When I received my acceptance letter for a master’s program in California, my partner and I already knew that we would leave our home state of Michigan, where we were born and raised. There was no question.
We left behind everything that we knew – family and friends, familiar sights and favorite spots, our homes and the memories made there, and made a new home in sunny California.
We had no interest in staying in a state that continually rejected us at every turn.
Today, the 6th Circuit issued a ruling upholding the same-sex marriage ban in Michigan. When I saw the ruling light up my Facebook newsfeed, I looked at my partner of three years – truly, the one that I love beyond measure, my partner in life – and was reminded of all of the reasons we made the difficult but important decision to leave.
The first time I thought about moving out of state was when Ray was hospitalized. After grappling with what we thought was an ear infection, Ray began to experience facial paralysis and drooping – signs of a possible stroke or brain injury – and was rushed to the emergency room for an MRI.
I had no idea what was wrong with my partner. All I knew was that it was serious. Panicked, I followed Ray on the stretcher as far as I could, holding hir hand – but once we reached the big swinging doors, I was asked to stay in the waiting room, because I was not family and we were not married.
In Michigan, we couldn’t be married. It was, and as of today, still is not legal.
I sat in the waiting room alone, not knowing if my partner had had a stroke, a brain tumor, or worse – what could be worse? – and I felt the first pangs of betrayal. I couldn’t be by my partner’s side, because my home state wouldn’t let us get married.
I wasn’t allowed to see Ray for a long time, and only received updates on hir condition through text messages from Ray’s father. I clung to my phone and began to wonder if Michigan was my home, or simply the place that I happened to be born in.
Home is where you feel welcome, where you feel safe. I did not feel safe or welcome in Michigan.
After that experience, I took an internship at an LGBTQ community center, where I worked tirelessly on various initiatives to tackle discrimination against my community.
It was there that I found out that it was legal to fire someone simply because of their status as queer or transgender.
It was there that I also learned that because there were (and still are) no statewide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ residents, discrimination in housing and other public accommodations was still perfectly legal.
And because our Republican governor, Rick Snyder, had no interest in protecting us, we at the center were forced to campaign city by city, with the hopes that we could get non-discrimination ordinances passed there, rather than statewide. This was the second pang of despair – when I realized my state was so disinterested in protecting me, I instead had to hope that cities would take the initiative instead.
Do you know how many cities are in the state of Michigan? 276.
And then I learned about the vicious politicians in my state. The attacks went beyond marriage and adoption. Representatives who proposed cutting funding for HIV research and resources, taking away domestic partnership benefits for public employees (which did, eventually, pass), outlawing transgender residents from changing their gender markers on their licenses, and allowing counselors to refuse services to gay clients.
There was then a bill introduced, HR 5039, that would prohibit the passing of non-discrimination ordinances, and would void all existing ones.
There was also SB 975, which would allow “medical care providers, insurance companies, and employers the right to discriminate in services offered based on a moral exemption” (SOURCE: PrideSource).
At every turn, they poured thousands of dollars into organizations, campaigns, and think tanks who fought to keep us from being equal citizens under the law.
The work I did with that community center felt endless, at times hopeless, because with every victory came a new bill that threatened to undo everything we had worked so hard to achieve.
It was one thing to live in a state that was working toward equality and had not yet achieved it. It was a separate issue entirely to live in a state that was actively trying to strip me of what few rights I had – that would legalize discrimination, and refuse to recognize queer people and their families.
I was tired – so tired – of being betrayed by the politicians who were supposed to represent me but, instead, upheld the oppression and violence waged against my community, my partner, and my family.
The day we left Michigan, we held our family members close and, through tears, said our goodbyes. Nothing about leaving was easy – especially because we knew, in our hearts, that it would be a long time, if ever, that we would return and call Michigan home again.
I wanted to keep fighting – not just for myself, but for my community and for our dignity. But after years as an activist, working on the ground, I felt despondent. I remembered what it felt like to sit in the waiting room, unsure if my partner was dying, left to ponder an uncertain future. I had never been so afraid before.
I wanted to get married. I wanted Ray to be able to start testosterone without fighting with insurance companies. I wanted to be protected under the law. I wanted politicians that I felt would truly represent me and my community. I wanted to live somewhere where justice was possible.
And with amazing opportunities and more progressive politics waiting for us elsewhere, California felt like a place that would truly feel like home, and would welcome us with open arms. And it did. While it isn’t a perfect place, this is the closest to home I’ve ever felt.
I am still angry every day. Angry that I was pushed out of my place of birth, forced to live thousands and thousands of miles away from family and friends, just to know what it felt like to have dignity.
I had to move across the country, just to know what it felt like to have competent health care for myself and my transgender partner. Just to know what it felt like to have representation in politics. Just to be able to get married, and to have that marriage recognized. To be able to change my name so that my name would reflect my gender identity, without incredible hassle and harassment. To use a bathroom that aligns with my gender. Just to have the option of starting a family, if we ever decided we wanted to.
Today’s court ruling was a reminder of why we left everything behind. Today’s court ruling was also a reminder of why we cannot return.
Not everyone has the privilege of being able to leave. Thousands upon thousands of queer people, couples, and families are left in the shadows, without dignity, without job and housing security, without adequate healthcare, without protective legislation, without recognition, and without the assurance that their lives matter to the people who swore to represent them.
LGBTQ people around the country, especially queer people of color, still carry a heavy burden of homelessness, poverty, discrimination, suicide, and assault — and countless politicians in my state seem utterly unconcerned with this fact.
And to those people, and to my family and friends, I can only say that I’m sorry we could not stay.
The tragedy here is not what we left behind. The real tragedy is that, in 2014, our only option to find justice was to move 2,400 miles away.
Sam Dylan Finch is a freelance writer and queer activist, currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a queer and feminist perspective on current events and politics.
Visit his official website: www.samdylanfinch.com
Follow him on Twitter: @samdylanfinch
Author’s Note: Due to the personal nature of this article, the author has opted to turn off comments on this entry.