• Jerron Totten and his fiance, Brandon Merriman-Boddy. Photo: Inpaq Sutton.

How a Kid From the Bible Belt Grew Up to Become a Social Justice Champion in Detroit

LGBT Detroit's Jerron Totten on why he made the move and why the stakes are so high now

By |2022-07-07T17:01:01-04:00June 29th, 2022|Features, Michigan|

LGBT Detroit Social Justice Engineer Jerron Totten has been “getting out the vote” in various capacities for decades. 

Totten, 33, a native of Reidsville, North Carolina, located just outside of Greensboro, had worked on the second Obama for America campaign and Hillary for America, too. It wasn’t until 2017, however, that he visited Michigan, the state that would later become a key part of fulfilling his career dreams. 

That year, Totten visited Michigan at the invitation of Detroit City Council candidate Nguvu Tsare, who hoped to draw on Totten’s vast political experience in getting out the vote that year. But it was his introduction to LGBT Detroit Executive Director Curtis Lipscomb that proved pivotal. 

“It was an instant love affair,” Totten recalled. “Curtis really took to me, and I took to him.”

By the end of 2018, Totten was becoming a regular, visiting three more times to help Lipscomb with projects like Hotter Than July (HTJ), a Pride event celebrating Detroit’s LGBTQ+ community. A few months later, Lipscomb asked Totten to take the leap — move to Detroit to officially join up with his agency as social outreach coordinator and legislative advocacy specialist. A recent change to Totten’s title (to Social Justice Engineer) encompasses all of his primary roles. 

Jerron Totten.

Totten, who had previously lived in D.C. and Northern California, was initially unsure of moving to Detroit. “I had moved a couple times, and what I did say was this was probably my last move,” said Totten. “I was getting too old to keep moving.” 

Today, Totten oversees five different programs at the agency, drawing especially on his experience in political organizing, experience that has guided his work with Michigan Voices and Black Votes Matter, two organizations gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would protect Michigan abortion rights. 

“We’ve worked with those two organizations to make sure the public was aware of what was at stake,” said Totten, noting that the state requires 425,000 signatures by July 11 to place the issue on the November ballot. “Once the issue is put on the ballot, then we have to make sure that people get out to vote.”

From Brooklyn to boys

Growing up in North Carolina, Totten attended Elm Grove Baptist Church with his family. It is an understatement to say he was heavily involved with the church.

“I was in the junior young adult choir, the mass choir, the gospel choir, the junior praise team, young adult ushers and junior missionaries,” he said. “Plus, I won the Bible quiz six times.”

But his childhood was not always easy. He was an only child born to a mother who was only 16 years old. He frequently suffered from respiratory issues he would, thankfully, eventually outgrow. 

Totten said his mother, who worked multiple jobs, including as a hair stylist on weekends, sacrificed a great deal for him. “My mother worked a lot,” he said. “But my grandmother was mom number two. She filled in the gap for my mother. And I also had a good church family and great godparents. … I had a large village of people who poured into me.”

Totten said that, growing up, his grandmother “was a firecracker, and I think that’s where I get a little bit of my spice from.”

While in middle school, Totten met a girl named Brookyln who asked him to be her boyfriend.

“I don’t think I really knew what that meant,” he said. “But we would hold hands and I’d walk her to her house.”

Things would change quickly between the two once Brooklyn got up the nerve to be a little bold. “She just hauled off and kissed me,” Totten recalled. “And I have never felt more disgusted in my life. I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t know I had to kiss her.’”

Around that time, Totten started to realize he was different from other boys. He experienced a bout of grief and shame, but when he did eventually come out, he was pleased to find he was not met with the condemnation many gay boys who grew up in church face when they come out. “The response was very positive,” he said. “I’m very fortunate. I know that my story is a lot different from a lot of other people’s stories … I can walk into my home church hand in hand with my fiancé, and no one says a word.”

That fiancé is artist Brandon Merriman-Boddy, who was actually an RA in the same dorm building Totten lived in at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Somehow, the two never met at that time. Instead, it would be some 10 years later before they met through “Grindr or Jack’d. I don’t remember which,” Totten said with a laugh.

The two quickly started dating, but Totten knew by then he would not be back in North Carolina for long. “I knew that my time organizing wasn’t done, but I didn’t know where or how I’d be doing it,” he said.

Joining Whitmer’s LGBTQ+ council

It was only four months later that Totten got the offer to move to Detroit. Merriman-Boddy, Totten said, tried to be nonchalant when he first heard the news. “He tried to play it cool, but when he dropped me off at the airport, he broke down crying.”

For the next year, the two dated long distance, seeing each other only once a month. Then the pandemic hit and Merriman-Boddy spent three months in Detroit with Totten. Eventually, Merriman-Boddy relocated to Michigan to be with his love. The two got engaged last year and plan to get married in September 2023 in Mexico.

“You don’t see commitment like ours in the community very often,” Totten said. “I mean, ‘lucky’ isn’t the word. ‘Fortunate’ isn’t the word. I use the Biblical term ‘helpmate.’”

Merriman-Boddy is “not a partner that sits on the sidelines and watches me do the work,” Totten said. “He assists me in the work that I do, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without him beside me.”

Jerron Totten, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Curtis Lipscomb.

That work today includes being named to the 15-member LGBTQ+ For Whitmer Leadership Council, which was put together to get the governor reelected.

“I am humbled and very excited to be appointed,” Totten said. “I look forward to working with Gov. Whitmer to build a fairer, safer Michigan for everyone.” On a national level, Totten acknowledged that many voters are not pleased with Biden’s success so far. “The message in 2020 was, ‘We’ve got to get Trump out of office,’” he said. “And the voters that we’re talking to are not seeing the changes that they wanted to see after they worked to get Trump out of office.”

Once Trump was banished from the White House, Totten said he was hoping to see more action from Biden and the Democratic controlled Congress. “The expectation,” Totten said, “was that those people we put into office would not be passive on the issues that are important to us.”

Totten said Black voters are disappointed that Congress passed an anti-Asian hate bill before passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Voters now want to know if the Dems are going to protect voter rights and keep other campaign promises. Those issues must be addressed and addressed soon, Totten said, as the voter base grows weary.

“Our voter base is tired,” he said. “They are exhausted, and they were hoping to see more change than what they’ve seen.”

In addition to getting out the vote, Totten works with various other programs at LGBT Detroit, including organizing HTJ, and he could use some more help there, too. For this year’s event, which will be held July 15-17, they began organizing in November of last year. 

“Anybody can join the HTJ organizing committee,” he said. “The committee members that I do have are among the most dedicated people I’ve ever worked with, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Looking ahead, Totten said his life plan is simple: “I want to be happy with my partner and try to impact as much change as possible. Those are really my only long-term goals.”

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael joined Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. He has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author for his authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," released on his own JAM Books imprint.