After Soul Searching, the City of Angels and a New Mate
Eric Kugler likes to say he met Judge Dean Hansell through Ed Sullivan and Ingrid Bergman. What actually brought them together in February 2011, though, was GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Now on the Superior Court of California, Judge Hansell, 70, had helped to start the alliance’s Los Angeles chapter in 1986. When he met Mr. Kugler, Judge Hansell was a partner at Hogan Lovells, an international law firm, and hosting a GLAAD fund-raiser at his home in Los Angeles’s Hancock Park neighborhood.
Mr. Kugler, new to L.A. and to GLAAD, came with a friend. After seeing a framed photograph of Mr. Sullivan on a wall, he wanted to know more. “I tapped Dean on the shoulder and introduced myself,” he said. Then Mr. Kugler asked, “What’s the deal with Ed Sullivan?” Judge Hansell’s grandparents, he told Mr. Kugler, had been friends with the TV host.
A few minutes later, after spying what he thought was a photograph of Ms. Bergman, Mr. Kugler approached Judge Hansell again. It turned out the picture was of Judge Hansell’s mother, a look-alike. But the mix-up helped move their conversation past Hollywood icons. Mr. Kugler left the party with Judge Hansell’s business card. Within months, they were a couple.
Though their relationship took off fairly quickly, the lead up to it was decades in the making for Mr. Kugler, now 64, who had lived as a straight man for much of his life.
In 1995, he was a 37-year-old mortgage broker in Houston with a wife and two sons when a client who applied for a loan came onto him. Mr. Kugler did not turn down his advances. “Truthfully, I thought I was acting on it just to confirm to myself I wasn’t gay,” he said. As it turned out, “I was wrong.” Not only did that encounter lead to a sexual awakening, but also a tryst that would rupture his family.
He told his wife, Jeanne Kugler, immediately. But they kept it a secret from their sons Joshua and Matthew, then 12 and 8, for eight years. Not because of shame, but out of a sense of parental responsibility, said Mr. Kugler, who started attending a gay fathers’ support group at a local Methodist church soon after his tryst with the client.
The group helped him realize that “I’m a father first,” he added. “I don’t define myself by my sexuality.”
The Kuglers divorced in 2002, telling their children they had grown apart. A year later, in 2003, Mr. Kugler came out to Joshua, their elder son, to preserve his integrity. “He point-blank asked me, and I had always said I would never lie,” Mr. Kugler said.
Following advice from a therapist he was seeing, Mr. Kugler was going to wait a couple more years to tell Matthew. But within a couple of months of Mr. Kugler coming out to Joshua, Matthew overheard a conversation between his older brother and their mother about their father, and put it all together.
The realization upset him at first. “I was supposed to go to dinner with Matthew, and he said, ‘I don’t want to go to dinner with you,’” said Mr. Kugler, who got in the car to pick his son up anyway. “It was one of the scariest drives I’ve ever had, not knowing what I was going to say to him.”
When Matthew got into the car, Mr. Kugler asked him, “‘Do you notice anything different about me?’” He replied that he didn’t, and Mr. Kugler explained that this was because nothing had changed. “I’m still your father,” he said. “The same father who took you to the orthodontist yesterday and to the prom on Saturday.”
Reflecting on that period, Matthew, now 34 and a writer and executive producer at the podcast production company Treefort Media in Los Angeles, said, “certainly we went through some weird times.”
“But it says so much about our family that we got through it,” he added.
When Ms. Kugler married her second husband, in 2005, Mr. Kugler walked her down the aisle. The following year, in 2006, their son Joshua died of cystic fibrosis at age 23. After his death, Matthew said, “I think my parents felt they were living on borrowed time.” He added that the loss of their elder son helped them move “into this second phase of their lives, where they could be best friends.”
In 2011, Mr. Kugler moved to Los Angeles after selling the company he co-owned, RMC Vanguard Mortgage Corporation in Houston. He chose L.A. because Matthew, then a student at the University of Kansas, had recently started an internship there, at “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”
The GLAAD fund-raiser at Judge Hansell’s house was among Mr. Kugler’s first social outings in the city. Getting a date out of the event wasn’t part of his agenda, but when he emailed Judge Hansell a few days later to talk about how he could get more involved with GLAAD, they scheduled a get-together.
