It was love at first sight for Max Brown and Doug Sipsma. They met in 1999 when they were both visiting Chicago. They struck up a conversation in a store, exchanged phone numbers and a couple of weeks later they had their first date. They’ve been together ever since.
“People don’t believe it, but Doug said, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ when we met,” Brown recalls. “We lived close to each other on the west side of Michigan, but we’d never met.”
The couple says it only took a few dates to know they wanted to be together forever, and one year to the day after they met they made it official with a commitment ceremony on Oct. 23, 2000. About 120 people packed into Phoenix Community Church in Kalamazoo, which is only supposed to seat about 80 people. The couple was surrounded by family and friends, both gay and straight, during a ceremony that began with the couple singing “No Matter What” by Boyzone to each other.
“We came from opposite sides of the church singing back and forth,” Sipsma says. “By the time we got to the front of the church, everyone stood and applauded.”
Singing and music were only two of the countless shared interests and values the couple had discovered by then. In addition to theater and movies, they both had a deep affection for animals, uniting Brown’s dog and cat with Sipsma’s cat. “That was one of the things that showed me what a good man Doug was, when I saw how he treated my Golden Retriever,” Brown says. “He loved that dog as much as I did.” When they had to put the dog to sleep, they went to the vet together. “It was a tearful day,” Sipsma says.
From the beginning, they also shared a spiritual leaning, seeking a more positive and insightful lifestyle. The minister at Phoenix Community Church reinforced their belief that it was important to express their love and commitment in front of their family and friends, even though they couldn’t be legally married at the time. She also encouraged them to start every morning by looking into each other’s eyes and saying, “I love you” — a ritual the couple continues to this day.
“It’s been very powerful and meaningful to us,” Brown says. “It’s always a reminder of that day, the people who supported us, and the love that’s continued in our lives.”
In 2003, when Ontario, Canada, legalized same-sex marriage, the couple decided at the spur of the moment to get married during one of their many trips to the Stratford Festival. In fact, Sipsma says, they were the third couple to be legally married in the province. They both felt something was a little different once they were legally married, even though it wasn’t recognized in the United States — a point that was painfully driven home the day President George W. Bush called for a ban on same-sex marriage.
“I remember sitting in front of the TV and feeling so disheartened that my own country was going in this direction,” Brown says. “The justice of the peace in Canada had said, ‘Isn’t it strange that you come from the land of the free, yet you have to come to Canada in order to experience full equality in this marriage?’ That was the beginning of being more aware of the marriage issue in America.” After the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was overturned in 2013, the couple’s marriage became legal in the U.S.
Max and Doug are legally married in Ontario, Canada, July 25, 2003.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide marked a new era in their lives — even though the couple has always seen every day as a reason to celebrate their love. “One thing that’s really changed since the ruling is now, when you’re talking to somebody and you want to mention your partner, you can legitimately say ‘my husband’ and not many people are taken aback anymore,” Sipsma says. “I think that’s great.”
Living first in Kalamazoo and now in Saugatuck, the couple has not faced many issues having their union respected over the years, although their relationship hasn’t always been met with approval. For instance, when they moved to Kalamazoo their neighbors weren’t too happy at first about a gay couple moving in next door. But they became friends once the neighbors got to know them as people.
The 71-year-olds do appreciate having the same legal protections as any other couple now that marriage equality is here. Mostly, though, they’re just grateful to have found each other, Sipsma says. “I feel very lucky to have the life I have,” Brown adds. “But the crowning glory has been my relationship with Doug — finding someone to grow old with.”