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Love 'First'; Photos show loving nature of same-sex relationships

In 2008, things weren't looking great for gay rights in the United States.

In November, California voters passed Proposition 8, a ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage in the country's most populous state. Florida's law books still banned adoption by gay and lesbian couples, while other states had recently passed constitutional amendments preventing gays and lesbians from getting married. The federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denied gay couples 1,138 rights granted to their heterosexual counterparts, was still being enforced.

And Barbara Proud, the Jamestown-based photographer who had just celebrated her 20th anniversary with her female partner, was sick of being misunderstood. As the financial crisis deepened and Proud's commercial photography work dried up, a new project came into focus.

The result is "First Comes Love: Radical Spirits, Civil Rights, and the Sexual Evolution," a collection of black-and-white portraits, videos and stories about gay couples who have been in dedicated relationships for decades. It opens at 6 tonight with a reception in the Weeks Gallery at Jamestown Community College.

Proud began the series by photographing her close friends in Jamestown, a lesbian couple celebrating their 15th anniversary. From there -- through emails, internet posts and word of mouth -- she expanded her project and began traveling the country photographing, interviewing and recording the stories of more than two dozen committed gay and lesbian couples across the northeast.

What she uncovered was not some flamboyant collection of cultural outcasts living at the fringes of society -- a limited notion some anti-gay rights advocates continue to cling to. Instead, she came across dozens of couples whose lives were, in all the most important ways, indistinguishable from their straight counterparts.

"I'm telling this story that doesn't ever get told. You always see pictures of gay pride parades and rainbow flags and scantily clad men in nothing more than a boa," Proud said. "I didn't want to show that. I thought I would strip out those stereotypical images and let people see the essence of those relationships and the tenderness of them."

Take, for instance, artists and former teachers Del Filardi and Harriet Rubin, whose 43-year relationship began on a hockey field in 1969 and has remained strong ever since. The two, pictured in a loving embrace, finally married in their home state of Massachusetts in 2002.

Proud also included photographs of important figures in the national gay rights movement with their partners in the project. They include Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and his partner Mark Andrew; early gay rights pioneers Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen; and Houston Mayor Annise Parker and her partner Kathy Hubbard.

The ongoing project, which is viewable in an extensive online gallery at www.firstcomeslove.org, will eventually take the form of a book. For now, Proud is continuing to take take new portraits, a process that -- like the relationships they document -- has come with its own set of challenges.

"I really had to work with [the couples] to get them to engage with each other and really find that connection between each other. Those are the pictures that work the best for me," Proud said. "Sometimes second-best is when they just look at the camera very confidently, very self-assured. That's what I want people to understand: This is us, and we're just like you."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"First Comes Love: Radical Spirits, Civil Rights and the Sexual Evolution"

WHEN: Opening reception 6 p.m. today; runs through Aug. 9

WHERE: Weeks Gallery, Jamestown Community College, 525 Falconer St., Jamestown

TICKETS: Reception is $10 to $25; exhibition is free.

INFO: 338-1300 or weeksgallery.sunyjcc.edu