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MAY 22, 2009

City Hall celebration marks Cleveland registry opening

Cleveland--“Today I stand on the steps of City Hall to celebrate--not to protest or to say no to something--but to say thank you,” Cleveland LGBT Center director Sue Doerfer told a rally marking the opening of the city’s domestic partner registry.

In all, 75 couples registered on May 7, the first day. First in line were Maya Simek and Rebecca Olarte of Cleveland.

“A tidal wave of justice has swept in from Lake Erie and landed on these shores,” declared Rev. John Tamilio III of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, who was one of nearly two dozen diverse members of the clergy who stood in support.

Later that evening, Pilgrim hosted an ecumenical worship service celebrating the registry.

The witticism going around the crowd of at least 260 was that there were more clergy outside city hall celebrating the registry than inside city hall at a National Day of Prayer service trying to pray it away.

“These are people I want to spend time with,” said Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, reminding the crowd that some of the 13 members of city council who voted in favor of the registry did so at great political risk, especially Mamie Mitchell of Ward 6, who could face primary opposition because of it.

Mitchell and Kevin Conwell of Ward 9 were the only black members of council to vote for the registry, in defiance of pressure and threats from a small group of black ministers.

Lawson Jones, who is black, compared the pair to the Freedom Riders who rode on buses into the segregated South to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision desegregating public accommodations.

“This is about a full throttle embrace of diversity we all represent,” Jones said. “I never got up and made a decision to be heterosexual. None of us do. We are what we are.”

The crowd erupted when Mitchell was introduced by the registry’s sponsor, Ward 13 councilor Joe Cimperman.

Fighting tears, Mitchell said, “In my life came a time when it didn’t matter to me whether I won a seat or not. I did what God wanted me to do.”

Cimperman also recognized Ward 14 councilor Joe Santiago, who is gay, and Ward 18’s Jay Westbrook, who has been an advocate of the LGBT community since taking office in 1980.

Westbrook was the first Cleveland official to attend Pride. This year, 12 of the 13 who voted for the registry will be the Pride parade’s grand marshals.

Cimperman, flanked by most of them, told the crowd that the members who voted against the registry “are friends we haven’t met yet. They will be our friends tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, people will register and there will be no crowd,” Cimperman said. “That’s the way it should be.”

Former Cleveland councilor Mary Zunt--who with Mary Rose Oakar in 1973 were the first two women elected to office in Cleveland--told the assembly how she felt “furious” when her daughter Cal came out to her, how she was afraid to say it in public, and how she grew to appreciate her lesbian daughter.

Cal Zunt and her partner then walked up the steps, joining her mother inside to register their relationship.

Rev. Joan Salmon Campbell, the first black woman elected as a moderator of the Presbyterian Church, talked about living in an open and affirming way.

“This is the day God made to rejoice,” she said before telling the story of her first husband, the late Rev. John Luther Salmon, also a Presbyterian, whom she learned was living a double life as a gay man, only when he died.

“I wish I was able to stand with him the way I stand with you today,” Salmon Campbell said. “No secrets.”

Columnist Mansfield Frazier addressed the black ministers head-on.

Frazier invoked Bayard Rustin, the gay man who designed the civil rights movement that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the face of.

It was Rustin, who was also a Communist, who taught King and the others about civil disobedience and the teachings of Gandhi, as well as how to organize political movements.

“Do I have the courage to say the truth and not worry about what others say?” Frazier began.

“Ask them,” Frazier continued, “do they want to give back the rights King won because a gay designed the strategy?”

“If King were here today, he would be standing with you,” Frazier said.

Jumping the broom

Before going into city hall to register, Leslye Huff and Mary Ostendorf, partners for 25 years, as well as parents and grandparents, celebrated an African marriage tradition of jumping over a broom.

The tradition dates back to the 1600s, and signifies the entrance into a new life together by sweeping away old single lives. During U.S. slavery, when black slaves were not allowed to marry, the tradition became their proxy for marriage, a symbol of the couple’s love and devotion to one another.

“You may not recognize this marriage, but we do,” Huff explained, comparing it to the registry.

“The registry is not marriage, just like jumping the broom is not marriage,” Huff said, “but it’s recognition.”

David Caldwell of Ask Cleveland, a group working to save the registry from repeal should the opponents get a measure to the ballot, admonished those assembled to remain vigilant.

“Today is a day to celebrate,” Caldwell said, “but a few blocks from here, they are gathering signatures.”

Caldwell was referring to a National Day of Prayer event on Public Square where repeal petitions were being circulated and speakers were urging people to sign them.

Caldwell pointed out that the day before, Maine’s governor signed marriage equality into law. He noted that the journey to that point took years, and began in response to a threatened marriage ban amendment to Maine’s constitution.

Equality Maine showed up with more than 33,000 postcards signed by people in favor of marriage equality and rebuffed the religious amendment backers.

Caldwell worked with Equality Maine and Ask Cleveland sent 11 of its members to Maine earlier this month for training.

Caldwell said the next step is to persuade the Cleveland council to add protection for transgender people to the city’s human rights ordinance. Currently, it covers sexual orientation and other classes.

“We want to make it so that when they cast that vote it doesn’t require so much bravery,” Caldwell said.

Two Ask Cleveland volunteers, Jim Baxter and Jamie McDaniel of Mayfield Heights, were registered couple number 25.

“We’re not going to stay in a place that doesn’t recognize our relationship,” said McDaniel, a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University.

Registered couple number 22 is Carol Smith and Sue Clement of Cleveland, who have been together 25 years.

Clement said they registered because “it’s as close as we’re going to get to marriage.”

“And we got to say ‘I do’ ” added Smith.

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