By MATTHEW WALLER
2014-01-03 03:01 AM
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Joseph W. Lown wiped away a tear as his partner read vows to him, pledging love for a lifetime.
"Now I know that my biggest accomplishment is not to have married a great man," Lown's new spouse said. "My biggest accomplishment will be having found love.
"My biggest accomplishment will be to make you happy every day of my life."
Lown responded: "I look forward to spending a wonderful life with you."
Moments earlier, a judge had legally bound the pair in a same-sex marriage during a recent solemn civil ceremony in a small, colonial villa hotel in Mexico City.
The former San Angelo mayor and his partner signed their marriage license. They pressed their fingerprints onto the paperwork.
The small group of about a dozen family and friends applauded in a dining room with hand-picked poinsettias and a white sheet draped behind the couple.
It was a concluding step in an epic journey of love, personal turmoil and drastic choices that had begun four and a half years ago for Lown, San Angelo's mayor. Lown, having easily won re-election for a fourth term in May 2009, abruptly walked away from his promising public life in conservative West Texas to take a chance on love and a new life in Mexico.
Lown's spouse asked not to be identified because he still has family living in the United States.
On his wedding day, Lown contemplated his future.
"This is not the end," Lown said after the emotional ceremony. "This is the beginning."
Coupled with a new legal development in the United States that expanded the federal rights of same-sex couples, the nuptials could also mean a way out of Lown's self-imposed exile -- a way back to the West Texas city he still considers home.
The judge who presided over the ceremony was having a busy day. Rosa Maria Sanchez Acevedo had planned to officiate four weddings that day.
Lown knew the judge because she had officiated at the weddings of some of his friends. She serves in the Federal District, which includes Mexico City and allows same-sex marriage. The Mexican state that contains Lown's current home, San Miguel de Allende, doesn't allow same-sex marriage.
Lown went to pick up the judge and bring her to the hotel while his sister Alicia and others helped get flowers and arrange the room for the ceremony. He found her at an event center where she was officiating at another same-sex wedding. Lown met the two grooms, both dressed in silvery gray suits, and they congratulated Lown on his pending nuptials.
Acevedo, looking severe, had arrived half an hour late. Immediately after she had done her part at the other same-sex wedding, she and Lown took a taxi to Casa Gonzalez, the hotel location for his ceremony.
Mexico legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. Acevedo said she performs about 50 same-sex marriages a year.
She praised the couple for their honesty.
"This is a transcendent date in your life," she said. "I declare you legitimately married."
After the judge left, friends and family shared words with the couple. Lown's ex-wife had come with her husband from England, having made amends years ago for old wounds. A few friends from around Mexico had attended, and the sister of Lown's partner had also come.
Lown faced a harsh choice near the eve of his confirmation for a fourth term as mayor of San Angelo: Break the heart of his undocumented, same-sex partner by ending their secret relationship, or break the heart of his West Texas hometown by running away with his beloved.
He chose the latter.
Lown was the youngest mayor ever elected in San Angelo. He was 26 and served three terms. During that time he transformed the office from an honorary post with a vote on City Council to an active advocacy position for the city. Lown constantly visited constituents and attended functions, making three to five public appearances a day. Weddings, funerals, ribbon cuttings -- Lown was there. He once hauled a prototype garbage container around door to door to promote a new trash pickup system.
"I built up a lot of goodwill in San Angelo," he said.
The curator of the internationally renowned water lily collection in San Angelo, Ken Landon, created a lily and named it after the mayor. Lown's charisma, his engaging personality, the gray hair coupled with a boyish demeanor, and a pleasant baritone voice, all contributed toward the record-tying three mayoral re-elections. That and having a conservative orientation like his community. He says he has a business-friendly philosophy with Libertarian and Republican leanings, and he gets good-natured grief from his friends for regularly watching Fox News.
After that last election, on May 19, 2009, however, with the media and city ready for his confirmation, Lown didn't show. He had left a letter behind.
"While I know that the timing of this announcement is less than ideal, I have my own compelling reasons for making this decision ... I am currently not in San Angelo, and frankly do not know when I am going to return," his letter stated.
It gradually emerged that Lown had made a difficult decision between his personal and public life, choosing to relocate to Mexico with a man he'd met at Angelo State University who was an undocumented immigrant.
The mayor's sexual orientation, a sort of open secret in San Angelo, had never been an obstacle to his political success, and his terms in office turned out to be demonstrations in tolerance for the community. In a county that voted 83 percent in favor of the statewide amendment to deny same-sex marriage legal status in 2005, Lown got 90 percent of the vote in 2009 in a three-way race for the top leadership job in town.
Abandoning the city left wounds among his supporters.
"You just don't leave people who have cared for you and guided you holding the bag and not letting them know what's going on," said Mario Castillo, Lown's godfather and mentor, a prominent lobbyist and advocate for San Angelo in Washington, D.C.
Castillo said he hopes Lown's decision to leave the community will fade into memory.
"The past is in quiet repose in the cradle of the forgotten," Castillo told the Abilene Reporter-News (http://bit.ly/1kbCf4I). "Let us not disturb it."
Lown came back to San Angelo in 2012 to attend the wedding of a friend and to say a more formal goodbye and thank you to his supporters. Those who attended that event at the Chicken Farm Art Center included key people in the local real estate business, members of the City Council and other prominent figures in the community.
He shook hands with those in the long line of people who waited to see him.
"He is still very popular," said Dwain Morrison, who was elected mayor of San Angelo in May. "There are some that were very disappointed and thought he should've honored his commitment ... I don't approve of his lifestyle, I told him that, but that doesn't mean he isn't a good friend of mine, and he always will be."
When Lown left San Angelo in May 2009, the best hope he and his partner had of returning to the U.S. one day was to apply for a tourist visa, a process that could have taken 10 years.
In June 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. The decision also meant the federal government could use same-sex marriage as consideration for immigration status.
With the marriage, the couple could get back into the U.S. within a year and a half if everything goes well, and five years at worst. Then they could get permanent residency and a green card for Lown's spouse.
Muzaffar Chishti, who directs the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute, said there is no longer any distinction between same sex couples and married couples as far as immigration benefits are concerned.
"It's a game changer for same-sex couples," Chishti said. "There has been a campaign for many years that there should be equity for same-sex couples. The demise of DOMA made that possible."