By Richie Carni and Jalen Dann
Entirely East Lansing staff writers
EAST LANSING–In the wake of the ruling on same-sex marriage on March 22, 2014, and the hold that was placed shortly after, many same-sex couples have found themselves in limbo, with their weddings being considered legal, but being denied access to many marriage benefits.
Chelsea McCarty and Rebecca Lee were one of 43 couples at Harbor Unitarian Universalist Congregation on March 22. McCarty, a full-time, graduate student at Ferris State University studying criminal justice, said the marriage took an immense weight off her shoulders.
“Being legally married meant a lot to me,” McCarty said. “To me, it just meant that we are recognized as an equal. That we are not some kind of second-class citizen.”
Lee said the marriage has brought on an entirely new perspective on marriage equality in the United States.
“Now I pay much more attention to where it is accepted, and where I am able to help,” Lee said. “Chelsea has opened up so many doors, with just this subject, for me to look in to. I want to fight for it. I want to know what is going on in other states. I’m getting more educated every day, and I have a bigger interest in it now.”
Lee also said she has been in contact with the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, and has asked for legal guidance.
McCarty said she and Lee are strongly considering having children, but added the legal red tape makes the process difficult.
“I think the biggest challenge is the legalities, because you can’t legally adopt,” McCarty said.
Lee said she was in a previous relationship with a woman who had a child, and the child was often teased for not having a father. Lee said she is worried her own child may encounter the same negativity.
“We’re no different from any regular mom and dad,” Lee said. “We are two parents that care for our child…we’re just girls.”
They met online
East Lansing residents William and Michael Sawyer-Todd have been together for nearly 14 years, and were married on Nov. 13, 2013 ,in upstate New York. A relationship that began strictly via email communication turned into “love at first sight,” Michael said.
William said they considered themselves married long before their ceremony. He said, to them, it was real after the night they exchanged rings, on the bench where they first kissed on Michigan State’s campus in 2001. William Sawyer-Todd said being officially recognized was a big moment.
“We felt enfranchised for the first time. It didn’t change our relationship one iota, but our government finally recognized us,” said William Sawyer-Todd, who works as a legislative liaison for the Michigan Department of Treasury. “That’s something that, when I came out in the ‘70s, we didn’t dream of…”
Both William and Michael are involved with the Lansing Association for Human Rights Political Action Committee (LAHR-PAC), and William is a member of the Lansing ACLU and the East Lansing Human Relations commission.
Like McCarty and Lee, William Sawyer-Todd said he and his husband are confident the state will recognize same-sex marriages very soon, and added they don’t conduct their lives differently than any other couple.
“It’s not like we do the ‘gay’ laundry and do the ‘gay’ tax books,” William Sawyer-Todd said. “Or mow the ‘gay’ lawn,” Michael Sawyer-Todd said.
William Sawyer-Todd said he is concerned about whether his husband will have access to his pension, which is prohibited until the state recognizes their marriage.
Providing a voice
Penny Gardner has been with her partner, Marilyn Bowen, for 17 years. As president of LAHR, Gardner said she is dedicated to providing a voice for LGBT members in her area.
“We are a local LGBT advocacy group that has been in business for nearly 40 years,” Gardner said. “We’ve become the spokespeople for the LGBT community here in Lansing.”
Gardner, a Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures professor at MSU, said she was married twice before, in heterosexual relationships, but does not plan on getting married again.
“I just know that Marilyn and I are committed to each other, and as soon as we thought about marriage, it became scary,” said Gardner, who moved to the Lansing area in January of 1994.
Gardner also said the state’s involvement in marriage is another reason she and her partner don’t plan on pursuing marriage, but added she believes every couple should have the choice to be married, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“I don’t believe the state should be in the marriage business at all. And if it is, the marriage should be a civil contract,” Gardner said. “As long as the state is in the business, it needs to be in the business for all of us.”
Outside of her work with LAHR, Gardner said she is dedicated to fighting discrimination and protecting the human rights of elderly LGBT community members. Her concern for elderly LGBT members is similar to Lee’s concern for her future child
“They get harassed and bullied just like kids in school,” Gardner said. “If they come out, they often go back into the closet if they have to be in a facility, rehabilitation or even go to their doctor.”
The same-sex marriage ruling on March 22, 2014, allowed 300 couples to be married in Michigan, and was a landmark moment for the LGBT community. However, since the state has yet to officially recognize the marriages, many of these couples are in limbo, and same-sex couples statewide are experiencing struggles ranging from a lack of financial benefits, such as pension access and joint tax returns, to child adoption.