by Frank Lewis
Wednesday had the makings for some gratuitous head-butting across the cultural divide. Cleveland’s domestic partner registry kicked off at 8 a.m., and the climate was ripe for strife. Fans of the plan were heading one way, detractors the other.
In the days leading up to the event, the Rev. C. Jay Matthews came out strong against the measure that Council had approved, 13-7, in December. The strict-faith movement had plenty of time to come up with the few thousand votes they needed to put a referendum on the November ballot; some think they’re holding off until next year, since Council members, even those who voted against the registry, are up for reelection this year.
Embattled Mt. Pleasant Councilman Zach Reed, who voted against the registry, invited Matthews and other opponents to City Hall Wednesday morning for a march to Public Square on the first day of the National Day of Prayer. Reed claimed later Monday that he had planned on City Hall inaugurating the religious day long before a start date was picked for the registry. And then divine intervention whipped up some magic.
“I think the Lord had this thing all under control,” mused Reed. “He probably said, ‘You don’t know how to do this right, so I’m gonna put all this together on the same day.’ The Lord’s been laying on my heart for three years, saying I need to do this. And I’d say, ‘I don’t know how, I don’t want to,’ and maybe that’s why I’ve been getting in all this trouble, so I told them, ‘I’m going to do this this year, and I think the Lord knew it was going to fall on this day.”
Uh-huh. Thankfully, the march of this kind of metaphysical hoo-doo was well on its way to Public Square long before Cleveland’s true show of faith in the power of unity and pride could take place on steps of City Hall at noon.
At least three hundred gathered there, many with the simple orange sticker they were issued when they registered, to feel the winds of change blow across their lives. By this point, 52 couples had paid $55 to register, said commissioner of assessments and licenses Dedrick Stephens. Another surge was expected after the rally.
After a spirited round of prayer from several leaders of the area’s non-judgmental clergy, a slew of politicians took over with undeniably moving invective. Downtown Councilman Joe Cimperman, who helped to spearhead the legislation, first thanked his “domestic partner” wife, then Mamie Mitchell, who broke with her black colleagues to vote her conscience.
“Those who didn’t vote with us” — mostly black leaders strongly influenced by East Side spiritual leaders — “are our friends,” said Cimperman. “They just haven't met us yet.”
Cimperman then launched into a Kucinich-style oratory that had many observers in tears as they roared their hometown pride. He called those present “the sons and daughters of Cleveland,” and he called the values behind those preaching against inclusion “antiquated.”
“Let us not just chase this into the closet but bury them in the ground in the graveyard, where they deserve to be,” said Cimperman. A roar boomed across the downtown glass as hugs were passed.
County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones said he was walking down Lakeside Avenue after his customary Thursday board meeting when he spotted a group he couldn’t help but join. “When I heard they were seeking respect and equal treatment, I thought, ‘This is a group I want to spend a few minutes with.’” He continued, “This is about a full-throttle embrace of the tolerance that we all represent.”
The elderly Mary Zunt, a former Cleveland councilwoman, leaned on her cane and spoke about the anger and shame she felt when her now-grown daughter, local librarian Cal Zunt, came out to her as a young woman. “I’ve been embarrassed my whole life to say it in public,” she said. “No more.” Cal came forward in tears, with her partner, to wrap her mom in a hug.
“I can’t tell you how humbled…” said Sue Doerfer, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center of Greater Cleveland, who trailed off as the tears welled up. “…to be on the steps of Cleveland City Hall to celebrate and not to defend myself, not to say no to something.”
Doerfer encouraged vigilance in the fight toward complete marriage rights: “Every time you refuse to be invisible, every time you stand up for yourself, every time you stand up for your family — it’s an act of bravery.”
One of her workers, 26-year-old Christen DuVernay of Lakewood, came at 11 a.m. with her partner of three years to get hitched. And she didn’t care who had a problem with it. “Everybody is entitled to their own opinions,” she said, “I don’t agree with what everybody does either, but we deserve rights. If we’re not hurting anyone and it’s based out of love, we deserve rights.” She and her partner plan on having a formal wedding this summer, recognized by the present-and-accounted-for United Church of Christ.
Lynne Bowman, who drove up from her perch as leader of Equality Ohio in Columbus to get registered with her partner of a dozen years, joked about her mom getting an e-mail from her partner this morning that said, “I guess I’ve got to keep her now.”
“I’ve been waiting for this,” said Angelique Hobson, who registered with her partner of a year, Charlotte Poole, on Wednesday. “Maybe it’ll make it easier to deal with some of the people or organizations out there who just don’t get it.”
Heidi Klein, 32, said she and Kristy Eastridge, 30, fell madly in college, some 13 years ago. Next step: full marriage rights. “It will be made legal,” said Klein, “and we will be married.”
“It’s been 11 years,” said Eastridge.
“11 years,” she repeated.
“Oh.” Klein shrugged. Just like me and the missus. — Dan Harkins