Tribe hosts Mich.'s first legal same-sex marriage

10:50 PM, Mar 15, 2013   |    comments
Tribal citizen Tim LaCroix, left, and his husband, Gene Barfield pose for a photo with a ceremonial circle of life that was made during their traditional Native American wedding ceremony at the government headquarters complex of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians on Friday, March 15, 2013, in Harbor Springs, Mich.(Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
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By John Carlisle, Detroit Free Press

HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. -- The groom wore a black sweater. The other groom wore a red one.

Tim LaCroix and Gene Barfield became the first same-sex couple to be legally wed in Michigan, after the tribal chairman of the Odawa Indians signed a resolution Friday recognizing gay marriage.

LaCroix, 53, a member of the tribe, and Barfield, 60, took turns filling out an application at the Odawa government facility, paid the $15 fee and received a marriage license. Both smiled nervously.

Last year, the Odawa tribal council debated a resolution to recognize gay marriage, but the measure failed by one vote. When it was reintroduced, the language was changed to require at least one spouse to be a tribal citizen, and that swayed support. On March 2, it passed by a 5-4 vote.

All that was needed was the signature of tribal Chairman Dexter McNamara. McNamara not only signed it, but also asked to perform the wedding ceremony.

"I've always felt that either you believe in equal rights or you are prejudiced," McNamara said. "We don't have a dividing line in this tribe. Everyone deserves to live the lives of their choice."

Out of 500 federally recognized tribes in the country, and a dozen in Michigan, the Odawa tribe became the first ever to legalize gay marriage in the state and only the third in the nation.

And because of tribal sovereignty, neither the state's constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage nor the federal Defense of Marriage Act can stop them.

"This is their turf," Barfield said, standing in the tribal offices. "They have their own government, they have their own police force, they have their own rules and regulations. They're very big on respect, and for them to say to us 'We respect your relationship and your prerogative to define it as you choose' is really special."

Added LaCroix: "I'm so proud of my tribe for doing this. I just can't say enough."

The couple met in 1983 while both were on active duty in the Navy. They live in northern Michigan, where they garden, assemble model railroads and share two dogs and a cat.

"We've been partners for 30 years in the way people use the word 'partner' for a same sex couple," Barfield said. "Now we're not going to be partners anymore. We're going to be spouses."

About three-dozen guests filled the seats arranged in the lobby for Friday's ceremony. There were relatives from both sides, beefy tribal members, employees who work in the building and wanted to wish the couple well, and a contingent from the hardware store where LaCroix works.

"We're just all giddy over it," said Kathy Hughes, his longtime coworker. "They're like family to us."

After McNamara signed the bill, tribe communications coordinator Annette VanDeCar acknowledged it was a controversial decision.

"I'll be honest," she told the crowd. "There are people in our community that aren't supportive of what is happening today, but that's OK. We as Indians are taught to respect people as individuals, and as individual people have the right to decide what is best for them."

After LaCroix and Barfield exchanged rings, and the chairman pronounced them married. They punctuated the ceremony with a brief kiss and a long, long hug.

Then they repeated it with a tribal ceremony using the sage, the feathers, the maple branch and the drum that were carefully laid out on a table.

There were no activist speeches, no protesters -- only a crowd witnessing a wedding that was unlike any they'd ever seen, but was really no different than any other.

"We're just so excited for them," Hughes said. "They've been together 30 years. It's longer than a lot of marriages have lasted."

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