Happy Pride Season!

By Melissa Morris, Campaign Manager, Why Marriage Matters-PA

Melissa Moriss Pride

Melissa Morris marches in the Philadelphia Pride Parade (credit: Ben Bowens)

Pride has officially kicked off in a big way this month. In the past ten days, Pennsylvania’s largest cities held their pride events with record turnouts. I can’t say that the ACLU-PA winning marriage equality in the state was the catalyst for communities to show up and show out, but I don’t think it hurt.

In Philadelphia, the three main days of Pride kicked off with a large block party running straight through the blocked off streets of the gayborhood, where people danced and rode a shark in the middle of the street. Saturday was the 7th Annual Dyke March where hundreds of women took over the streets to stand for equality. Of course Pride wouldn’t be Pride without the annual Philadelphia Pride Parade and Festival, where 173 groups participated in marching and festival events. The parade was especially festive because 15 same-sex couples that were now legally able to get married, did just that right in front of Independence Mall! Events closed with the Village People headlining the festivities at Penn’s Landing, where it was standing room only.

Pittsburgh held four days of events starting with a splash pool party on Thursday and a pub crawl on Friday night, where over a dozen bars across the city welcomed partiers and got them around safely by providing shuttle services to each location. Pride in the Street is Pittsburgh’s big outdoor concert, headlined by the one and only Chaka Khan and followed by the group Magic. Sunday was the annual Pride March and Festival where over 100 groups marched and approximately 150 vendors and organizations shared community information and sold goods. (Pride in the Street celebrates the LGBT community – Melissa Morris featured in #Seen)

Hundreds of thousands have already come out to Prides throughout Pennsylvania and the festivities will continue throughout the summer. 2014 is already breaking numbers for Pride participation and we are looking forward to all the festivals yet to come.

MelissaMelissa Morris comes to the ACLU-PA with more than 15 years of experience as a program developer and trainer for community based organizations and within higher education. Prior to joining the ACLU-PA she was the founding Director of Diversity Initiatives at a private Pennsylvania college. Melissa has led programming in the areas of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues and awareness, diversity programming, domestic violence awareness and HIV/AIDS counseling.

A Valentine’s Day Engagement

By Melissa Morris, Campaign Manager, Why Marriage Matters-PA

Me (left) and Vinnie

Me (left) and Vinnie

I’ve never been what anyone would call “traditional,” but I am a sucker for a good love story, so standing in front of my friends and family to marry the person I love was a no brainer once I realized Vinnie was the one with whom I wanted to spend my life.

I knew I had to find the perfect way to pop the question, and what more symbolic day for romance than Valentine’s Day?

It had to be sweet and personal but not too over the top; Vinnie doesn’t like over the top. So I planned a picnic in the middle of February. I found the perfect spot: a comfortable blanket on our living room floor. I covered the furniture to look like grass and put pictures of bunnies and flowers all around to give a sense of the outdoors. I filled a picnic basket with goodies and wine and put on soft music.

After eating I told Vinnie that I had an amazing Valentine’s Day gift, but in order to get it, Vinnie needed to answer a series of questions related to our relationship, each sealed inside an envelope. Things like where we met and first dates and little tokens of affection we had shown each other over the three years we had been together.

After successfully getting through the questions – my heart racing faster and faster with every envelope opened – Vinnie finally made it to the end. The last task involved picking the box that indicated how much Vinnie loved me. Fortunately, Vinnie chose the box labeled “more than anything in the world.” As Vinnie opened the box to see a ring, I got down on one knee, already filled with tears of joy and anticipation. When the ring was unveiled, joy filled both of our faces, and I asked Vinnie to make me the happiest woman in the world.

We called family and friends all over to share the news. Everyone was overjoyed because they had been a part of our life and shared in our love for the past three years.

After sharing love and congratulations, every person asked the same question: “Where are you getting married?”

Despite living, working, and sharing a life together in Pennsylvania, Vinnie and I couldn’t get married in our home state because we are both women. We’ve built a home together where hundreds of people have laughed and cried and broken bread, but in the eyes of the law, our commitment isn’t worthy of marriage. Despite Vinnie’s roots in Philadelphia, and her job as a police officer protecting its residents for over twenty years, she isn’t granted the same freedom as other Pennsylvanians to marry.

