St. Petersburg couple celebrates Golden anniversary

St. Petersburg couple celebrates Golden anniversary

On Feb. 23, 1963, Robert Pope and Lawrence Konrad began a journey that has spanned five decades, 10 U.S. Presidents and fierce civil rights battles. On March 3, the St. Petersburg men will celebrate their lives together with a Golden Anniversary Reception in their honor at King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church.

Of course, when anyone learns about the couple’s longevity, one question comes to mind: “What’s your secret?”

“I’ve told many people, when Lawrence tells me to do anything I just do it,” said Pope, prompting a laugh from Konrad.

“We’ve been through tough times but friends have not let us separate,” Konrad said. “You learn that you have to forgive and work through, and fortunately, Bob has always known where his bed is and where he belongs. No matter what was going on, he had that commitment and I learned that this was the man I would be with for the rest of my life.”

Pope echoes the sentiments of his husband.

“It’s about doing the work,” Pope said.

Shifting tides
Of course, when Pope and Kornad met 50 years ago at the ages of 27 and 24, respectively, the world was a very different place. The idea of legally married another man was so foreign to both men that the topic wasn’t even mentioned early on in their relationship.

“What we would have wanted in 1963 wasn’t marriage equality, but to be able to hold hands at the bar,” Pope said. “We had to keep our hands on the bar, because if the police came in and your hands were anywhere else, we knew we’d be in trouble. You were constantly in fear of a raid.”

The men have spent a vast majority of their lives together in St. Petersburg and in 1965, they recall plans to visit a gay bar on Madeira Beach.

“Halfway down there Bob turned to me and said, ‘Do you mind if we go home?'” Konrad recalled. “In the paper the next day we learned the place was raided. That happened to us twice. The universe always protected us.”

Throughout the years, the men, both veterans, made public commitments to each other and their relationship. During the National Marches on Washington in 1979 and 1993, the couple took part in a large commitment ceremony officiated by MCC founder Troy Perry. They have also had other, smaller “holy unions.”

But it wasn’t until 2004 that the relationship was finally recognized by a government entity when Pope and Konrad were married in Toronto, Canada.

“That changed my life,” Konrad said of the Canadian wedding. “Something happened to me when we went to City Hall in Toronto. We had been together longer than any of the city staff’s parents and to be treated from where we were in 1963 to when we were married in a City Hall was incredible. It’s something we’d never dreamed about.”

Pope said the recognition of their relationship from a governmental entity was an experience unlike any other.

“There’s a strong fight for marriage equality in our country, but I don’t think the gay community realizes how important it is for is in so many different dimensions,” Pope said.

Loving the nightlife
During the past half-century, Konrad and Pope have remained focused on the success of their relationship – but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their hands full with other experiences.

In the 1970s, the men opened Pinellas County’s first gay dance bar, Kitty’s. It’s lighted ceiling and dance floor were a huge hit and upon its success they purchased the historic Wedgewood Inn and transformed it into an LGBT hotel and night spot. It was a concept that was cutting edge at the time and a precursor to the Suncoast Resort of the 1990s-2000s and the Flamingo Resort, which opened in 2009.

“I came here for Stetson Law School,” Pope explained. “I wanted to live on the west coast since the other coast had a bar mentality, which is funny since we owned a bar in Daytona Beach.”

For nearly two years then men operated the Wedgewood Inn and reveled in the long lines of patrons lined up around the block waiting to get in on weekends.

“We charged a $2 cover, which got you your first two drinks,” Pope said. “We were very generous. Maybe if we hadn’t done that we would have stayed open longer.”

After incurring debt and owing the State of Florida almost $140,000 in sales tax, Pope and Konrad closed the resort and recommitted themselves to other community organizations.

Giving back
“Bob’s mother was like that, always helping others,” Konrad said. “She was a teacher in Tallahassee and created a support house at Florida State for students who wanted to become teachers. It evolved into a scholarship house. So he was raised in that environment.

“My drive to help came from seeing the pain of other people.”
That’s what motivated Konrad to become the first facilitator of SDIA, the first HIV/AIDS support group in Pinellas County, which operated through King of Peace MCC.

Pope recalled that the name “Metropolitan Charities” was made up to decipher fundraisers for non-church use.

Konrad still remains involved and recently formed the Food for Friends Program at the church.

“You see needs and step forward to do what you need to do,” Pope explained. “I found my life is about starting things. The universe puts something within us that we serve. I don’t  know how else to explain that. We get callings and I’ll get an idea that won’t leave me and I just have to do it. That’s where I come from and how I’ve always operated.”

Continuing the fight
Recent polls show that a majority of Americans not only support marriage equality, but that even those opposed to it see it as an inevitability within the next decade. That news thrills Konrad and Pope, but the still, vocal opposition to recognizing the unions of same-sex partners in this country is hurtful to the long-term couple.

“It diminishes our position in society,” Pope said. “We worked just as hard to accomplish what we have and to build our portfolio of life. But right now, if I were to die, I can’t share that with Lawrence without him having to pay on something that if we were a ‘regular couple’ he would avoid.”

Fortunately, neither man has been denied access to the other when an illness involves a hospital stay – not to say that nurses and doctors haven’t objected in the past.

“I just don’t put up with it,” Konrad said. “The first time it happened we had been together 25 years and someone tried to stop me. I told them that they couldn’t and went right in. But that’s not to say it hasn’t happened to other people.”

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