How we met: ‘I ordered a book from his shop so I could give him my phone number’

Coming out wasn’t easy for Neil. Although he’d been on a few dates with men while studying at medical school, he worried about people’s reactions. By the spring of 1987 he finally plucked up the courage to tell his parents. “I was living in New York, working as a pathologist, and they were based in Connecticut,” he says. Before visiting them, he stopped to pick up a book that he hoped would help his parents to understand and accept his sexuality.

When he walked into A Different Light, a popular LGBTQ+ bookshop, he spotted Mark. “He helped me to find what I was looking for and I went to see my parents,” says Neil. “When I told a friend where I had been, he asked if I’d seen the ‘hot clerk’. I realised it was the man who served me.”

Neil returned to the shop soon after but didn’t feel comfortable asking for a date. “Instead, I ordered a book that I knew would take ages to arrive so I had to give him my phone number,” he laughs. Neil continued to return to the store over the next few weeks so he’d have an excuse to speak to Mark.

“We were chatting a lot but it became clear he just wasn’t going to ask me out,” says Mark. “Eventually I called him to ask if pathologists like beer and we went out for a drink.”

They hit it off straight away and went back to Mark’s apartment that night. But Neil already had a date with another man lined up for the next day. “I lied and told Mark I had an autopsy I had to do and that’s why I had to leave,” he says. “The date was really bad, though, and made me realise how much I liked Mark.” At the time, Neil was housesitting at a duplex apartment with a wine cellar. “I invited Mark to come and stay, and we spent the next few weeks together. It was like a honeymoon.”

Mark (right) and Neil with the latter’s mother, in New York, 2004.
Mark (right) and Neil with the latter’s mother, in New York, 2004. Photograph: Courtesy of Neil and Mark

Over the next few months, Mark introduced Neil to gay culture. As well as working in theatre direction and for the bookstore, he had a keen interest in politics. “I was involved with some activities associated with Act Up – the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power. They were an activist group trying to find the first HIV drugs,” says Mark. For Neil it was a “learning curve”. “Mark introduced me to the community,” he says.

When Neil moved back to his own apartment in Washington Heights, Mark came to stay. They ended up living there for five years, before moving to the East Village in 1992, then on to the Lower East Side in 2003, where they have lived ever since. A year after they began dating, Mark came out to his mother and introduced her to Neil. “She accepted it and eventually both our mothers became friends. I think they wanted to talk about us,” he laughs.

Although they loved going out with friends and exploring New York together, living in the shadow of the Aids crisis was hard. “We lost 75 friends and we went to a memorial service every week,” says Mark. “It wasn’t until the late 1980s that there were tests, so although people practised safe sex, you never really knew who was infected. In the 90s, I even wrote a play about gay life and activism.” Neil also remembers enjoying a lot of fun times. “The club scene was crazy. There was a feeling of living every moment like it was your last,” he says.

In 1992, they held a commitment ceremony, then married in 2011 when it became legal. “We never wanted a wedding because it seemed heteronormative, but we wanted to get married for legal and tax reasons,” says Neil. “We knew a rabbi and he married us. It was just him, two witnesses and some good food.”

Neil says that Mark is his favourite person. “Even when he’s in the toughest emotional state, he takes care of people. He is always supportive of the Jewish holidays I want to celebrate, as well as my interests.” Mark, for his part, is attracted to his partner’s intelligence. “The minute we met, there was a physical connection but also a profound intellectual connection,” he says. “We got together at a very difficult time but we’ve taken care of each other. I found someone who will always be there for me.”

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