July 26, 2011

Michael Cole and Steven Skybell: Mahopac couple praises state's new law

It was what show-business executives call a "meet cute."

Steven Skybell was walking down a New York City street, carrying laundry on his back. Michael Cole, working in the building next door, passed him, and the two made eye contact. It was no surprise that Cole just happened to have something to do in the Laundromat, too. "I did that big fake actor thing," Cole said, "And I followed Steven in." From there, they went out for lunch, where Skybell, also an actor, pretended to be an opera singer.

"I actually was performing in an opera in Brooklyn at the time, and just wanted to see what would happen if I told Michael I was an opera singer," he said. Cole, of course, attended the opera, and brought a card and flowers. "All of my friends wanted to know who this guy was, and why he was doing all the right things," Skybell said. Their relationship blossomed, and they bought a dog together, Levi, their Australian shepherd.

Their careers also continued to flourish. Cole jokingly calls himself a "recovering actor," and for over 15 years has been assistant to composer Stephen Schwartz, writer of such Broadway hits as "Godspell," "Pippin," and "Wicked" and movies like "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Skybell is a successful Broadway actor, who played Doctor Dillamond in "Wicked" and Harold Nichols in "The Full Monty," and has also had appearances on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "Sex and the City."

Both are keenly aware of how lucky they are to do what they love and be supported by it.

'We've never hidden our relationship, and we've never felt avoided in any way. Mahopac has been wonderful and welcoming.' ~ Steven
"Both of our careers afford us the time to do what we love," said Skybell, and they take advantage of that to the fullest extent. Cole, who moonlighted in finishing carpentry when he was an actor, loves to work with his hands and always has a new project going, including the complete renovation of their home. He also has a passion for water-skiing, and goes almost every day from spring to fall. Skybell is an avid quilter, and his complex, beautiful pieces are displayed in creative ways throughout their home.

When Cole and Skybell first began splitting their time between Mahopac and New York City in 1997, they had no intention of getting married. Though by then they'd been in a committed relationship for over a year, the idea simply wasn't on their radar.

"It never really mattered to us," Cole said. "We lived together like we were married, we even wore rings, and we didn't care about the semantics of it."

Instead, they enjoyed Mahopac, water-skiing on Kirk Lake and Lake Mahopac, bringing Levi for walks on the trails around town, and enjoying the many restaurants and small shops in town.

Cole extols the myriad benefits of living in a small town, saying, "Have you ever been to Xpress Printing? You can't get service like that anywhere else. I go in, I chat with Dawn for a little while, and then my print job is done and it's wonderful. You could never find that at a Kinkos in New York City. It's those things that I love about Mahopac."

In 2000, the couple bought their first house here, just steps from Lake Mahopac, and began renovating it together, putting in additions and decor, landscaping the backyard, and creating a home.

Though originally Skybell had been nervous about moving to "a little red county in between a whole lot of blue counties," and did not know how the couple would be received, he said he and Cole have never faced any discrimination in Mahopac. "We have never had anything but good experiences," Skybell said. "We've never hidden our relationship, and we've never felt avoided in any way. Mahopac has been wonderful and welcoming."

In 2008, though, the gay marriage debate began to heat up, and Cole credits Keith Olbermann's speeches with helping him to realize the injustice he faced everyday when he and Skybell were denied the right to marry. In May of that year, when New York State began to recognize gay marriages performed in other states and countries, the couple realized that marriage could be a real possibility, and in November, when it was legalized in Connecticut, their plans fell into place.

Every year at Thanksgiving, Cole and Skybell go to composer Schwartz's home for dinner. In 2008, Thanksgiving fell just weeks after Connecticut's decision to legalize marriage equality, and Schwartz's wife had a plan. Carole, a justice of the peace, called Cole, and suggested she marry them at their home on Thanksgiving. Cole immediately called Skybell and brought up the idea, explaining that it would work perfectly for them, and discussing the benefits they would then receive in New York.

Of the moment, Skybell says, laughing, "He called, and I immediately said, 'Did you just propose over the phone?' It was last minute, and it was kind of like an elopement, but it was perfect, because we knew who would be at the dinner and they feel like family to us."

The small ceremony fit their needs exactly. Skybell selected readings from "Song of Solomon" and "Romeo & Juliet," and Cole wrote his own words, while Carole Schwartz performed the ceremony.

"Having Carole marry us meant so much, and it meant a lot to her, because it was the first gay marriage she'd performed" Cole said. "And Stephen's parents, who are much older and have been to a number of weddings, said it was the most meaningful ceremony they'd ever been to. One of the most wonderful parts was that Stephen, this incredibly famous composer, sang a song just for us. He got a little emotional as he was singing it, and it was just amazing to have that for our wedding."

And then, said Skybell, "We ate turkey!" They had their Thanksgiving meal, and finished it with a cake Cole had made and decorated, with a two-groom topper.

From there, the reality of marriage set in for the couple. "We'd lived together for 12 years by that point, and were already wearing rings, but it was amazing to know that it really did change our lives," Skybell said. "I love knowing that I'm married. It's like when we bought our house. We went to the Actor's Credit Union and asked, 'Can we have a home?' and when they said, 'Absolutely,' I was surprised. In the back of my mind, I'd always thought, well, I'm an actor, and that's not stable enough to own a home, but there it is. In the back of my mind, I'd always thought that because I was gay, I could have a person, and a partner, but not a marriage."

Cole agrees that government recognition of their relationship is important.

"On a day-to-day basis, it's the same, but overall, there's something different about it. Now that we're older, and we've made real investments in each other and in this relationship, we want to protect that." Being married gives them rights to over 1,300 statutes and regulations in New York, allowing them access to everything from filing joint income taxes to transferrable fishing licenses. "We did everything we knew to do," said Cole, "from creating wills together and filling out health-proxy forms, but you can always miss something. Once we were married, we didn't have to worry about that anymore."

Though their marriage has been recognized here for nearly three years, they're still elated that New York has moved forward with marriage equality. When he heard the news, Cole said, "It felt like it was too good to be true, but also it felt like the right thing. Until it actually happened, I wasn't ready to believe that it could." They have no resentment that the change has been slow, and actually look forward to a continued slow change across the country.

"It sets an example," Skybell said. "Growing up in Lubbock, Tex., this never seemed like a possibility. Now, it is."

Cole agrees.

"We still have a long way to go. We don't have federal tax benefits, and there are plenty of states that don't recognize our rights as a married couple. But New York is helping to change that. It's acting as a leader. Now, we start working on the rest of the country."

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    Michael and Steven Article
    July 27, 2011 | 08:53 PM

    Thank you Brett and Staff at The Mahopac News... I am a proud supporter of yours and I feel that by printing this wonderful article about two great men and true supporters of our community was Awesome on your part. Thank you for bringing open mindedness to our town.

    Dawn Brown
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