Andrew and Dustin Thomas sit next to each other at a small dining room table with a plate of chocolate chip cookies between them. A gold canvas with the message "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is your future, today is your life" hangs behind them in the living room. They have made this Parma Heights apartment their home but getting here has been like a Shakespearean struggle.
The 24-year-olds grew up in tiny neighboring towns in Tuscarawas County with very different approaches to their budding sexuality. While Andrew let his attraction to other men linger outside his periphery, Dustin announced he was gay at 14 years old.
But when his parents strongly disapproved — Dustin's stepfather berated him with derogatory names and threats, and they sent him to Christian counseling — he retreated. "I wanted to live a normal teenage life like everyone else," says Dustin. "So, I went back in [the closet] until I was 17."
Everything changed, however, when the two met at the Tuscarawas County Fair. They rode carnival rides into the night, talked about their lives and discovered they shared the same Dec. 7 birthday. While everyone watched the demolition derby, they laid in the grass behind the bleachers.
"Something felt different," says Dustin. "I was thinking about how much fun I had and how happy I was — and how I was actually happy, not pretending to be happy with a girl."
Andrew felt the same way, and they started talking about being together forever. But Dustin's family tried to keep them from seeing each other. The young couple was forced to meet in secret. They'd skip class on occasion and have mutual friends — posing as girlfriends —pick Dustin up from his house to drop him off at Andrew's.
After a month of secrecy, tension at home escalated for Dustin, and he broke things off. "The next day at school, I wrote him a long note," says Andrew. "[I] told him we could do this, we could play it better and it's not worth breaking it off because it's the real thing."
But Dustin's home life only grew more tumultuous. Authorities visited his house on two occasions to investigate alleged domestic violence by his stepfather toward Dustin, according to police reports.
So around Thanksgiving, Dustin and Andrew decided to take their fate into their own hands.
"We didn't go back to school. We didn't go back to work," says Andrew, now a financial analyst for KeyBank and a member of the communications committee for the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. "We never went back."
For two weeks they slept on friends of friends' couches, biding their time until they turned 18. When Andrew's aunt invited them to live with her, they jumped at the opportunity. "I knew I loved him," Andrew says. "I just felt like I needed to take care of him."
By the end of January, they told Andrew's aunt they wanted to get married. So she offered them $400 and her old Ford Crown Victoria. The next morning, they drove almost 500 miles to Stamford, Connecticut, and got married in the courthouse Jan. 27, 2009. That was six years ago.
"He's a hero to me," Dustin says. "He's never made me feel like I was alone in this world."