Sean Peschel cooks and serves Chicken Marsala for dinner at their Somersworth home. Sean does most of the cooking in the family. [Deb Cram/]

Mayor and his husband

Couple became inseparable after very different family lives as kids

It's Chicken Marsala and salad for dinner on a Wednesday night at the home of Dana Hilliard and Sean Peschel.

Peschel, 39, is busy in the kitchen with dinner preparations while Hilliard, 46, talks about life and politics. Hilliard wonders what the fuss is all about with the Chicken Marsala and salad. Peschel gently reminds him that good dinners take time and you just can't whip up something of quality in an instant.

When it comes to Chicken Marsala and conversation, Hilliard and Peschel seem like a typical married couple, and though they're longtime partners, they were not yet married at the time of this dinner.

Hilliard is the mayor of Somersworth, one of the smallest cities in New Hampshire, which many residents say is an open and friendly community when it comes to expressing one's sexuality. Hilliard is also a career educator, principal of the Somersworth Middle School and a political activist.

Peschel, also an educator, works as a guidance counselor at Oyster River High School in Durham.

The two men, who have been together about 17 years, live in a modest white house on a cul-de-sac in a dense residential neighbor. They have two dogs, Bruski and Princess, both rescue dogs, and a cat.

They met during teacher orientation and Peschel "instantly put a smile on my face," Hilliard said. Hilliard was 30 and Peschel was 22. Peschel had moved to New Hampshire from Connecticut to attend college and ended up staying after graduation because he got a teaching job.

Hilliard said the two started out as friends, planning lessons, watching movies and TV together, going out to dinner and traveling. "The friendship then evolved into us dating as we became inseparable," Hilliard said.

"What attracted me the most to him and still does is his ability to make me smile, his kind nature and I still — as I have for 16 years — want to do everything with him," Hilliard said. Hilliard loves traveling, but when he travels without Peschel, he said he's usually thinking how much more enjoyable it would be if Peschel was with him.

Hilliard and Peschel come from very different backgrounds, but share one common thread — they were both raised as Roman Catholics. Hilliard's family is big and boisterous and had many hot political discussions around the dinner table when he was growing up.

"My dinner table would consist of every night, my father mistakenly bringing up some political topic and then voicing his opinion and then the entire table blowing up at each other," Hilliard said. "All of us would debate each other and we’d be screaming at each other and yelling at each other and my mother would just try to keep the whole thing moving."

In contrast, Peschel was an only child in what he describes as an "idyllic" middle-class Connecticut family with a doting stay-at-home mother. Family dinners with just three people at the table were quiet, he said. There were never any political discussions. In fact, he said, his parents don't vote.

Hilliard didn't figure out he was gay until college. "I was a late bloomer," he said. He had a girlfriend then and realized he was struggling. As is his nature, Hilliard sorted it out quickly and said his coming out wasn't painful at all. "My parents were very supportive. My mother had very limited questions. She said, 'OK, no big deal, but you always had girlfriends and girls over to the house.' And I said, 'Yeah, it was really never working mom.' And that was it, Hilliard said.

"My father, it was almost like a joke. He was like, 'Well I don’t believe in that.' And I was like, 'Well, I don’t like believe in you, so you and I have something in common,' and that was it! That was the end of it. And my parents have always treated Sean like another son. He’s 100 percent embedded within our family. That was my coming out."

"And when I came out to some of my friends they were like, 'Duh' … that was funny; they knew and I didn’t," Hilliard said.

Peschel's coming out and its aftermath was a much different experience than Hilliard's. When he told his mother, she was confused, then internalized it and blamed herself, sinking into Catholic guilt, Peschel said. In his mother's belief system, people were supposed to get married and have kids who would be raised as Catholics. "I messed up that system of sorts," Peschel said.

She also told Peschel she shouldn’t have taught him things like how to cook and clean and do needlepoint. "She made it about herself," Peschel said.

"When I came out she went to talk to the priest back home and he said, 'Grace, he’s your kid, you’re going to love him whatever.' He brought her back to the roots of you can’t judge your kid. He’s your kid, he’s your child," Peschel said. But 60 years of her upbringing still make it difficult for her to deal with her son's sexuality, Peschel said.

His mother asked that Peschel not tell anyone else in the family. "I haven't told anyone I'm gay directly to another relative," he said.

When Peschel goes home to Connecticut, people ask about Hilliard all the time and it's awkward and uneasy honoring his mother's request. "I miss going home. I love and miss Connecticut," Peschel said. "We've been together 16, 17 years now and it's still there."

Peschel's father was very quiet when Peschel came out to him. "'You know Sean, I don't care who you are or what you are, but I just want to let you know that I'm against gay marriage,'" Peschel said, quoting his father. "So that's always stuck in my head."

Hilliard said that's where he and Peschel are different. "I don't care. This is who I am and if you don't accept it, then it's going to be your loss, not mine — because you are going to lose out on having me in your life. And really that's it," he said.

But Peschel reminds Hilliard he has his siblings to fall back on, while Peschel is an only child. "If I walk away, I'd have nothing," he said.

Peschel really wants to marry Hilliard, but is hoping for his family's support. He said he needs to have that conversation with them and, if they say no, move forward without their blessing.

In the meantime, their life as a couple in Somersworth goes on. "We've got a good group of friends. It's wide and diverse. We're all different, but it works," Hilliard said.

Postscript: Hilliard and Peschel married early last summer without either of their families in attendance. Hilliard said that in the end, that's the way they wanted it. "It's our journey," Hilliard said.

Hilliard said they got married in Portsmouth with just two of their closest friends in attendance. They had what Hilliard called a "re-do" event several weeks later on the beach in Provincetown, Mass., with just eight friends attending. Hilliard described himself as "a private guy" and "a small audience guy," and said the wedding and "re-do" were perfect.

A Somersworth cafe, serves up sweet treats, caffeinated beverages and educational programming and political and entertainment events centering on LBGTQ youth and adults.