Sunday, November 10, 2013

"He's perfect."

     My editor asked me to tell a love story about a same-sex couple who would now be getting married, in the wake of the Illinois legislature legalizing gay marriage, and I was fortunate to find Tzu-Kai Lo and Alain Villeneuve—behold the power of Facebook. 
    There is one bit of background I should mention. As I started to report the story, and the details of their romance, I had a moment of ... I'm not sure what. Difficulty. Despite my 20 years writing about this subject, and despite supporting equal civil rights for gays and lesbians, I had never really focused on one couple before, never chronicled a narrative like this one. To my surprise, there was a renegade qualm, apparently, somewhere in the back of my mind that can be roughly translated as, "It's two guys." I paused, perceived it, contemplated it, then overcame it—shook it off, basically—realizing, once again, that each of us has vestigial prejudices lingering somewhere in the vast cosmos of his or her brain, and everyone has to be vigilant in order to treat others with the fairness and compassion that we all expect and we all deserve. 

Alain Villeneuve, left, with Tzu-Kai Lo (and Oscar)
     Tzu-Kai Lo was studying for his Masters in Law at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 2001.
     If you think studying law is difficult, try studying law when your command of the English language is shaky. Lo, born in Taiwan, had been in the U.S. for just two years.
     And the class wasn’t just law but patent law. That is like regular law, only duller.
     In his class was another international student, Alain Villeneuve, a French speaker from Montreal whose English was excellent and constantly being heard in class.
    One evening, Lo was studying, or trying to, bewildered at what he was attempting to understand.     
     Desperate, he thought the Canadian student might help him.
     “He talked a lot in class, always talking,” Lo said. “You cannot stop him. I figured I would ask him for help.”
     And OK, to be honest, Lo thought the chatty classmate was hot.
     "I can't say there is not some interest," he said.
     But there was a problem. They had met, but Lo didn't know his name.
     "I was never really properly introduced to him," he said.
     So Lo went to the University of Illinois' website portal and started looking at the 600 faces on the profiles of his fellow students, beginning with "A."
     And looked.
     And looked.
     Villeneuve starts with a "V," remember. The search took an hour.
     But what is a love story without obstacles?
     Villeneuve got a momentous phone call.
     "This guy with a big accent asked me to help him with homework," said Villeneuve, a man with a checkered past.
     "I'm a weird guy," he said. "I was once married to a woman, for 10 years. A French woman."
     He had known he was gay since he was 12 (his mother said she knew since he was 6). But he had never had a boyfriend. When he married, Villeneuve was a 21-year-old engineer.
     "When I met this woman, she was very French, and I said, 'OK, I'll run with this,'" Villeneuve remembered. "She was like a best friend."
     But at some point, best friends aren't enough. He divorced her, left France, gave up engineering, started life again.
     "I came back to the U.S., went to law school," he said. Then one day the phone rang. A guy from patent law class.
     "He wanted more than my knowledge of patent law," Villeneuve said. "My heart started racing. I never felt that."
     For Lo, though their meeting was "destiny," love took a little longer. He was impressed with how Villeneuve helped him study—crafting charts, prodding him to work harder with gifts, helping him clear the linguistic hurdles.
     "It was a difficult and frustrating time for me," Lo said. "He was very, very patient. That's when I said, 'He pretty much is standing by my side.' "
     The two moved in together.
     "For quite some time I didn't tell my family about our relationship," Lo said. "They knew something was going on, but it was a don't ask/don't tell situation. I officially came out to my sisters three years ago. They were shocked, but they were happy because it was a person they knew."
     The two men—Villeneuve is 46, Lo a decade younger—live in a high-rise near Navy Pier with their West Highland White Terriers, Austin and Oscar, as well as a tight-knit group of friends who admire them.
     "They're great. Completely in love," said Paul Coyle, a partner at Villeneuve's firm, Vedder Price.
     "They're a great example of why marriage is a civil right. They're no different than any other couple in terms of being committed to each other."
     They knew they were for each other before marriage was a distant possibility.
     "In our case, it's life partners. I'm old-fashioned," Villeneuve said. "I believe in marriage, in being faithful and truthful, and being exclusive with someone."
     The idea of marriage crept up obliquely.
     Villeneuve gave Lo a lovely ring. Then another. "The first one wasn't good enough," Villeneuve said.
     Usually a proposal leads to a ring; here it was the other way around.
     "It wasn't really about proposing, it was about my Christmas gift," Lo said. "He is French Canadian—Christmas is a very important holiday for them. Because of our two dogs, I don't like to board them. So I always have him travel to Montreal by himself. He felt guilty, leaving me alone on Christmas, even though I don't particularly care at all. He got me a ring from Graff. A very, very substantial ring. It was a very beautiful ring. He said, 'This is your engagement ring.' In that sense it was a proposal, though not in a very formal setting."
     Lo wears three rings—platinum bands—one tastefully circled with diamonds. Villeneuve wears a pinkie ring that belonged to Lo's father, a Taiwanese government official.
     Meanwhile, the move toward legalized same-sex marriage continued unfolding.
     "We're both lawyers. We've been following this very closely," Villeneuve said.
     They had been tempted to form a civil union. Same-sex marriage is illegal in Taiwan, though the legislature is moving to change that. It's been legal in Canada since 2005, and Villeneuve's family is there.
     "I think it's a sign of respect [to be allowed to be married]," Villeneuve said. "We're not going to do this until we have equal rights."
     Then Illinois law changed Tuesday.
     "We saw the news," Lo said. "I'd been following the bill online all day and listened to part of the live debate. I texted him, and he was, 'OK, great, let's get married.' "
     "We just kind of waited it out," Villeneuve said. "It's recognition from the straight majority in the state that the fighting's over. A sign of recognition. We've been together for 12 years; we want to be together for 30 years. We need marriage."
     Nobody wants to be proposed to in a text, however.
     "It wasn't him getting down on one knee," Lo said. "I wrote back, 'Hold on a second, you've got to propose again, make sure this time it's more formal.' "
     That's coming, along with a big wedding, and, maybe, kids conceived via surrogate.
     "We want to get married in the state of Illinois," Villeneuve said. "It wasn't making sense for us to be traveling off to get married in a different state."
     And why does Villeneuve want to marry Lo?
     "Why? Kai's Kai. He's perfect. I love him," Villeneuve said. "He's a young prince. He's gorgeous. He's brilliant. He could have been a model if he was a little taller. The full package, just the full package. He's like a tiger mom, very demanding on himself and others."
     And why does Lo want to marry Villeneuve? He spoke about his grandmother, how they were very close, and he dreamt of her a lot after she died in 1998.
     "When we started living together, I dreamt of her less and less. She used to be my guardian angel," he said to Villeneuve, starting to cry. "Maybe she isn't anymore, because I have you. So maybe I have a new guardian angel."
     A June wedding?
     "I think so," Lo said. "The plan is to get married in June. We don't have a date yet."
     "I've been through this before," Villeneuve said. "We need a venue."
     "I know where the venue is," said Lo. "The Park Hyatt."
     So now, like countless other couples, Alain Villeneuve and Tzu-Kai Lo work out the logistics of their wedding, prompted by the classic nuptial concern that if they don't act fast, wherever they go they'll find, as Villeneuve put it, "another 5,000 couples waiting in line."
     June should be a very, very busy month for weddings in Illinois.
     And what is a love story without obstacles?

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