A straight woman’s appeal for gay rights
Maureen “Sue” Tormey Eisman hadn’t planned to return
from her new retirement home in Florida until April. But when the Mason
resident received an e-mail action alert, calling for volunteers to
fight the anti-gay marriage reoslution in the Michigan legislature,
Eisman booked a flight to Lansing to lobby in solidarity with her gay
and lesbian friends.
“I’ve come back to change some people’s minds,”
The 57-year-old woman spent the day at the state Capitol last week,
fighting against Republican Sen. Alan Cropsey’s measure to limit
marriages in Michigan to heterosexual couples and to ban civil unions
for same-sex couples. Although herself heterosexual, Eisman feels strongly
about the issue of gay rights.
Eisman, a Mason resident who cut short her winter in Florida to
lobby against a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex
marriage in Michigan, talks to state Rep. Gary Woronchak (R-Dearborn)
at the State Capitol. Eisman, who is straight, was helped by a gay
rights organization after her ex-husband, who was gay, was murdered.
the Triangle Foundation, the American Friends Service Committee and
other gay and lesbian rights groups organized an emergency lobby day
at the state Capitol Feb. 11, Eisman said she just had to take part.
The retired Montessori high school teacher said she feels a special
commitment to the Triangle Foundation, an organization which she credits
with having given her life back to her. Her first husband, Ron Hamilton,
turned out to be gay. She remained good friends with Hamilton, a Detroit
high school librarian, after their separation in 1974. Then, in 1984,
at age 41, her ex-husband was murdered at his home in Detroit. Wayne
State University Professor Phillip Traci, a gay acquaintance of Hamilton’s,
was murdered the same day.
The Triangle Foundation helped Eisman in her appeal to the gay community,
for assistance in helping law enforcement officials with information
for the case. “They took it upon themselves to help me solve the
case. They were there for me 24 hours a day,” Eisman recalls.
Although the murderer was never officially found, Eisman is convinced
she knew the man, who she believes died of AIDS three years ago.
Today Eisman is remarried and has two children and six grandchildren.
She says that it was this personal tragedy that made her become an activist
for gay rights. It also changed the life of her second husband, Gerald
Eisman, an attorney who practices law in Florida. Eisman said her husband
had always been “gay-friendly,” but became more actively
supportive as a result of the murder case. This support was strengthened
further when her husband’s own brother came out as a gay man during
Eisman was one of 60 gay marriage supporters to lobby their state representatives
and senators to oppose Senate Joint Resolution E and House Joint Resolution
U last Wednesday.
If passed by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the legislature,
the bill will be placed on the ballot this November. Michigan residents
would then be asked to vote on whether to change the state Constitution
to include a clause that will effectively ban marriage among gay and
lesbian couples and prevent local governments from recognizing same-sex
domestic partner benefits. Such benefits are offered to employees by
the governments of Ann Arbor, Detroit and Kalamazoo, and state universities
such as MSU. “There are 1,400 state and federal benefits that
I as a married woman have. Our rights should be alike,” Eisman
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is headed by Cropsey, is expected
to hold hearings on the bill soon. The resolution has sufficient support
in both the House and the Senate to be reported out of committee.
Here is a diary of Eisman’s day of lobbying:
Feb 11, 10:30 a.m.
Eisman’s day at the Capitol began with a brief teach-in organized
by Triangle Foundation policy director Sean Kosofsky. The director suggested
that activists think of key points to raise during their discussions
with legislators. He advised them to target lawmakers most likely to
be flexible. Lawmakers who hadn’t made up their minds on the gay
marriage ban were marked with a star on a paper handed out to lobbyists.
“We absolutely have the opportunity to defeat this vicious, mean,
evil and nasty issue,” Kosofsky told a fired-up crowd. “But
it’s going to take days like this and constant letters,”
he warned. “We shall not rest because we think we have the votes.”
fills out a form in the Capitol requesting an audience with a legislator
she hopes to convince to oppose the the anti- gay marriage resolution.
said that marriage licenses cannot legally be granted to same-sex couples
anywhere in the United States, and that Michigan has already banned
such marriages, and does not honor those performed in others states
or countries. Despite these already existing state prohibitions, and
two federal bans on same-sex marriage, Cropsey and the American Family
Association of Michigan seem convinced that yet another legal ban is
necessary, Kosofsky said.
The House of Representatives would not meet until 1 p.m, and so Eisman
decided to start her lobby work on the second floor, where the Senate
had begun its morning session. She filled out a form letter requesting
a meeting with Sen. Dennis Olshove (D-Warren), knowing that it wouldn’t
be easy to persuade him to vote against the gay marriage bill.
Eisman didn’t appear nervous while waiting for Olshove. Her father,
John Tormey, had been a judge and a state public service commissioner,
after all. She said he had taught her not to judge a person she did
not know well. “[Fairness] is in my blood,” she said.
