A Happiness That Took 90 Years to Achieve

A decade ago, Johnny Javier Hau Dzib took a nighttime drive around his Denver neighborhood, his mind in a suicidal thought loop.

Several years later, Kenneth Wayne Felts was at home alone in nearby Arvada, Colo., contemplating death by a different means. Chemotherapy for a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis was robbing him of life’s pleasures. “I thought, I’m 90 years old,” Mr. Felts said. “Am I going to live the rest of my life this way?” In March 2020, after four months of chemotherapy, he voluntarily ended his treatments.

When the two men met later that year, both were in better places psychologically. Mr. Felts, a Navy veteran who served in the Korean War, had recently come out as gay. Mr. Hau, an I.T. specialist for Denver Public Schools, hoped to follow his lead.

Mr. Hau is 34. Mr. Felts is now 93. He was born in the dust bowl town of Dodge City, Kan., one year into the Great Depression in 1930. His parents, Clyde and Ruth Felts, were devout Christians. A youth spent in fundamental Christian churches caused him profound guilt over two secret romances with male schoolmates before he graduated high school in 1948.

In 1950, he enlisted in the Navy despite never having seen the ocean. It was long before the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He recalled several men he served with being court-martialed for their homosexuality. To avoid the same fate, he said, “it was important not to even associate with other gay people.”

In 1957, when he took a job as an insurance investigator in Long Beach, Calif., after graduating from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences two years earlier, he adopted the persona of a straight man.

During that time, however, he had a secret love affair with a male colleague named Phillip Jones, who also attended the local Church of God with Mr. Felts. “He was in the choir, and I was in the pews,” Mr. Felts said.

Mr. Jones was able to square his sexuality with church doctrine; Mr. Felts was not. One Sunday, he said, “out of the blue, I was bombarded with guilt. I knew I was going to go to hell, that I would burn in fire for eternity.” Overcome with shame, Mr. Felts left California in 1958 and returned to Dodge City. He never said goodbye to Mr. Jones, though Mr. Felts was sure by then he was the love of his life.

Over the years, Mr. Felts would intermittently search for Mr. Jones in every California phone book he could get his hands on. “I called every Phillip Jones and every P. Jones I could find,” he said. The search was never successful.

Mr. Felts continued to present as a straight man. In 1962, while living in Colorado Springs and working for the state as a rehabilitation counselor for the mentally and physically disabled (from which he retired in the mid-’90s), he married Mary Guinn, a schoolteacher. In 1973, their daughter, Rebecca Mayes, was born. The marriage didn’t last — they divorced in 1980 — but Mr. Felts’s commitment to appearing straight did. His resolve didn’t soften even when Ms. Mayes came out to her parents in the mid-1990s.

“‘It won’t last six months,’” was the first thing Ms. Mayes recalled her father saying when she told him she was gay. She and her then-girlfriend, Tracie Mayes, treated his prediction as a challenge. In 1999, they were married. The couple are now the parents of Mr. Felts’s grandchildren, an 18-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl, and the family lives near Mr. Felts in Arvada. (Ms. Guinn died in 2022.)

To occupy himself during the early months of the pandemic, Mr. Felts started writing a memoir. “I got to the point where I started writing about Phillip,” he said. The memory sent him down a rabbit hole of regret. So he told Ms. Mayes about the relationship, essentially coming out. “He doesn’t open up much, but he was obviously very sad,” she said.

Ms. Mayes handled the news of her father’s sexuality differently than he handled hers decades earlier: She was happy for him. “I completely understood why it was so hard for him to come out, given the time he grew up in,” she said.

Mr. Felts was done with the secrecy and regret and ready to come out publicly, which he did with a Facebook post in June 2020. The story of the newly out 90-year-old went viral. “I started hearing from people from around the world who wanted to interview me,” Mr. Felts said. “And each day I got new messages from people saying how much they appreciated me.”

One online acquaintance offered to help track down Mr. Jones, only to learn he had died a few years earlier. Mr. Felts was heartbroken. “It is so terribly frustrating to be so close to and yet not reach my lost love,” he wrote on Facebook. “My heart has turned to stone and I need my tears to wash away my sorrow. Rest in Peace Phillip.”

Another online admirer was Mr. Hau. Like Mr. Felts, Mr. Hau was taught early that homosexuality is a sin. He grew up Catholic, the youngest of eight children born to Josefa Hau de Dzib and Nemesio Hau Poot, in Yucatán, Mexico. By the time the family moved to Colorado when he was 11, he knew he was gay.

