BY AJ TRAGER
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right." -Justice Anthony Kennedy, excerpt from the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, June 26, 2015.
ANN ARBOR – Just over a year ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges and found that states' bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. It brought an end to a decades-long battle and moved the needle of acceptance for LGBT citizens. But along with this historic victory, the year also saw hundreds of anti-gay bills introduced in state houses across the country – and on the very eve of the anniversary – the largest gun massacre in U.S. history took the lives of 49 patrons and wounded over 50 more at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12. It was a dark, horrific backlash, the ramifications of which are still being sorted out.
It is in this shadow that the one year marriage equality ruling unfolds with both sorrow and celebration.
In the nearly 5 decades since Stonewall, activists have worked hard to change hearts and minds and educate the American people about who LGBT citizens are. The changes didn't happen immediately. There were many setbacks and backlashes – often with a steep price paid, including loss of life. Nevertheless, over time, opinions on same-sex unions started to shift toward greater acceptance.
One by one, legal cases emerged in courts across the country fighting for legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. It took the work of an entire community across the U.S. and the dedication and time of legal teams in many states, to finally move the country forward on June 26, 2015.
An entire year has passed since the marriage equality ruling. So, what's changed?
For April and Jayne DeBoer-Rowse, the plaintiff couple in the Michigan same-sex marriage case (DeBoer v. Snyder) a lot has changed.
"It's funny, we hit the emotional high with all of it and then it was an emotional low. We had become used to having people coming and going (in the home) and then there wasn't (anyone) and it was just us. It was like wow, what do we do? And obviously that all picked up by taking the kids to T-ball practice and doing homework. It was back to the family," April told BTL.
Since 2012 the couple and their five children, have been in the public spotlight – whether at a press conference about their case or an LGBT event or sitting in courtrooms demanding equal treatment for their family. After they were officially married last August, just two months after the historic SCOTUS decision, things died down and they were able to focus more on family life and spend less time being Michigan's LGBT celebrities.
The stress and anxiety of a four-year trial is enough to tax anyone, let alone someone with a job and five children. In September 2015, it took it's toll when Jayne experienced a heart attack sparking a series of lifestyle changes for the couple. After taking time to recharge though, they decided it was time to come back out and be visible.
"With events around the state and the world, we thought maybe we should be back out there and try and inspire people to do things," April said. "Although we don't want to be in the front line anymore – the headline – we want people to know that we did this and that they can do this too, and we need to bond together and take on the rest of the issues that we have."
Because of the fight they waged, April and Jayne, like tens of thousands of other LGBT couples, can now legally jointly adopt their children and extend legal protections to both parents. Jayne and April's five children now have medical and legal protections connecting them to both of their mothers.
"There is a relief now that we don't have to worry about this end of it. There are plenty of things that we still have to worry about: job security – we can still be fired, and now looking at it with Orlando – it's safety. Are we safe when we walk out the door?" April asked.
Orlando has changed the attitudes of many within the LGBT community and has sparked a new energy for progressive change that had quieted down post marriage equality.
Over 100 people gathered at Braun Court to celebrate the first anniversary of marriage equality on Sunday.
"Sisters, brothers, President Obama has declared Stonewall a national monument," Jim Toy, namesake of the Jim Toy Community Center and longtime LGBT activist said in his remarks. "If we're looking for a monument look around us, Braun Court is our monument. Braun Court is our history. Braun Court is our community, Braun Court is where we work. Braun Court is where we come together to celebrate…"
Braun Court held a special brunch along with three screenings of "Accidental Activists." The documentary by Mandi Wright, journalist for the Detroit Free Press, covered the DeBoer v. Snyder trial from the beginning. Event speakers talked about the current political atmosphere for LGBT people – what has been accomplished for LGBT civil rights and what is yet to be done.
"I want to talk a little bit today about marking this first anniversary, it's a wonderful day. But we have so much more to do. The mountain has yet to be climbed. We have so much more to achieve. Obergefell didn't mark the end of civil rights protections, but the beginning. Obergefell was about the fundamental right to marry, but it is about so much more. It's about us as LGBT people not being second class citizens in this nation – which we are currently. We need basic civil rights protections," Angie Martell of Iglesia Martell Law Firm, told those gathered.
The Republican controlled Michigan House and Senate refuse to take up legislation to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to extend housing, employment and public accommodation protections for LGBT Michigan residents. Despite all the legal and social changes arriving with marriage equality, the LGBT community is still treated like second class citizens. The trans community remains a target for anti-LGBT policy makers and LGBT people are still being murdered for being LGBT.
Martell believes that now is the time for the LGBT community to band together to continue the fight for LGBT lives. She had a strong reaction to the homophobia and hate that sparked the massacre at Pulse nightclub and she recognizes a need to stay vigilant and visible. For many in the LGBT community, bars are their safe place.
"It was surprising, but I personally thought there would be smaller incidents, but not something on as grand of a scale (as Pulse). It's heartbreaking. So many people lost their lives. They're people. They're human beings. They were in the safest places that most of us have ever known, where we don't have to fear being ourselves," April told BTL.
Dana Nessel, one of the lead attorneys on the DeBoer v. Snyder case, believes now is the time for the LGBT community to come together and fight for a common cause. Nessel spent four years working on the DeBoer-Rowse case which eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court following a setback in the 6th Circuit Appellate Court. In the past year Nessel married her wife and together legally adopted their two children.
"After seeing injustice after injustice take place we really felt that doing nothing was worse than at least trying to do something. And that we would never win a case that we didn't file," Nessel told those about the DeBoer-Rowse case.
Gary Gates, who supplied an amicus brief in the DeBoer v. Snyder trial and Blachford-Cooper distinguished scholar and research director at the Williams Institute, told Nessel that a year after marriage equality there are over 491,000 same-sex couples married in the country.
The Braun Court celebration closed out with a toast by Keith Orr, co-owner of /aut/Bar and Common Language.
"To our wonderful, colorful, diverse community. We are all ages and gender identities. We are all colors and sexual orientations. We salute those who have fought to win this important step in social justice, especially Jayne and April, and Dana Nessel and her legal team. May this celebration be the springboard for ever greater steps in the arc toward social justice, that the generations who follow us may live in a world where social justice is a way of life, not a struggle. Cheers," Orr said.
Among those that attended the event were Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, D-12th District; Mayor of Ann Arbor Chris Taylor; Ann Arbor City Commissioner Yousef Rabhi and Ypsilanti Mayor Amanda Edmonds.