Eric Hafner didn’t tell his parents he was gay until his relationship with Paul DeStefano, who is now his fiance, was serious.
It wasn’t your typical coming out story. Hafner’s parents had told him several times that they believed he was gay, and they were fine with it. But Hafner always ended the conversation by insisting, “No I’m not.’’
The closest he came to an acknowledgement was when he replied, “If something ever happens and I have someone in my life, I’m not going to keep that from you.’’
After he’d been seeing DeStefano for awhile, he made his announcement. “I said, ‘Here’s the phone call you’ve been waiting for.’’’
“My mother said, ‘I always hoped you’d end up with someone who’d been out for awhile,’’’ recalls Hafner, 31, a graduate intern for Rutgers' Student Life Programs and Leadership.
Because Hafner was somewhat new to being openly gay, she thought that would help him.
Although the couple, both pursuing master's degrees in the Graduate School of Education, complement each other, Hafner is practical, DeStefano is a dreamer; DeStefano can be emotional, Hafner is calm – their different experiences as gay men have also been an important part of their relationship.
DeStefano, 31, a graduate intern for Rutgers’ Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, had been openly gay since age 16. The adopted Korean child of an Irish-Italian Bergen County family, his parents supported him in his efforts to organize local gay teens and build a network together.
Things were different for Hafner. He grew up in Indiana and for four years worked in the creative arts department of an evangelical church that condemned homosexuality. Although his closest friends knew he was gay, he didn’t tell anyone else.
“I kept things to myself and didn’t really date,’’ he says. “I didn’t want a big scandal breaking. If I was out on a date, I had to worry about who would see and whether I’d lose my job.’’
After moving to Miami from Indiana a few years ago, he felt it was finally okay to be open. “I decided I can’t base my life on what other people think. God made me this way for a reason and I can’t hide who I am. I’m not going to let people tell me what I can or can’t do. Ultimately, that’s between me and the god that I worship.’’
But Hafner, who later moved to New Jersey, found there was a lot he didn’t know about gay social life. DeStefano, his first long-term partner, helped him adjust.
“While I am gay, I have an extreme lack of knowledge about gay culture and that was something Paul surrounded himself with early on,’’ says Hafner. “He knew all the history and the lingo.’’’
The couple became engaged in the fall.
After a romantic dinner at home, Hafner led DeStefano on a scavenger hunt. The clues ended at a chest where the couple stored blankets, and DeStefano found a ring inside.
“When I turned around he was on his knee. He said ‘Paul I love you very much I want to spend my life with you. Will you marry me?’’’ says DeStefano.
Then it was DeStefano’s turn to propose. “I said yes,’’ and then I said, ‘sit down because I have to give you my gift.’’’
As they plan their November ceremony, to be held near the Jersey border in New York where gay marriage is legal, they’ve experienced both happiness and frustration.
It was difficult to find a Christian church of any denomination that would perform the ceremony, and although they have a back-up church, it doesn’t look like the chapel they envisioned, so they’re still searching. The reception will take place over the border in Old Tappan, New Jersey.
Even if the gay marriage bill is approved by the Legislature, DeStefano and Hafner don’t want the hassle of legal issues if it’s overturned.
“There are a lot of things we have to face that I never thought about before, down to the little minute details of what it means to be married and whether the union is recognized is a huge deal,’’ Hafner says.
Planning the ceremony has been easier. Both men will wear tuxedos and have more than a dozen groomsmen and groomsmaids,’’ a mix of male and female friends and family who stand behind them at the altar.
But in many ways, it will be like other weddings.
“I think the day is going to be great. It’s going to be a celebration of us as a couple and the merging together of two families,’ says DeStefano. “We want everyone to say they had fun.’’