“I tried to hide it,” he said. “I would ask myself, ‘What’s going on with me? Why am I this way?’” He was 27 before he kissed another man. He had made attempts at relationships, “but I just felt tremendous guilt creep in. The guilt told me to end it every time.”

College at the University of Colorado Denver, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2014, was a welcome distraction. But thoughts of suicide were a constant companion until the night he drove through his Denver neighborhood in 2013 and met an older man who had immigrated from Japan years ago to work in mining.

The man had missed his bus. Mr. Hau saw him crossing the street. “It was late,” Mr. Hau said, so he offered him a ride. In return, the man offered him friendship.

Mr. Hau’s friend, who died of leukemia earlier this year at the age of 90, became a mentor and father figure. He was also the first person Mr. Hau said he came out to. The friend, who was not gay, “looked at me and said, ‘It’s OK. Be who you are.’”

Mr. Hau struggled to do so until October 2020, when he got a response to a note of support he had sent Mr. Felts via Facebook Messenger two months earlier. In it, Mr. Felts included his phone number (Mr. Hau said he lived locally and hoped they could speak someday). On Oct. 16, 2020, the two met at Namiko’s sushi and Japanese restaurant in Denver to talk about their sexuality, and the trauma of hiding it.

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They continued talking after the restaurant closed. In Mr. Felts’s car, Mr. Hau took Mr. Felts’s hand. “Ken was just extremely supportive,” Mr. Hau said. He helped Mr. Hau past a second source of secrecy and shame. “I’ve always been attracted to older men,” he said. “And I always felt like, how will people react if I start a relationship with someone older? Perhaps the gay community will see it as odd.” Before he met Mr. Felts, “I looked online trying to find out, Is this normal?”

A first kiss at Mr. Felts’s home the same night pushed him past that worry. “It was such a comfort,” Mr. Hau said. By the end of October, Mr. Hau, who had never before spent the night with a lover, was spending every weekend in Arvada with Mr. Felts. In the summer of 2021, he moved in.

Talk of marriage, initiated by Mr. Felts, started soon after. But the cost of legal fees for a prenuptial agreement slowed it. Then, the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, with its implications for potentially disrupting gay marriage rights, rekindled those conversations.

On May 20, Mr. Hau asked Mr. Felts to marry him in their living room. “I felt like, I had found this great guy, and the laws were changing, and it triggered this fear,” he said. “I really wanted to solidify the relationship, to make it legal.” Mr. Felts, given a second chance at marriage, was fully at ease saying yes. “I love being with Johnny, and I love being loved,” he said.

On July 8, with a prenuptial agreement in place, Mr. Felts and Mr. Hau were married in a brief, informal ceremony in their backyard. (In Colorado, couples can legally marry without a formally registered officiant.) Jason Eaton-Lynch, a friend and the director of elder services at the Center on Colfax, a Denver L.G.B.T.Q. community center, led the ceremony.

Mr. Felts donned a pink jacket over a purple button down shirt; Mr. Hau wore a tan jacket and blue button down. Their 20 guests, which included Ms. Mayes and her family, dressed casually at the grooms’ request. (Mr. Hau’s family was not present, but when he came out to them last year via text message, he said “they were very supportive.”) Before Mr. Eaton-Lynch pronounced them married, Mr. Felts read a poem he had written for Mr. Hau.

“Near the end of my days and in the heat of my night, I found a great love, whom I shall ever hold tight,” he said. “We explore our new world with breathless delight.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

When July 8, 2023

Where At the couple’s home in Arvada, Colo.

D.I.Y. Reception After the ceremony, the grooms cut a brightly frosted cake picked up from a nearby grocery store. Ms. Mayes had organized a light lunch from a local sandwich shop. The couple skipped dancing to focus on mingling.

Handful of Stars The cancer Mr. Felts was being treated for before he met Mr. Hau is “pretty well not there anymore,” he said, though he is still seeing his doctor and getting regular PET scans. The memoir he started writing during Covid, “My Handful of Stars: Coming Out at Age 90,” was self-published in 2022.

Out There After the wedding, Ms. Mayes said her father had never seemed happier. She had started thinking of Mr. Hau as a member of the family well before. “We were suspicious of John for a while because of the age gap,” she said. “But just watching them together — John takes really good care of my dad. They continue to be just so happy.” Coming out three years earlier enabled Mr. Felts to express himself in multiple ways, she said. “He used to be such a conservative dresser. Now he wears the loudest stuff.”

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