their lives, and by sharing both the painful times as well as the joyous times, readers will garner a better understanding and awareness of alternative lifestyles and perhaps even about themselves. It is also their hope that people will recognize them as a happily married couple rather than a happily married gay couple. They want people to walk away with the increased understanding that regardless of gender, race, age, or disability, love is after all…well, love.
This is their story.
Chris was about 12 or 13 years old when she knew she was gay. “I never had a name for it but I knew,” she said. “I was very young when I knew.”
It took another decade before she told her parents. “One day my mom told me she was looking in my closet and noticed I had an awful lot of tailored clothes,” Chris explained. “I was back [living] at home and was not in a good mood. My poor mother.
“This is not the way to come out to your parents,” Chris continued. “I asked her, ‘Are you asking me if I’m [gay]? If you are, the answer is yes. Oh, how she cried.”
Chris’s father was in the next room and overheard the conversation. That’s when the unthinkable happened.
“He said, ‘If you try real hard, you’ll make it to the gutter.’ Ouch! Yeah, that was a tough one. We really had a tough time for a few years after that, but as [time] went by, my dad and I got past that. We never discussed it. Later I gained his respect when I joined the army.”
“I had a successful 22-year career in the army,” Chris continued. “I was in military intelligence, and my last 12 years were spent as a counter-intelligence agent. Then I went to work for the federal government and retired from that job in 2007.”
It wasn’t always easy being a gay woman in the military. “Those early years were before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Chris said. “The witch hunts were there but I lived through them. It was hypocritical of me. I knew [who I was] but I was hiding it.”
“If you were [caught], you would be thrown out and dishonorably discharged back then,” Chris explained. “That meant you had no benefits.”
The New Jersey native said it was her work ethic that saved the day. “They weren’t stupid,” Chris said about her superiors. “I never walked up and said it but they knew it. They supported me and protected me because I did my job and did it well and because I was discreet.”
“I always had a different feeling of where I wanted my life to be. I was an art student and pretty much a rebel.”
– Villager Katie Green
Those years of being discreet caused Chris to make a vow. “It was important to me after I left the military that I never go back into the closet—ever,” she said with conviction.
Katie’s story was both dissimilar and similar to Chris’s. “I always had a different feeling of where I wanted my life to be. I was an art student and pretty much a rebel. I didn’t know if it was my rebel side saying I didn’t want to get married and have children or what it was. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.”
The Indiana native grew up in a very conservative environment and like other teenagers, she dated. Later Katie married even though on some level she knew she was gay. “I fell in love with my husband but he cheated on me very early in the marriage,” Katie continued. “But I was very happy he cheated on me. I knew I didn’t want to stay married, and it gave me a reason to get out of the marriage.”
It also gave Katie something else. “It gave me a reason to say to my family, ‘I’m not getting married again.’”
“I was probably around 23 years old when I fully grasped the fact that I was gay and that’s who I wanted to be,” Katie continued. “My mother [reacted] the same as Chris’s mother. She cried and asked me if I was sure, was it a phase I was going through? I told her, ‘No, it’s not a phase.’”
Katie’s mom was more upset than her dad and told her daughter not to tell her brother and certainly not any of her relatives. “She said, ‘Don’t let anyone know because they won’t accept you,’” Katie said. “For years I lived with that and it was never brought up.”
Contrary to her mother’s misgivings, Katie discovered her brother was very empathetic of his sister. “My brother and his wife are real supporters of Chris and me—of gay people,” she said. “He brought one of his friends with him to visit, and we all went out to dinner.”
That’s what Katie desired for herself and Chris. “That’s the normal part of life I want,” she said. “Like saying, you know, I really enjoyed hanging out with you guys. Let’s go out to dinner. We’d go and we’d be a normal couple and we’d have fun.”
Being normal is not always an easy thing to do.
“It’s difficult when you have spent as many years as we have all spent—I don’t want to say hiding—but rather having to be very cautious in life. I just want to be able to continue to hold my head up and not feel like I have to hide anything,” Katie said. “I am proud of who I am and what I’ve done with my life. I am certainly proud of how I’ve conducted myself over the years.
“In terms of my gayness I just don’t want there to be any more issues. I don’t want to have a label in any way or form. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. I don’t label you for being a straight woman and I don’t want to be labeled as a gay woman. I just want to be labeled as a woman—she’s a woman—I’m a woman. That’s just how I think life should be.”
“When my father found out about me [being gay] he said, ‘If you try real hard, you’ll make it to the gutter.’ Ouch! Yeah…that was a tough one.”
—Villager Christina (Chris) Benvenuto
Chris also wants to be judged as a person. “If you dislike me that’s OK, but don’t dislike me just because I’m a [gay woman],” she said. “This is not a gay marriage – this is a marriage. I would like to have people get away from [defining] this as a gay marriage or a straight marriage. No. This is a marriage.”
Within The Villages Katie and Chris said they are treated fairly and with respect—for the most part; but they believe there are still pockets of prejudice due to the occasional name calling, harsh comments about the recent supreme-court ruling guaranteeing the right to same sex marriages, and other insensitive remarks.
Then there are the special moments. “Recently, we were celebrating our two-year anniversary at Nancy Lopez restaurant and one of the staff came over and asked if we were enjoying our evening and we said yes, we were having a great time,” Katie explained. “The staff person said she understood it was our anniversary and we said yes, we had been legally married for two years. She said a couple two tables down were also celebrating their two-year anniversary—it was a man and a woman.”
Shortly after that conversation, the other couple and Katie and Chris were leaving at the same time. “The couple walked up to us and wished us happy anniversary and we said happy anniversary back to them,” Katie continued. “They asked if we had a great time and we said we did and we asked them the same thing and they said yes, they did too.”
That little exchange, just a simple, little moment in time that has probably occurred thousands of times in and around The Villages—two couples respectfully acknowledging a pleasant, shared evening. But for Katie it was much more. It became a cherished memory because it was an everyday occurrence that couples everywhere experience.
“It was very nice for them and very nice for us to share that moment,” Katie said. “It was…normal.”
Rainbow Family & Friends is a nonprofit LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-gender) social and charitable organization located in The Villages, Fla., providing activities, support, and charity to the community and all those interested in the support, respect, and commitment to human rights equality. For more information visit their website at www.rainbowfamilyvllagesfl.com.
PHOTOS: Pat Jocelyn+Provided