Today’s the day I want to tell this story, because it comes from the place where I grew up, and it happened shortly after I first came out:
I was thinking about Gerry Crane today. West Michigan people may remember him as the gay teacher from Byron Center who was outed and subsequently persecuted out of his job in 1996.
It’s worth remembering that in 1996 two men having a public commitment ceremony, like Gerry and his partner Randy had celebrated at the Meijer Gardens, was not only controversial—it was more or less unheard of. Especially in conservative West Michigan.
Once the community at large had found out about Gerry and Randy’s ceremony the persecution began. Someone at the school released the names and addresses of Gerry’s students and their families quickly began receiving hate-filled anti-gay propaganda in the mail. While the school board voted not to fire Crane the school and community made it clear he was no longer welcome to teach their children. Gerry was eventually given a severance package and left Byron Center Schools.
Crane passed away of heart failure a year later at the age of 32. His partner Randy had to sue the school district in order to continue receiving money from Gerry’s severance package and life insurance benefits.
It’s worth noting that with social media and a more accepting society what happened to Gerry and Randy might not happen if this story was set in the present day. I vividly remember the outrage (and fear) myself and the rest of the gay community all felt as this story unfolded. What’s even more striking for me to recall is the general lack of non-gay voices within the outrage. In 1996 most of the straight community were firmly in the opposition, and even those who were not did not seem eager to voice their contrary beliefs. I don’t recall a single supportive newspaper editorial or heterosexual person being interviewed on the news who spoke in support of Gerry and against the hatred and bigotry that became a part of his and Randy’s daily life. The message to me as a gay teenager was clear: you are not welcome here.
If anything that’s the part that has changed over the intervening seventeen years. The support of allies, family, and friends has grown immensely and for that I and likely every LGBT/etc person are grateful. I’d go as far to say that without their support our rights wouldn’t be up for discussion in front of the Supreme Court today.
But Gerry Crane’s story highlights the fact that marriage is only one front in the fight against bigotry. State and Federal marriage protections can guarantee equal benefits, but even if marriages are recognized equally throughout the country it’s those very relationships that can still put our lives and livelihoods at risk.
So today as the Supreme Court debates DOMA and as gay rights are at the top of the news cycle this week and in the coming months it will be Gerry Crane I’ll be thinking of.
If this turns out the way we hope and the Court decides in favor of marriage equality I hope we’ll all take a moment out of our victory celebrations to remember the many who have suffered through bigotry and hatred yet persevered regardless, and how much work is still left to do.
Gerry and Randy, this one will be for you.