When I choked up trying to explain the reaction of a group of students and community members to Judge Bernard Friedman’s ruling to my editor, I was actually shocked. Friedman had just released a scathing 31-page ruling not just striking Michigan’s marriage ban down as Unconstitutional, but had completely revealed the state’s arguments for the hallowed out, painted up straw men of hate they were– and smacked the state and its witnesses around the court to boot.
It is no secret that marriage has never been on the top of my list of to do things for LGBT equality — in Michigan or nationally. I think economic security is much more important and believe amending nondiscrimination laws require much more urgent attention. I also believe the increasing rates of HIV infections among young men who have sex with men are a crisis and deserving of the same level of attention and action as the marriage movement has gained.
But there I was, trying to tell my editor at the weekly gay newspaper what happened in the room — about the cheers, the tears, the utter happiness of a room of LGBT people and allies — and I chocked, my eyes burned, and the tears came. Right there on Capitol Avenue in Downtown Lansing. I was three blocks from the Capitol building, and standing in front of the Student Services Building at Lansing Community College. I was literally standing on the same spot where, some 20 plus years ago, I held a press conference to discuss my pending, possible expulsion from the college for daring to pass out condoms without permission.
I was standing in front of the building where, weeks after the college relented and did not punish me for passing out condoms, the student government adopted a then comprehensive nondiscrimination policy including sexual orientation. I was standing less than a block from where the Board of Trustees voted months later, unanimously, to adopt sexual orientation officially into the college’s nondiscrimination policy — becoming the second community college in Michigan to do so.
Around the corner from where I was standing was the Arts and Sciences building where I took my first tentative steps towards telling people that my partner had HIV. And there in that building I was standing in front of, an amazing young journalist had written David’s story for the college newspaper with care and great delicacy. A story for which she won awards from professional journalists.
I was standing just a block from where Perry Watkins, the first openly gay U.S. soldier ever ordered readmitted to the military by the U.S. Supreme Court, debated a former Navy man and vice president of the college about inclusion of gays in the military. Perry would die a year later from AIDS, but he had been there.
I was standing across the street from a parking lot that once housed a grand old building where my god son Aaron held the Bible, and a Republican township clerk named Mary Helmbrecht, gave me the oath of office to become Michigan’s first openly gay male community college trustee. There, in that room, were friends, but more importantly were family. My Aunt Amy Jo and Uncle Paul, who came up at the encouragement of my Grandma Phillips, to see me sworn in — yet believing it was student government, not the official elective office. They came anyway. And so did my god sons and their parents.
And that board room where a decade before my election another board had approved sexual orientation, I helped lead the board I was humbled to serve to adopt gender identity protections as official nondiscrimination policy at the college, and where we became the first community college in Michigan to offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex partners of our college employees.
So today, March 21, 2014, as I stood on the campus of LCC, and I tried to speak of the emotional response of a new generation of queer leaders to learning the federal court in Detroit had upheld their basic human rights, I choked up and I cried. Not because we had marriage equality, but because we were one giant step closer to full equality. I cried because over 20 years ago, I was the only openly gay student leader on campus; today there are dozens. I cried because over 20 years ago, the idea that LGBT people should not be discriminated against was so alien it took three years to get that idea enshrined in college policies. I cried because 20 years ago, an out gay man serving in political office in Michigan was considered a dream. I cried, because 23 years ago, David called me from the Gannon building to come get him, because some one was following him, calling him faggot and the LCC police refused to protect him.
Most importantly, I realized, I cried because this ruling came 18 years too late. David died in 1996 from complications of HIV — in fact, he died as I stepped onto the stage for opening night of the Jackson Shakespeare Festival to perform. And when his mother and I cleaned out his closet, we found his Christmas present for me for the coming December. It was a wedding band. Simple gold. I wear it often, but never discuss it.
Even if David had proposed to me, we would not have been able to legally say “I do.” And I cried today because that was true.
And I cried because I realized tomorrow, 18 years too late, I can finally visit David’s grave and say “Yes. I will marry you.”