So, sadly, we left Pennsylvania to be able to marry. We brought a handful of our friends and family to our nation’s capital to swear to love and honor each other forever. We didn’t have the matriarch of Vinnie’s family, her aunt Big Morris, with us because she doesn’t travel well any more. My daughters, Angel and Ashley, couldn’t make it with my young grandchildren. Dozens of other friends and family sent cards and called, and we made sure there were pictures, but it didn’t heal the pain of not having them there to share in our happiness.

As citizens who are dedicated to our lives and our work in Pennsylvania, we’re hurt that our state not only prevented our family and friends from being a part of our actual wedding day, but also refuses to acknowledge the legal marriage license we went elsewhere to attain.

Vinnie and I met, grew to love each other, built a strong core of family and friends, and chose to get married. Our story is not so different than that of our straight friends, except they didn’t have to leave town to celebrate their love and commitment. I couldn’t love my wife any more than I do right now if she were a man. We support each other, we care for others in our community and we love this state. What will it take for Pennsylvania to show its love for us in return?

Melissa Morris is manager of the Why Marriage Matters-PA campaign. She is on staff at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Ruth Ellis – Everyday Hero

By Melissa Morris, Campaign Manager, Why Marriage Matters-PA

(credit: ruthelliscenter.org)

(credit: ruthelliscenter.org)

When I think about the breadth of blacks in this country and the difference so many have made, I’m not drawn to the typical civil rights leaders that we heard about in elementary school for black history month. I think about the everyday people who are making a difference to the average person without even realizing the ripple effect of greatness. I think about the quiet heroes like Ruth Ellis.

Ruth Ellis isn’t the typical choice you would see as far as Black History Month candidates go. Born in 1899, she didn’t have multiple degrees and she wasn’t known for being, “well-spoken.” But what she did have was a big heart that she opened to as many black LGBT people as she could during a time where neither blacks nor gays seemed to have a place in our country.

At the age of sixteen, Ellis came out in 1915 and is widely credited as being the oldest out lesbian in American history, living to be 101. Though she claimed she never really came out of the closet, she was always just herself; she didn’t know what being in the closet meant. Her mother died when she was young, so being a black lesbian with no role models of what being a woman or being gay was, proved to be more than difficult.

Though she struggled academically, Ellis completed high school in a time where less than seven percent of black girls were able to finish high school. The daughter of a freed slave who taught himself to read and write and would eventually become the first black mail-carrier in Illinois, Ellis followed in her father’s footsteps of self-education. She taught herself photography and printing and became the first woman to own a printing business in Illinois.

Beyond being openly gay in a time where almost no one was openly gay and being a black female business owner at a time when women just won the right to vote, Ruth Ellis created perhaps one of the first safe-zones for black LGBT people in the U.S. (Read more about the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Issues)

Ellis and her partner bought a home together in Detroit which became known as “The Gay Spot” by those in the black gay community. From 1946 to 1971, this safe space provided a place to go for blacks unwelcome at local bars and was a refuge to blacks who were “out” before there was a Stonewall. Over the years, many of the couple’s guests were students, and Ellis personally assisted many of them with money for college, books, and food. This home was also open to black gay men coming from the South in need of a place to establish themselves.

Despite growing up with limited exposure to the world, Ellis provided for the basic need of love and acceptance to so many in the area. Eventually Ellis would be acquainted with lesbians from all over the country and participate in homegrown activism across many states. In 1999, the Ruth Ellis Center was established in her honor with a mission to “provide short and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, and questioning youth.”

Ellis was a pioneer without having her name splashed in the news and without a following, moving her personal mission along. She was an everyday black woman, being herself and supporting her community. I can only hope to be half the woman for half as long as Ms. Ellis.

Now that I think about the simple yet extraordinary life of a woman we know little about, I realize this is how I view the ACLU and the people we stand up for, simple yet extraordinary. Those we fight for aren’t flashy and you probably only hear about them when a lawsuit is being brought against someone pretty vocal, but that’s not what creates change. Leaders don’t have to talk about how great they are or prove their worth; they do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. Even if you’ve never heard of her, Ruth Ellis was a leader and so are all of the overlooked and underappreciated, everyday heroes who have stood up and done the right thing, simply because it was the right thing.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

Melissa Morris comes to the ACLU-PA with more than 15 years of experience as a program developer and trainer for community based organizations and within higher education.