When The Personal Becomes Political

I was at the Oakland county courthouse Oct. 16 waiting for the ruling that never came from Judge Friedman which could have allowed for marriage equality in Michigan. There were about 30 people waiting patiently in line, hoping for the chance to get a marriage license from the county clerk's office. Some were dressed up, some came casual. One couple brought their two young children to share in this most intimate of family affairs.
They were not there to make a political statement about the rights of LGBT people. They were not there for the TV cameras or the many news reporters who were circling the group, looking for quotes and photo ops. In fact, more than half of the couples told me they were uncomfortable being "outed" in BTL, despite the fact that they were at a government agency, standing up together to request - even demand - that their relationship be recognized in the public sphere.
One woman told me that she would surely loss her job if her superiors learned she is a lesbian. Another person said they were not out to their family yet. And one person is a prominent public figure who did not want to be identified for fear that it would be interpreted as some sort of endorsement by their employer.
They were excited, hopeful - and scared.
I've described this to many people since last week and have received the same surprised reaction. In 2013, who would be worried about what someone would think about them being LGBT? Aren't we all past that?
The answer is clearly no.
Even if Judge Friedman had allowed a window of opportunity for marriage, there would still be no job protections in Michigan. By putting a photo of one's wife or husband on their desk they might lose their job. These couples, some together for many decades, risked their livelihoods in their simple desire to be married to the person they feel is their rightful spouse.
The couples who showed up at the county clerk's office that morning were not the people who march and picket for LGBT rights. They were not the activists from the front lines. They were committed, same-sex couples who heard there was a chance they could marry that day. It was intimate, personal, special and beautiful.
After a few hours of waiting and chatting, word came down that Judge Friedman would not rule that day. There would be no marriages. Everyone should just go home.
Their faces said it all. Disappointment. Rejection. Pain. Even embarrassment.
They put away their birth certificates and passports they'd brought for the marriage license application and made the way to their cars. Some were crying. Some were angry. They did not talk to each other much. It was a silent disbursement.
Most avoided the reporters waiting outside the courthouse who sought their reaction to the non-ruling. "How do you feel about not being able to marry today?" they asked. Those who could not afford to be out scurried away, not answering the reporters or even looking their way, for fear that a camera might catch an image of their tears and rage.
My heart broke for them. Their lives, their loves, their families of choice - back to the silence.
I shed a tear for myself and Susan, too. I had our birth certificates ready in my briefcase. We had been married eight years ago in Canada, but we thought there was a chance we could marry that day in our home state too. As long-time activists both of us are used to losing a fight, and we are tough enough to deflect the anti-marriage rhetoric and continue the struggle for LGBT equality. We believe we are making progress. The setbacks are offset by the huge gains we have made in recent years, and the victories we expect to come in the months and years ahead.
But it still hurt. Watching the other couples leave the courthouse I wasn't thinking about legal strategy or political maneuvering. I was imaging what they would tell their children that night at dinner, or what they might say to each other as they got ready to lie down for the night.
It is so intimate, so delicate and so important how we treat each other - privately and in the public sphere. In the struggle for marriage equality the personal is political, and that was clearly etched on all our faces leaving the courthouse that day.