By Emily Dievendorf, Executive Director Equality Michigan
Walking into the home of Henry Messer and Carl House is stepping into a densely packed nautical museum. The small and modest 1950s ranch house is riddled beautifully with model ships in glass cases and on shelves, photos of ships, and vintage World War II military propaganda posters framed on the walls. It was my first trip to the house when I came to visit Henry and say our goodbyes.
Dr. Henry Messer, one of the founders of Equality Michigan, had always come to us at the Detroit office. He would occasionally email the current organization director and ask when he could drop by for lunch with the staff. He used to arrive to the office and cook lunch for the staff but as he got up in age he would be forced to bring food to heat for us. Still, he would insist it was his treat and Henry would always bring more food than anybody could eat and we would joke that it would surely be “meat, meat, and more meat” which our half-vegetarian staff would find a way to appreciate because you didn’t say no to a person who had done so much and who just wanted to check in on the people he considered family and the place he claimed as a second home.
When I sit down next to Henry at his home he is far more alert than I expect and interested to hear about the goings on at Equality Michigan and I’m just honored that I am allowed any of his minutes at this time, in this limited time. He has been in hospice care at home for two weeks and has not eaten for a week. I push to talk about anything but the equality struggle. Tell me about the ships, the beautiful ships in your gorgeous house, I plead. He points to his long time partner Carl as somebody else in the room announces that the ships are all Carl’s. “Really,” I inquire, “Are you both veterans?”
Henry isn’t talking much at this point in his letting go. He chooses his words carefully. He uses them sparingly. They all matter. “Not really.” He answers shaking his head just slightly and somebody explains that he was in fact in the United States Air Force when Carl was in the United States Army. Henry was a neurosurgeon in the Air Force, one of our nation’s first, making him a pioneer in the field, but the military was not kind to those in the gay community at the time and in 1953 he was forced to resign his position as Air Force Captain just a year after meeting Carl. I ask Henry how he met Carl if they were in different branches of the military. He tells me they were both stationed in Alabama and “you find a way.” There we were, right back to the struggle. Henry, having pledged himself to his country, having supported his love in his continued service, their home being a homage to the honor and respect they both felt and yet Henry did not claim his place as a veteran because our country had not claimed Henry.
Henry’s life was a play by play of the gay rights movement from the darkest closets to the modern day. While living in New York City after the military, Henry was a part of the birth of the modern LGBT advocacy movement in the United States. During that time, there were even greater professional and personal consequences for being a known LGBT advocate, and Dr. Messer was one of the few who bravely signed his own full name while checking in at Mattachine Society meetings. One evening while going out for dinner, Henry and Carl walked out of the New York subway into the early hours of the Stonewall Riots.
When Henry and Carl moved to Michigan in 1976, so that Henry could become chief of neurosurgery at Wayne County General Hospital, Henry became a figure in the Michigan LGBT communities. Having become a leader in the Michigan Organization for Human Rights (MOHR), Henry played a major role in the organization’s transition into Triangle Foundation, the organization we today call Equality Michigan. We joke sometimes that a loyal or over-zealous fan would take a bullet for a cause or person but that is exactly what Henry Messer did in 1995 when a robber entered the LGBT rights organization Henry co-founded and came across Henry in the hallway only to shoot him in the hallway. The good and always resourceful neurosurgeon, after pushing the gun away from his head before the assailant ran off, gave step by step directions to the Triangle Foundation director and paramedics as to the entry and exit wound and how to save his life so that he could get back to what he was doing.
Henry insisted on a status update, and as the organization is the baby that he was leaving behind, I relented. I updated Henry on upcoming events and what was being planned for the marriage movement in Michigan, giving him a preview of the next week as requested. When I paused in my update and talked about marriage as a real possibility, soon Carl remarked to me, “Maybe Henry would have finally asked ME.” I asked how long they had been together and Henry’s friend Joy answered with “62 years.” Upon which point Henry released my hand to hold up three fingers to correct us all. I asked if they had ever talked about marriage and Carl shook his head no.
Perhaps Carl didn’t know, but maybe he did, that in the days leading up to the last DeBoer v. Snyder hearing, Henry reached out to Equality Michigan indicating that he would like us to help make arrangements for him and Carl to marry in their homes should the court allow it. Not being a religious man, we were discussing ways to utilize clerks or other friends he had in government to officiate the wedding at his home and perhaps use proxies to fill the paperwork in person. If we could find 15 minutes to marry Henry and Carl in Michigan, Henry was going to use it.
In a 1995 New York Times article, Henry is quoted as saying, “As gays, we don’t expect to have any biological children,” Dr. Messer said. “But these younger gays coming along – especially those in medicine – in a way, they’re my children. I want to make the future better for them than it was for me.” At Equality Michigan, and at Triangle before, we have always felt this from Henry. The day of my visit I promised Henry that we, the equality activists of the now, would take good care of things for him. He said, “I know you will.”
That is a promise we must keep to Henry and to all those who fought openly and for so long before us. Henry Messer did as he set out to do and in doing so left us with a battle we can win for the right side of history so that our children can only love and not fight to. Henry and Carl pressed on without the benefit of a many swift victories to fuel them. Henry and Carl could press on under the weight of anti-LGBT oppression, laughing and traveling and telling jokes that could make the youngest and wittiest among us blush, because their fuel for change and life was each other. We should all be so lucky. Our movement is built on the shoulders of giants. Our movement has now lost one of our quiet giants, and Equality Michigan has lost a friend. To have known Henry Messer – you should all have been so very lucky and we all will remain so very moved and inspired.