Say yes, Michigan: Marriage equality now

My partner of seven years and I were married last September in a small ceremony on the Detroit River. The next day, we celebrated with a big picnic on Belle Isle. It was wonderful: simple, informal, and (almost entirely) stress-free. Family and friends streamed in and out steadily all day, bearing goodwill and great food, chatting, relaxing, and playing games until nightfall. In the end, our union was thoroughly witnessed and enthusiastically affirmed, and we understood, for the first time, really, the extent to which our community's love and support surrounds and strengthens our relationship.

Those two days felt perfect, while we were living them. But the truth is more complicated than that, because there were two important parties notably absent from the proceedings (and, more to the point, from the union): the federal and state governments. Her words rang true when our friend and officiant proudly pronounced us husbands that day on the river, because as far as we're concerned, and as far as the community we're a part of is concerned, that's what we are. According to the laws of the land, however, our marriage is no marriage at all.

Michigan's 2004 voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is one of the country's most prohibitive, according to Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan LGBT project. Shortly after its passage, former state attorney general Mike Cox argued that the amendment does more than just ban same-sex marriage and civil unions, it also effectively bars public employers from providing benefits like health insurance to employees' same-sex partners. In 2008, Michigan's Supreme Court upheld that interpretation.

It's a cruel irony that, nine years later, Cox now publicly supports abolishing the ban, but his personal shift is representative of a more widespread cultural change in Michigan when it comes to same-sex marriage. Fifty six percent of Michigan citizens now support the rights of same-sex couples to marry, according to Emily Dievendorf, the managing director of Equality Michigan, the state's largest LGBT rights advocacy organization. Compare that with the 59 percent who voted to ban gay marriage in 2004.

Michigan same-sex couples who would like to marry legally are currently awaiting a decision by federal judge Bernard Friedman, who heard arguments in March about the state's gay marriage ban. (April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, a Hazel Park couple, sued Michigan for joint adoption rights of the three kids they're raising together, and Judge Friedman expanded the scope of the case to include the marriage question.) He's waiting to act until the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the two gay marriage cases it heard in March, one on California's Proposition 8 and another on the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The Supreme Court rulings are expected to come in June. In the meantime, organizations like the ACLU and Equality Michigan are working on a few other fronts to advance marriage equality in the state.

The ACLU is fighting a 2011 bill, approved by Michigan's Republican-led House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Snyder, that restricts same-sex partner benefits even further than the Michigan Supreme Court decision did.

The 2011 legislation, according to Kaplan, clearly targets same-sex couples for discrimination. It specifically prohibits certain public employers, including cities, townships, counties, public schools, and community colleges, from providing benefits to people who "share a residence with a public employee and who are not married to the employee."

Some public employers had worked around the 2008 Michigan Supreme Court decision by making benefits available to "other qualified adults," without specifying same-sex relationships. This legislation short-circuits those efforts, and prohibits the employers from providing benefits to any unmarried partner (including, it's worth noting, an opposite-sex one).

"Michigan is the only state in the U.S. that has passed such specifically discriminatory legislation," Kaplan says. He was part of a legal team that argued against the law on behalf of four public employees and their spouses last August. They are still waiting for the judge to rule.

Equality Michigan, meanwhile, is in the early stages of advancing a 2016 repeal of the 2004 constitutional amendment, in case Judge Friedman decides to uphold it. "We have discrimination written into our constitution," Emily Dievendorf says, "and that is a shameful thing." Currently, Equality Michigan is researching the best strategies to launch a gay marriage fight that is just one component part of a broader push for LGBT rights in Michigan.

"Over the next couple of years," she says, "we want Michigan residents to know exactly what rights LGBT Michiganders do and do not have, then see what we have to work on. Every state that has achieved marriage equality so far has also passed nondiscrimination policies, for instance, and we haven't even done that yet." (In Michigan, LGBT people can legally be fired or denied access to housing or public accommodations based on their sexual orientation.) "We're trying to focus the energy we're seeing around marriage equality and address the thirst to repeal the amendment, but along the way we want to make sure we're caring for all LGBT Michigan citizens, and addressing the discrimination that's still happening in these other areas, as well."

In addition to the work of advocates who are busy mounting legal challenges and advancing formal strategies for social change, everyday LGBT Michiganders are working to change people's minds about marriage equality in another important way: we're getting married, the law be damned.

Detroiters Matthew Bode and Roland Leggett got married in town just last week. When I ask them about reactions to their wedding and marriage from their families and, in Matthew's case, his church community (he's a pastor), Matthew says, "I think we've had the opportunity to do a lot of teaching just by getting married. A lot of people around us wanted to be open, I think, but maybe didn't know how. But with Roland and I being unapologetic about who we are and just talking openly about what's happening, it gives people the chance to breathe and be who they are as well. And to ask questions! It's been wonderful to watch people change."

Michelle and April Anderson, also of Detroit, concur. They were married in 2012 in New York state, where same-sex marriage is legal. (This confers them no legal benefits at the moment, since they reside in Michigan, but if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act, they should be eligible to receive the more than 1,000 federal benefits that legal marriage confers.)

April mentions that her dad was never particularly comfortable with her sexuality, saying, for instance, that she couldn't bring girlfriends home to meet the family. After her marriage to Michelle, though, something changed. She recalls a time when she and Michelle had a fight, and she left their house to go to her parents' home. She was shocked by her dad's reaction. "He said, 'Nope, April, you're married now. You need to go home if you have a problem. You don't get to just run away. You've got to get home and work it out.' I couldn't believe it, but I think our marriage solidified something, made it concrete that Michelle is here, we're together, and that's not going to change."

It's becoming increasingly clear that history will on the side of same-sex marriage in this country. In just the last two weeks, Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota joined nine other states in legalizing it. Experts predict that the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. For the first time in history, we have an openly supportive president, and 70 percent of 18 to 32 year olds believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry. That right is by no means the only cause our community needs to fight for, but its power to advance widespread support for full LGBT equality can't be overstated.

Michigan, having once lagged behind in this defining civil rights struggle, is picking up speed. And while our work is far from over, finally, we're starting to feel the wind at our backs.

Matthew Piper authors the Green City Diaries for Model D and has wriiten about art, design and the emerging blue-green economy.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

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Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at