Whatever happened to couple who had Navy's 1st gay homecoming kiss?
The Virginian-Pilot | .
published: August 29, 2016
The kiss lasted only seconds.
That was long enough to surprise the world.
There they stood, two young lovers sharing that coveted Navy tradition of the first homecoming kiss. Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta had won a raffle and, as the dock landing ship USS Oak Hill returned to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek on a cold December day in 2011, her girlfriend of two years, Lali Snell, herself a sailor, stood pierside, waiting.
When Snell, now 26, returned from a deployment the previous August, such a public display of affection between a same-sex couple would have been prohibited by the military's long-standing "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which was rescinded a month later.
It was a kiss that was meant to be, Snell told reporters at the time.
Then, almost as quickly as Gaeta and Snell very publicly announced their relationship to the world, the women faded from the limelight.
Back to their relationship. Back to their careers in the Navy.
There was pushback from some people who didn't support the couple's same-sex relationship as well as the usual gossip. Some of the sailors on Snell's ship accused her of using the photo as an attention grab, she said.
"On a ship, it's like high school," Snell said in a phone call from Louisiana, where she is a college freshman with plans to go to medical school to become a forensic pathologist. "There's drama and there's rumors and people talk about each other."
Largely, though, the women said their relationship was supported by the Navy and their commands. They got some hate mail along with some letters of support, calling the couple inspirational and courageous, Snell said. She remembered a visit to a Target store in Virginia Beach where a family recognized the couple and shook their hands.
"It's nice having that positive reinforcement," she said. "It reminds you there's still kindness in the world."
But military life has a way of stressing relationships. Long deployments can splinter even the closest entwined. The couple met at their training school in Great Lakes, Ill., and had barely spent time apart before settling into an apartment in Virginia Beach in the fall of 2010.
Snell deployed first, leaving on the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge in January 2011 after the couple became engaged. Soon after her return, Gaeta left, leaving the couple only about a week to spend together in all of 2011.
"Essentially, she and I spent a year apart," Gaeta, now 28, said in a phone interview from California. Time apart caused a drift.
"You know, she had her friends and I had my friends and there was just a divide when I came back," said Gaeta, who worked as a fire controlman.
The breakup was dramatic, coming sometime in June or July of 2012, Gaeta said. That the photo so largely documented Gaeta and Snell's togetherness added pressure, Snell said.
"I almost felt we were going to let people down," Snell said.
Not long after the breakup, Snell started dating a man named Greg, also a former sailor. The couple now are engaged and have a 3-year-old son, Liam. Snell left the Navy in 2015 as a petty officer second class. She still misses the structure and her job working as a fire controlman, she said.
Gaeta left the Navy, and Hampton Roads, in 2015. She has dated some but is focusing on her studies. Aside from working full time, she started college classes last week with plans of becoming a labor and delivery nurse. She also is making up for lost time with her two young nephews.
The Navy taught Gaeta how to work with people from different backgrounds, a skill that will help her in her future career.
"I really developed a way with people, to be honest with you," she said.
Gaeta and Snell still communicate on occasion and speak of each other fondly. In the days following their headline-grabbing kiss, they were invited to San Diego Pride and were courted by New York media, Gaeta said.
They granted only one post-kiss pierside interview. It's almost as if they realized that by buying into the media circus they risked their relationship being defined by only a few seconds of their lives. They didn't want to be poster children for a movement. Still, requests from the media did come along over the years.
When the couple said they'd split, the media lost interest, Gaeta said.
Why talk now?
Snell admits she's nervous about being in the spotlight again. People can be so cruel.
But there's a photo out there of a young couple sharing a special moment, a snapshot that symbolizes a place in time that's larger than just one relationship.
Neither regret that first kiss.
"I think it was such a big moment in, you know, history for the Navy and for the LGBT community so, I'm OK with it," Snell said.
Perhaps some moments truly are meant to be.
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