Their first date — neither can remember if it was that February or March — was dinner at Mr. Kugler’s condominium. He served grapes, and grapes only. “I told him, ‘I’m not the best cook — watch what you say or I’ll never cook again,’” Mr. Kugler said. Judge Hansell was charmed: “As you can tell, he has a great sense of humor.”
By the summer of 2011, neither wanted to date anyone else. The fact that Mr. Kugler had previously been married to a woman was not a red flag for Judge Hansell, who had never been married. “Actually, that’s all been a positive to me,” he said. “Because he was married, I knew he was capable of having a long-term relationship.”
Five summers later, in 2016, Mr. Kugler was in the process of moving into Judge Hansell’s Hancock Park house when he was appointed to the Superior Court bench. “He loved being a judge so much,” Mr. Kugler said. “Every morning he would get out of bed bubbly and gleeful. It was nauseating.” But also inspiring.
Since selling the mortgage company in Houston, Mr. Kugler had continued to work remotely for it in Los Angeles per the terms of the sale. When he finally retired in 2017, he decided to try his luck as an actor and standup comic. “I was turning 60,” he said. “I thought, I want to do something that I could have such a love for, too.”
His first audition as an actor, for a Depends television commercial, didn’t land him a job. “I couldn’t even get a job wearing a diaper,” he said. But his first few open mic nights at Flappers, a Burbank comedy club, were the opposite of humiliating. He’s been booking comedy shows steadily ever since, and credits his personal life for providing a gold mine of material.
Judge Hansell and Mr. Kugler became engaged in October 2020 over a breakfast of German chocolate cake at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “We had been talking about marriage for a while,” Judge Hansell said. Ready to propose, he orchestrated a trip up the central coast of California to make the occasion more romantic, and popped the question using one of Mr. Kugler’s favorite forms of communication: Post-its.
“Eric is a master of communicating through Post-its,” Judge Hansell said. One morning, before he roused Mr. Kugler with cake and coffee, he spelled out “Will you marry me?” letter by letter on individual Post-its and stuck each to a mirror. “I did not see that coming,” Mr. Kugler said.
The proposal may have been unexpected, but the timing of it was not. Mr. Kugler’s son Matthew and his wife, Laura Potesta Kugler, were supposed to be married in 2020. Though their wedding got pushed to June 2021 because of the pandemic, Mr. Kugler wanted his union with Judge Hansell to be official by the time they become grandfathers. (It hasn’t happened yet.)
“I just felt like it was something we should do,” Mr. Kugler said. “When people ask, Why did you decide to get married after 11 years? We say it’s because we wanted to have grandchildren together.”
On March 26, the couple wed in the back yard of their Hancock Park home, where both men were escorted down a grassy aisle scattered with white rose petals. Judge Hansell, in a black tuxedo and skullcap, walked arm in arm with his niece, Kara Aron, and nephew, Grant Hansell. Mr. Kugler, also in a black tuxedo and skullcap, walked with Matthew and Ms. Potesta Kugler.
Waiting at a huppah draped with flowing white fabric was their officiant, Lisa Edwards, rabbi emerita at the Beth Chayim Chadashim synagogue in Los Angeles. Toward the end of a Jewish ceremony capped by the stomping of a glass and hoots of “Mazel tov!,” Rabbi Edwards reminded the couple’s 130 fully vaccinated guests that love has a way of arriving on its own schedule.
“You two demonstrate it tonight and every day: Dreams need have no expiration dates,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t even know we had dreams until they come true.”
On This Day
When March 26, 2022
Where The back yard of the grooms’ home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles.
Very, Very Extraordinary Judge Hansell and Mr. Kugler kicked off a post-wedding reception in their backyard with a performance worthy of “The Ed Sullivan Show”: for their first dance, to the song “L.O.V.E.” by Nat King Cole, they wore top hats and held parasols. When it ended, Mr. Kugler asked Ms. Kugler for a dance to “Three Times a Lady,” their wedding song from decades earlier. Both were in tears as they took to the dance floor.
Not Forgotten In an emotional speech, Matthew remembered his brother. Joshua would have loved Judge Hansell, he said: “He’d be thrilled to finally have an intellectual conversation in the family.” But “more than that, to see someone who would accept, support and love who you were, are and will be, Dad. No child could hope for anything more.”
No Objections Since joining the court, Judge Hansell has officiated about a dozen weddings — some, including Matthew’s, in the same back yard. “To me, it’s one of the most special things about being a judge,” he said.