Last weekend, our community lost one of our most powerful advocates and a truly wonderful person: Marvin Burrows.
Marvin came out 62 years ago – in 1951 – at age 15. A couple years later he met Bill, whom he would marry at San Francisco City Hall on February 13, 2004, 51 years later. In his own words from testimony to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee: “I met the love of my life, William Duane Swenor, in 1953. He was 15 and I was 17. My father found out and told me to leave home if I continued to see Bill. After my dad kicked me out I had no place to go, and I was still in high school. I stayed with my grandmother until Bill could ask his mother if I could move in with them. She gave her permission, I moved in, and from that time on we lived as a committed couple.” After 51 years together, Marvin described his wedding to Bill as “the best time in our lives…”
But the courts declared Marvin and Bill’s marriage and the marriages of over 4,000 other same-sex couples who married in San Francisco in 2004 “null and void.” And as Marvin and Bill began to fight back with thousands of others, Bill died suddenly. Because their marriage had been declared to be illegal, Marvin was denied the legal rights and dignity that every American should have. The indignity began almost immediately after Bill passed away. “When Bill passed I called the cremation service that had taken care of my mother…However, they told me that I did not have the right to dispose of (Bill’s) body…(because they) considered us to be only ‘roommates,’ basically legal ‘strangers.’”
That was only the beginning. Soon thereafter, the Social Security Administration denied Marvin spousal survivor benefits and Bill’s labor union denied Marvin survivor pension benefits because the law would not recognize their marriage, even after 52 years together. Marvin was forced to move from the home that he and Bill had shared for over three decades. In Marvin’s words, “I lost my lifelong partner, my home, our animals, income, my health insurance, and even my bed and furniture all in one fell swoop.”
Marvin fought back in every way and with everyone he possibly could.
Over the years, Bill and Marvin had built strong personal relationships with many of Bill’s fellow local union members – all of whom identified as straight – and the union members had deep respect for Bill. They and many others stood up with Marvin, and after a 3-year struggle, the national union finally relented and awarded Bill’s pension to Marvin, saying it was “the right thing to do for a fellow member.” The victory was a public policy breakthrough for same-sex couples everywhere.
Marvin was a wonderful friend, and an inspiring activist with organizations including Marriage Equality USA, Lavender Seniors, GLOBE, Meals on Wheels, and California Senior Leaders at UC Berkeley, just to name a few. His legacy inspires us all to continue to stand up together and never give up.
Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, together 26 years, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA.
This piece was originally published in the San Francisco Bay Times.