When Olshove finally came out into the hallway, Eisman told him she
was very concerned about the fact that some Michigan lawmakers were
moving towards a constitutional ban on gay marriages. She gave Olshove
a three-page letter, laying out her reasons for supporting same-sex
marriage. As one paragraph of the letter read: “Until recently
I have never had to deal with the idea that some people feel I may be
better, different than my same sex counterparts when it comes to love,
She asked the senator to take a closer look at the benefits married
couples enjoyed and to consider changing his mind. “How would
your personal life change if gays and lesbians were allowed to marry
nationwide, worldwide? There is nothing in my life that would be altered
by allowing these people equal rights under the law.”
Olshove replied that many negative attitudes towards the gay community
have vanished over the last 30 years, and that he sensed more tolerance
now “to a certain degree.” However, he stressed that he
didn’t believe it was the right time for a more progressive legislation,
since he didn’t have enough support from his constituents to justify
“the big move.”
We walked from the Capitol to the Anderson Building, where the state
representatives have their offices. On the way, Eisman told me she was
unsurprised that Olshove wasn’t more supportive. “There
was no star next to his name.”
Now in the elevator on the way up to the representatives’ offices,
she said that she didn’t believe that the state of Michigan was
unfriendly to the gay community. “Well, I take out Midland,”
she corrected herself. That’s where the American Family Association
of Michigan, the organization that lobbies against gay rights, is based.
They’re “downright hateful,” said Eisman.
When I asked her why she thought the bill for a constitutional amendment
has gained such support from legislators on both sides of the aisle
even though there are gay Republican and Democrat state legislators
in Michigan, she said most lawmakers are men and that men more often
make decisions based upon fear for their careers. “Women are less
likely to feel threatened,” she said.
She also felt that President George W. Bush’s support for faith-based
initiatives and the Religious Right has probably encouraged conservative
groups to voice their anti-gay agendas. But bashing gay and lesbian
people in the name of religion is something the retired teacher called
deplorable. “The religious right believes that marriage is sacred.
Well, I got married in a courthouse. There’s nothing sacred about
that. I have all of the same rights, although I didn’t go to a
church. So it’s clearly not a religious issue.”
By early afternoon, the volunteer lobbyist has visited a half dozen
offices in the House of Representatives building, handing out literature
from the Triangle Foundation and her own personal letter. The legislators
were already gone for the day, for a photo shoot in the chamber followed
by a legislative session. Still, Eisman managed to engage in a discussion
with the legislative aide of one Democratic representative, who spoke
sympathetically, but asked that his name be kept from the record. The
aide said that “half of his siblings” were gay. Unfortunately,
there was no question that his boss would vote in favor of the gay marriage
ban, he said.
On our way back to the State Capitol Eisman said it was sad to observe
her gay friends’ long struggle for an end to discrimination and
to see that rather than supporting progress, legislators were pushing
for yet another bill that would make gay marriage impossible.
One Lansing friend of hers has been together with his partner for 53
years, she said. He is 75 years old and worried about concerns affecting
him in old age that relate specifically to the fact that his partner
is not his legal spouse. A surviving gay spouse, for example, is often
denied worker’s compensation and the permission to make arrangements
for a burial, among other things. If a couple wants to legalize their
relationship, they will need to move to Vermont, where they can enter
into a civil union, or Ontario, Canada, where they can marry. “But
I don’t want my friends leaving,” Eisman said.
Eisman gave another example of a lesbian couple living in Lansing. “She
wanted to put [her partner] into assisted living but lost her house
because they weren’t protected as a couple. The house was only
in one of their names, and she lost it to pay for the care. There’s
Back in the Capitol, Eisman filled out a form letter to meet with Republican
legislator Gary Woronchak. To lock in the representative, she wrote
“Straight view” at the top of the form, beneath her name.
She soon spotted the Dearborn congressman, who was immediately surrounded
by other gay rights activists. “I’m coming from the straight
angle, and I just don’t get it why I have all these rights that
my friends don’t have,” Eisman told the legislator. Woronchak
responded, “Well, that’s a much larger question than the
actual item we might be voting on, whether we put into the bedrock of
the Constitution something that’s already in statute. Whether
that’s necessary, I’m not sure.” The representative
said he sees the issue from a “strictly government structure”
point of view. “The Constitution is supposed to be the framework
for how we operate government. And to put things like social issues
into the Constitution is something we need to check here,” Woronchak
Woronchak emphasized that he hasn’t yet committed his vote either
Eisman said she enjoyed the discussion because the Dearborn lawmaker
hadn’t made up his mind. She said she wasn’t disappointed
that Woronchak hadn’t yet decided to oppose the gay marriage ban
because she respected his thoughtfulness. “It’s easy for
me, because I’ve been spending time with gay people for decades.
But if you haven’t, this may be a real touchy subject.”
Eisman said she would spend the rest of the day writing e-mails from
her Mason home and sending them to state legislators. Later this week
she will travel to Ann Arbor to support another gay rights event. The
day’s experiences appear to have energized her. She seems tireless,
in fact. “I want gay people to have every right I have. And until
they do, I won’t quit.”
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