Over the weekend, U.S. Marine Corps captain Matthew Phelps proposed to the love of his life, Ben Schock, at the White House. And that bended knee is now certifiably viral: their pictures have over 8,000 likes on Facebook, more than 17,000 upvotes on Reddit, and 16,000-plus views on imgur (Reddit's go-to image-hosting platform). It's easy to see why: an active Marine Corps captain, his boyfriend, a gay marriage proposal in the White House— all a year after the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, in the year when gay marriage swept the ballot box and the polls. We emailed with Phelps just now about his newfound Internet fame, the wedding plans, his problem with DOMA, and why he doesn't feel like that much of an overnight symbol after all.
We met a few years ago in 2010 at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network annual dinner in Washington, D.C. We were introduced by one of Ben's friends and hit it off. He was living in Seattle at the time, and I in San Diego, so we just became friends, talking on the phone fairly regularly and otherwise just going on about our lives. After graduating from the University of Washington, Ben moved to Washington, D.C., to live and work. I had always been an advocate for equality in the Marine Corps and the military, and after "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed, I came out publicly. My involvement with OutServe, the national organization of actively-serving LGBT military members, brought me to Washington, D.C., for a conference, and Ben and I were able to see each other for the first time since we had met. When I received an invitation to the White House for the LGBT Pride Month celebration in June of this year, I asked Ben to be my date and he accepted.
I've been in the Marine Corps since 2002, when I enlisted after the attacks on 9/11 out of a desire to serve my country. I served first as a Marine musician until 2005, when I commissioned as a logistics officer. I deployed to Iraq in 2007-2008, served as a company commander in San Diego, and am currently attending Marine Corps University. Ben has most recently worked for a non-profit Washington, D.C. before going back to school to pursue a degree in nursing.
What's the response been like? Positive?
The responses have been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I think the only negative comments have been critiques of our wardrobe selection. If the worst thing anyone has to say is that they don't like my tie, I think we have come quite a long way.
How's it feel to be a gay-rights symbol?
I don't feel like a gay-rights symbol. I feel like a Marine, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, and now a fiancé. I'll soon learn how it feels to be a husband to an amazing man. I believe in my service, I believe in love, and I believe in equality. That doesn't make me a symbol, that makes me human.
Is there anything you want to tell gay couples who want to marry?
We recently attended the marriage of two women at the U.S. Military Academy's Cadet Chapel in West Point, New York, former Army captain Brenda "Sue" Fulton and Penelope Gnesin. The Army chaplain officiating the ceremony said it isn't about gay marriage, it's just about marriage. I think marriage is about love and the commitment two people make to each other in front of their families and friends. Surround yourself with people who love you and make your own way in the world. Pay no attention to the people who tell you no or that you can't have that special relationship. Of course you can!
Did you think the proposal was going to make a statement?
Honestly, no. I wanted to propose to Ben that night at the White House because that's where we went for our first date six months earlier. The only reason we were there was because the Military Partners and Families Coalition offered us tickets for the holiday tour and it happened to be that night. It wasn't until the photos started showing up and people started talking online that we realized it may have been a first. It turns out it wasn't the first LGBT proposal — a transgender man proposed to his parter at the LGBT Pride Month Reception on June 15, but may have been the first between two men. If there is any statement to be made, it's that our marriage will not be recognized by the Department of Defense because of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA). As long as DOMA is in effect, Ben won't be recognized as my spouse, and therefore won't have access to any of the benefits that opposite-sex married couples have, including health coverage, base housing, or even unaccompanied access to base. This will really complicate things if I am stationed overseas beginning next summer, as I'm expecting.
Does anyone have video of the proposal? Do you?
I know there's at least one video, although the quality isn't that great.
Reddit thinks you look like Daniel Craig. Flattering?
Beyond flattering! I am a huge James Bond fan. Have you seen Skyfall? I made Ben go opening weekend to see it in IMAX.
When's the wedding? Is it going to be in D.C.?
We haven't set a date yet, but sometime in the spring. We want to do it before I am transferred to my next duty station, which will likely be overseas. It was all a complete surprise to Ben, so we couldn't even discuss it until now. There are a few options we are considering, including Washington, D.C., and Washington state (where Ben is from), thanks to the recently approved referendum allowing same-sex marriages.