Wherever the gay action was, Gustavo Sanin and Ivan Velilla were there, for better and for worse. They were at the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village in 1969 when persecuted gays fought back in the infamous riot that launched the gay rights movement. They were part of the wild New York City scene of the 1970s. They watched their friends die one after another when AIDS came along in the ‘80s.
In 1985, Velilla and Sanin purchased a magical cabin in the woods of Phoenicia. They moved to the Hudson Valley full-time in 1992, opening an antiques store—“Velsani,” an amalgam of their two last names—on Route 28. In 1996, they moved their shop to Uptown Kingston. Over the years, they became known locally for their exquisite taste in art and antiques, and for their annual White Party, held each July, where guests wear white and celebrate under the pines and moonlight.
Sanin and Velilla kept Velsani in Kingston until 2010, when they relocated to the Emerson Hotel in Mt. Tremper.
The one thing the native Colombians did not do during those many decades of work, play, and love was get married—because they couldn’t. And then, this year, all that changed. On a balmy July evening, they had their grandest White Party ever. At the ages of 65 and 83, respectively, Velilla and Sanin celebrated 50 years of committed partnership by taking wedding vows under the guidance of a Buddhist priest.
I caught up with Sanin and Velilla shortly after the ceremony to chat about the wedding and, more broadly, the saga of their lives. Velilla, the more extroverted of the two, did most of the talking.
This year’s White Party was the culmination of 50 years together. What were your feelings that night?
We actually got married in Connecticut a few months before the White Party. Gay marriage wasn’t legal in New York State yet and we didn’t know if or when it would be. We were married in Connecticut in a small office by a justice of the peace. We were very happy to be married and they were very nice people, but we also felt an emptiness. We wanted our friends and families to be there, and we also wanted the ceremony to reflect who we are. Over 500 people attended this year’s White Party, and this made us very happy. And of course, it was thrilling not only to be married, but to have the right to be married. It’s so unfair to have two people’s love for each other be socially rejected. How old were you when you got together?
I was 16 and Gustavo was 33. Let the record note that I pursued Gustavo, not the other way around! And that the age of consent was 14. Why did you leave Colombia and come to the United States?
People couldn’t accept our relationship in Medellín. One evening we went to an expensive restaurant and a women said loudly to her friends, “I know all about their relationship—it looks like Gustavo can buy anyone he wants.” Comments like that are what brought us here. What are the three most memorable moments of your time together?
One is when my mother rejected me. I loved my mother very much and couldn’t bring myself to tell her I was gay. When I moved to New York City with Gustavo, I told her that he was a friend and roommate.
A friend of ours, a closet gay who was married to a woman, was jealous of our happiness. He told my brother about us, and my brother went to my mother. She said to me, “I have to choose between my favorite son and God. I have to go on the side of God. I consider you a sinner.” I said to her, “But you are my mother!” And she said, “Yes, but Jesus is my God.”
I became physically ill. I couldn’t hold food down. I lost weight. I finally went to a doctor, a wise woman who told me I was depressed and said, “Many mothers will react this way. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you. Be patient. All mothers come back to their children.”
She was right. One evening my mother, who was living in White Plains, called and invited Gustavo and me to dinner. She said, “I don’t want to talk about what happened. I love you as much as ever, and I love Gustavo too.” I later learned that her priest had told her that what she had done was wrong, that God doesn’t hate homosexuals, that God made gays the way they are.
My mother loved Gustavo till the day she died. Another memorable moment?
[Velilla]: When I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 1999. I had a long course of radiation therapy at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City. Gustavo drove me to the hospital and back five days a week for almost 10 weeks. I couldn’t even keep him company on the return trip because I’d be exhausted and sleeping. This selflessness is one of the qualities that made me fall in love with him initially.
Doctors told me I had three to five years to live. They were wrong. And the third?
The Stonewall uprising. The police in Greenwich Village were constantly calling gay people awful names like “queer” and “fag” and “pervert.” You’d see a policeman and instead of feeling reassured, you’d be afraid. The Stonewall was a bar where gay people congregated. In 1969, the police raided the bar and the patrons fought back. We left as it was turning ugly.
The legal status of gays has improved, but there isn’t total equality yet. For instance, if one of you dies, the other isn’t entitled to a share of their Social Security. How do you feel about this?
It upsets us when any group is denied their rights, whether it’s blacks who had to sit in the back of the bus or gays today. Homosexuals are very hard workers. They employ people. They maintain their homes and neighborhoods. They support the arts. They’re good citizens. The love that Gustavo and I have is no different from the love heterosexual people feel for each other. Why don’t we have the same rights, then?
Many of our heterosexual friends have been married two or three times. Our gay friends tend to stay together longer. Persecution may have something to do with this. When people are under attack, it brings them together.