By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY AREA —
With gay marriage now legal in Pennsylvania, more people are talking about equal rights and same sex relationships -- a step in the right direction to understanding and tolerance, according to local advocates and supporters.
"I'm hoping this will lead to a little more acceptance," said Floyd McCluskey, a Grove City native who now lives in Pymatuning Township.
McCluskey and his partner of 24 years, Derrick, are excited that gay couples can now get married in Pennsylvania - thanks to a statewide ban that was overturned May 20 by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, who said the 1996 ruling was unconstitutional. Gov. Tom Corbett has said he will not appeal the decision.
But the pair has decided that marriage is not for them. McCluskey was even married at one time to a woman, but he and Derrick don't feel the need to get married because they are happy the way the are.
"I'm comfortable where I'm at," he said, adding that just because it's available doesn't mean they should jump at the chance.
He's keeping that in mind with all of the phone calls he's been getting since May 20. McCluskey is an ordained minister and runs Uniting U, specializing in non-traditional marriage and commitment ceremonies.
"That blew up the day it was made legal," he said of Pennsylvania's gay marriage ruling.
He did turn down a few gay couples because he could tell they wanted to get married just because it was legalized, and rushing into a marriage after dating someone for only six months - gay or straight - might be taking things too far, he said.
McCluskey has three weddings scheduled for later this year in Pennsylvania, and he's excited to perform the ceremonies because they are same-sex couples who have been together for a long time and had been planning to get married in another state where gay marriage is legal.
"I do have about nine weddings booked now," he said, adding he is surprised that Pennsylvania approved gay marriage before so many other states. It was the 19th state to make it legal.
He enjoys being able to perform the ceremonies but said there have been times where people looked into his services, but backed off after checking him out online and learned he's gay, a fact he doesn't hide.
McCluskey doesn't let other people's judgment or negativity bother him. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and if he criticizes those who judge him negatively, he'd be a hypocrite, he said.
"And my family's always been supportive," said McCluskey, who recently lost his job as a district supervisor for a media company that closed its doors with little notice to its employees.
Pennsylvania still has more steps to take that would make equal rights even better, he said - people can still be fired from their jobs because of sexual orientation discrimination.
People can learn about equal rights issues and more this Saturday at the Youngstown Gay Pride Festival, where McCluskey and many other Mercer County residents will be in attendance.
The family-friendly event will be held from noon to 9 p.m. downtown and will includes food, games, entertainment, prizes, a puppet show, beer and wine tent, parade, healthcare information and more.
McCluskey will be at the table for Central West ME4PA, a group that has been pushing for marriage equality in Pennsylvania. The Central West chapter includes members from the Mercer County area, and their table will be raffling off prizes including a wedding package for Pennsylvania; gay marriage is not legal in Ohio.
Sara Campbell, of West Middlesex, the regional organizer for Central West ME4PA, said the local chapter got started in 2013 and represents Mercer, Lawrence, Beaver and Butler counties. ME4PA has been around since 2011.
They held a marriage equality picnic in October at the Mercer County Courthouse, have hosted food drives for the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County and did a photo shoot in January for the NOH8 Campaign, with the photos on display at Gallery 29 in Sharon.
"This is all grassroots. We listen to our members," Campbell said.
She's been an equal rights advocate for a long time and stepped up to run the local chapter when she learned a local leader was needed, and since then a lot of people have been contacting her to get involved, which is very encouraging.
"I've had some push back, but that's to be expected. I hope people realize it's not that big a deal," she said of gay marriage being legal in Pennsylvania.
Campbell is "thrilled" by this latest development, and that far outweighs any negative remarks she hears or reads online.
"I hope that it's going to become more easy to talk about," she said, adding she believes it will lead to more acceptance and awareness.
Like McCluskey, Campbell said there's more work to be done on issues like discrimination in the workplace and even schools, especially in rural areas like Mercer County, and Central West ME4PA is more than willing to speak to groups and classes, she said.
McCluskey's older sister, Wendy Stevenson, of Grove City, said the gay marriage ruling is great news and while she understands her brother's reasons for not wanting to tie the knot, she hopes the law will encourage more people to talk openly about their support of the gay community - just like she and her family have since her brother came out about 20 years ago.
"I support him in everything," she said. "You can't help who your heart chooses."
Stevenson hasn't encountered any negative feedback in this area regarding gay marriage, and said there is no reason to be hateful.
"That's the way I raise my kids - don't hate anybody," she said.
And the idea of more people becoming more comfortable talking about equal rights goes back to a Dr. Seuss quote that McCluskey said he loves:
"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
For more information about Central West ME4PA, visit www.me4pa.org/central-west-me4pa and for more information about the Youngstown Gay Pride Festival, visit www.prideyoungstown.org
Published June 4, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.