Community activism defines this gay senior

  • by Heather Tirado Gilligan
  • Tuesday June 24, 2008
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Marvin Burrows at Meals on Wheels, where he works five days<br>a week delivering food to seniors in Alameda County. Photo: Jane Philomen<br>Cleland
Marvin Burrows at Meals on Wheels, where he works five days
a week delivering food to seniors in Alameda County. Photo: Jane Philomen

How does Marvin Burrows feel about his selection as a grand marshal of this Sunday's LGBT Pride Parade?

"At least I don't have to work a booth this year," Burrows joked.

He added with characteristic modesty, "I'm excited and very honored. It's great to be appreciated by one's peers."

Burrows, 72, has been attending the Pride Parade in San Francisco since he arrived in the Bay Area in the late 1960s. These annual appearances are just one facet of his deep commitment to volunteerism and activism in the LGBT community over the past 50 years.

Burrows's devotion to improving life for LGBTs is evident in his many volunteer projects. He was instrumental in the development of Lavender Seniors of the East Bay, a social group for LGBT seniors. He currently works for Meals on Wheels five days a week, three hours a day, delivering food to seniors in Alameda County.

Burrows also is the senior outreach director for Marriage Equality USA, a cause close to his heart.

He married Bill Swenor, his partner of 50 years, during the Winter of Love in 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The ceremony was officiated by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). Swenor, who died in 2005, didn't live to see same-sex marriage legalized by the recent state Supreme Court decision.

Instead Burrows, a longtime marriage equality advocate, witnessed first-hand the painful consequences of a relationship that remained constant for half a century being denied recognition by the law.

Swenor, who worked as a longshoreman for 30 years, was entitled to union benefits that included a pension for his spouse. Burrows, already on Swenor's medical plan, applied for the pension benefits in 2005. Citing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the union denied these benefits to Burrows.

Burrows, insolvent without the pension, moved out of the home that the couple shared for 35 years to live with a friend who offered him shelter.

Molly McKay, media director of Marriage Equality USA, and a friend of Swenor and Burrows, recalled the heartbreak of Swenor's unexpected death.

"They were the vision of a beautiful, handsome, dignified couple," McKay said of the two men on the day they were married by Leno.

"The picture of them walking down the steps with rose petals in the air �" that was just the quintessential picture of those marriages," she added.

"They never spent a night apart in 50 years, except when Bill was in the Air Force," McKay said. "But [Burrows] could not make arrangements for his husband's body."

"He quickly realized that because of marriage inequality he was not only emotionally devastated but financially devastated," McKay added, noting that in addition to being denied a pension as well as Social Security, Burrows lost his health care when Swenor died.

Joining forces with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Burrows continued to press the union to change its policies. After two years of efforts, the union acquiesced last year when, during negotiations between the Industrial Employers and Distributors Association and Warehouse Union Local 6 and 17, the pension agreement was changed to provide domestic partners the same rights to benefits as a spouse. Burrows and Swenor had registered as domestic partners with the state prior to Swenor's death.

"Every time I had a chance I talked about it," Burrows said, citing engagements at local and national events where he challenged the union's decision not to extend him survivor benefits.

"He went all across the state," McKay recalled. "It didn't matter if he didn't feel good or if he was tired. He went."

"It was the first time in the country where a union had changed its policies," Burrows said of his eventual success. Two unions and 6,000 union members in San Francisco and Sacramento benefit from the policy changes sparked by his case, Burrows said.

"And I hope it affects everybody eventually," he added.

Burrows's selflessness is also evident in the gratitude he expresses, despite the painful loss of his partner, that he is able to witness such historical victories for gay rights. Burrows attended the oral arguments in the consolidated marriage case that took place in March at the state Supreme Court.

"Not many people in my age category are still here to witness history, like my partner of 51 years," Burrows said.

"When [Bill] and I used to talk about gay marriage it used to sound like science fiction," Burrows added, referring to the extent of the progress toward gay rights he's seen in his lifetime.

Even though he does not have the opportunity to have his 50-year relationship recognized by the state as a marriage, Burrows is delighted to share in the joy of the community. "I want everyone around me to have a wedding so I can celebrate something," Burrows said.

McKay describes Burrows as "one of the lucky ones."

"We still don't have our seniors out of jeopardy," McKay said, citing the federal government's failure to recognize same-sex couples and extend Social Security. "They could face absolute devastation."

Despite the sweeping legal and social victories Burrow has witnessed, community-level activism has brought him the most satisfaction.

"Lavender Seniors is closest to my heart," Burrows said of the East Bay organization that creates social spaces for seniors and connects them to community resources, which he founded with Swenor in 2000.

"I'm so grateful to be part of these organizations," Burrows said. "So grateful to be alive to see this," he added.

Reflecting on his life and accomplishments, Burrows marvels at his luck.

"I was chosen by past grand marshals right around the time of the Supreme Court decision," he said. "It's like a big bow on a big package."