July 17, 2013 - Brandon Twp.- Julie Pretty felt a surge of emotion last month as history was made with two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that are widely considered as victories for same sex marriage.
The court struck down as unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996 and which only recognized marriage as between a man and woman. The justices also chose not to rule on a case brought before them regarding Proposal 8 in California, letting a lower court decision stand that allows same-sex marriage in that state.
"It brought tears to my eyes for all the people who have died, killed themselves and lived a lie," said Pretty, "because there is now justice for all these people with this decision. It's not a disease."
Pretty, 48, knows firsthand. She was married to a man for 16 years and had three children, Sarah, 30, Joe, 22, and Katie, 21. She divorced her husband and then four years ago, she met and fell in love with Ann Burney. The pair now live happily together here in the township.
"I look back now and think, 'Why didn't it hit me on the head?'" wonders Pretty, who was initially concerned about what her children would think. "My (youngest) child tells everyone now she has two mothers. She is very proud of her mothers. I thought my son would be very offended and disown me, but he was very happy for me that I was happy."
Pretty believes that acceptance of gay persons has come a long way and with the recent Supreme Court decisions, believes acceptance will continue to grow.
Ann Burney spent most of her life hiding her true self from others.
The 66-year-old Brandon Township resident did not actually accept herself for who she was until she was 50-years-old. As a teen, she felt different. As a young woman in her 20s, unable to fall in love with any of the men she dated and attracted to women, she realized she was a lesbian. Still, she told no one, hiding a key part of her identity from the community, her co-workers, even her family.
"I had feelings, but I thought being a lesbian was a disease," says Burney now, crying. "I read the Bible the best I could and I finally accepted myself. I don't know if it's a sin, because I think it would be a sin if I lived with a man as a lie. I was born this way—something is different."
In her 30s, a bitter partner revealed Burney's secret to her parents. Her father was accepting of her sexual orientation, while her mother was not. Burney's father told his daughter, "Don't worry, she'll come around."
But for years, she didn't. And Burney continued to live in stress and fear of sharing who she was, recalling that when she had her first surgery, again in her 30s, she was afraid she would talk in her sleep about being gay.
Burney buried herself in her work as an employee of Chrysler and the owner of Burney's Ark, a dog kennel business in the township. Her two elder brothers, both now deceased, never knew. She will never forget when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the 80s, her brother's comment, "That should take care of them."
Burney is religious and has struggled for years as she has read and been told that homosexuality is a sin.
Dave Pratt, new pastor of Ortonville United Methodist Church, said while the laws of the UMC do not permit marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, he welcomes gay couples into the church.
"I would not marry a gay couple, but I would support them if they were married by a judge and wanted to be part of our church," he said. "I would like to see the legal bond of a gay couple be called something different than marriage, a civil union...Whatever the Supreme Court comes down with, I will work with it. I will certainly support the individuals in their faith walk and I separate the people from the action. Within the UMC, we see all individuals as having sacred worth. God loves us all, and for most of us, in our continual state of confusion. I dont live in a perfect world or have all the answers. Can an individual be a Christian and be a gay person? Yes, I believe they can."
Burney notes there are many different interpretations of the Bible.
"I talk to God every day and He says, 'Love one another,'" she said. "Isn't that the greatest Commandment—love one another? It's not for anyone else to judge. We all have to face our Lord when we die."
For now, there is life here on Earth and the possibility that one day soon, she may be able to marry the person she loves.
"I never thought about getting married to anyone until Julie," said Burney, then laughing, "I thought, 'Damn, it's getting kinda late.' It would mean the world to me to tell everyone, 'Hey, somebody loves me.' We've never held hands in public or show affection, I'm not trying to force it on anyone. I've had to hide my whole life."
Pretty notes they have not only their home here, but also a home in Florida, where she thinks same sex marriage may be closer to being legalized.
"It would mean everything—getting married to the person I truly love," she said.
Dr. Robert Sedler, a law professor at Wayne State University, said while the recent Supreme Court decisions are a win for all gay and lesbian couples who live in 14 states and Washington, D.C. where same sex marriage is legal, it is not the final battle.
"The next step is whether courts will strike down laws prohibiting same sex marriages," he said. "Suits are being brought in federal court, for states that prohibit same sex marriage. We'll see. This first decision involves (states that allow) same-sex marriage and federal benefits, it doesn't deal with the basic question of states like Michigan which refuse to allow same sex marriage."
Still, Willie and David Ollie Ray, a gay couple raising three sons here in the township, are hoping Michigan will be the next state to legalize same sex marriage. When that happens, Willie and David, who recently celebrated the 11th anniversary of their civil union ceremony in Vermont, hope to have a wedding in their backyard in the township, with all their friends and family.
"We will be recognized as equals, having a marriage just like anyone else around here," said Willie. "There is definitely a growing acceptance in society. If we don't talk about it, no one else will talk about it. The more people talk and understand, the more apt they are to accept it. Just think years ago, African-Americans weren't allowed to marry whites, and weren't allowed to vote. As a nation, we haven't had a big win for human rights in a long time… This is a big step for our nation."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville