A 45-year love story has been condensed into a half-hour documentary film, which will launch during the annual Pride Weekend in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Emily Sonnessa and Jan Moore kept their relationship secret for decades, by necessity. Moore was married with three kids when she met Sonnessa, who in the 1960s was a work colleague of her husband. When they moved in together, their relationship was kept under wraps, even from Moore’s children.
In 2006 they went public in a very big way when they tried to hold a civil union ceremony in the beachfront boardwalk pavilion of their hometown, Ocean Grove, New Jersey.
This was before New Jersey allowed gay marriage. The ceremony was prohibited by the owner of the boardwalk, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, claiming it violated Methodist beliefs regarding homosexuality.
That sparked a prolonged legal fight over discrimination and religious freedom. The national press followed the case, which was ultimately won by LBGT activists.
The documentary about Sonnessa and Moore, “Love Wins,” plays down that episode of their life, instead taking the long view about staying together for 45 years.
“There were good times, there were rough times. There were a lot of rough times,” said Moore in the film. “There was a lot of pain involved. A tremendous amount of pain. We would look at each other and say, it’s you and I against the world.”
“That’s the truth,” Sonnessa added.
“It was always like that,” said Moore.
Filmmaker Robin Kampf met Sonnessa and Moore through their involvement with the gay activist group Garden State Equality. She was at their civil union ceremony, held not in the pavilion but on the nearby Ocean Grove pier.
“I’m not one that typically would get upset and emotional and cry in public, but I was bawling my eyes out at the wedding,” said Kampf. “After the ceremony, I said to them, ‘I love your story. It needs to be recorded for future generations so they know the struggle we all made.'”
Kampf interviewed the couple several times over the next few years, as well as two of Moore’s children who grew up with Moore and “Auntie Em.” They described the joys and struggles of keeping the family together during a time when two mommies were not socially or legally acceptable.
“People would say, ‘Oh, are you two sisters?’ I used to get this all the time: ‘Are you two sisters? Are you two related?” ‘No, we’re just best friends,'” said Kampf. “Now, when people say that, they can say, ‘No, this is my wife.’ We can all say that now.”
The film will premiere at the House of Independents in Asbury Park Thursday.