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After Half A Century Together, Florida Retirees Become Gay Marriage Activists

Nadege Green

Robert Collier and Charles Hunziger have been together for 52 years.

They are one of nine same sex couples who sued Florida to recognize their marriages in a federal case that ultimately struck down the state’s gay marriage ban Tuesday.

Collier and Hunziger say they never meant to become gay activists, to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit that would change Florida law. But as they started getting older, they started thinking about how they wanted to leave things better than they were for them.

Hunziger says when he and Collier are gone,  he wants people to say, "They tried hard to make a change, to make a difference in the world."

Collier and Hunziger are both veterans. Collier served as a captain in the Army during Vietnam. Hunziger was in the Navy during the Korean War.

Hunziger remembers being on a Navy ship in during the Korean War and watching soldiers who were suspected of being gay pulled off his ship, the USS El Dorado. “And we’d never see them again."

And when the couple lived in New York in the '60s, it was illegal to serve gay people alcohol or for them to dance together.

“Our favorite bars and restaurant were getting raided on an ongoing basis,” recalls Hunziger. “A big sign would say this is a raided [premise] catering to homosexuals.”

When they moved to Florida nearly 20 years ago, Collier was retired from his job as a physician and Hunziger from Mobile Oil Company. Like most retirees, they came for the pleasant weather and to relax.

But over the last few years, Collier and Hunziger started going to protests and meetings about gay rights issues, specifically same-sex marriage.

“We are not asking for anything extra. We’re just asking for equality,” Collier says.

The two men met on July 4, 1963 on a beach at Jacob Riis Park in New York, and since that day, they’ve been nearly inseparable. Everyone calls them “Bob and Chuck.”

“A lot of them never knew quite who was who,” says Collier.

Last year, just after their 51st anniversary, Collier and Hunziger got married in a no-frills ceremony at city hall in New York City.

But their marriage was not legally recognized here in Florida. Until now.

“This is the right thing. Love is love. You can’t tell someone who you can love, who you cannot love,” says Hunziger.

The federal lawsuit kicked off months of email exchanges and meetings over the latest legal developments for the two octogenarians.

The federal judge in the case, Robert Hinkle, first declared Florida’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional in August, but that ruling was put on hold. In the meantime, there have been appeals, requests for clarification and Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the Supreme Court to get involved.

Collier says it all got annoying at times.

“You keep expecting that this is going to happen and then you find the stay. Something else is happening and then we’re waiting for the results of, 'is the Supreme Court going to take action on this or not?',” he says.

But it was all worth it, the couple says. On Monday morning, the men were at a Miami-Dade courthouse when a judge ruled same-sex couples in in the county could marry immediately, ahead of the rest of the state.

They came to watch it happen. And then, Antonio Devine walked up to them. He recognized Bob and Chuck from their work as gay-marriage activists.

“You have made history possible. I never thought in my life I was going to see this day,” Devine said as he hugged Collier and Hunziger.  

Collier said this was a win for all gay Floridians.

And Tuesday night, Collier and Hunziger will celebrate. They will renew their vows at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, along with some of the other couples from the federal lawsuit.

Hunziger says, “This a dream come true."

See all of our gay marriage coverage at http://wlrn.org/marriage-all