Victories in Class Action Cases Mean Social Security Survivor’s Benefits For Same-Sex Partners

Thanks to victories in two cases, Social Security survivor’s benefits will now be open to everyone, including all who suffer harm from discriminatory marriage laws, regardless of whether they have applied in the past.

The outcomes of Thornton v. Commissioner of Social Security and Ely v. Saul have important and positive implications for any surviving spouses or partners who were previously denied or who never applied for Social Security survivor’s benefits, either because they were not able to legally marry or were not married for long enough before their spouse died.

Thorton was a class action case filed on behalf of surviving partners who were unable to marry their partners in Michigan (prior to the marriage equality decision in June 2015) and therefore unable to apply for social security survivor benefits based on their deceased partner’s earnings.

Ely was filed on behalf of surviving spouses who were married less than the required nine-month period to qualify for survivor benefits, due to the fact that they couldn’t legally marry in their state.

In November 2020, federal district courts decided in their favor, but the federal government (under the Trump administration) appealed. Today Social Security has agreed to dismiss its appeals of these decisions.

What this means in a nutshell, is that if you are surviving spouse (age 60 or older, or age 50 with a disability) and your partner or spouse passed away before you were able to legally marry in Michigan (June 2015), and/or less than nine months after marriage equality was available in (March 2016) you may be eligible for survivor benefits based on your partner/spouse’s earnings.

See FAQs on Thorton and Ely below.





Why Data Collection is Vital for LGBTQ+ Patients

Data collection doesn’t sound like something that can keep people safe or make them healthier, but for the LGBTQ+ community, that’s exactly what it can do. 

MaryJo Schnell, the OutCenter’s Executive Director, recently joined Mosaic Health & Healing Arts, SAGE Metro Detroit, Michigan Hospital Association’s Keystone Center, Michigan State University and Michigan Public Health Institute (MPHI) for a state-wide webinar presentation to health professionals on LGBTQ+ informed care, and specifically how data collection can improve experiences for LGBTQ+ patients.

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A Message About Host Homes to All Schools in Cass, Van Buren, and Berrien Counties

As we head back to school, the OutCenter recognizes the hardships that LGBTQ+ students and all students living in our service area have faced over the past school year. For example, not all of our LGBTQ+ students are living in a safe home that encourages and supports their most authentic selves. We recognize, respect, and honor the unique position schools have when it comes to the safety of all students, including LGBTQ+ at-risk students. And in support of the work you do we’re providing you information on a recent program the OutCenter has been working on to end LGBTQ+ youth homelessness in our area. 

Continue reading here.

Content Warnings for Netflix’s new doc: “Pray Away” could cause harm to conversion therapy survivors

“Pray Away,” a new documentary about conversion therapy on Netflix, has been getting many glowing reviews — but most of those reviews are not coming from actual survivors of conversion therapy.

In a review from Paste Magazine (one of the few reviews that takes a critical look at the film), Jacob Oller writes, “Pray Away lays bare the evil, the self-loathing people behind [the conversion therapy movement] and—to a lesser extent—those who’ve survived it, while all too briefly nodding towards the powerful and inextricable ties between Christianity, capitalism and the ever-radicalizing political right that keep it alive. There is value in the hindsight found in the film, but it’s more often an off-putting test of our empathetic limits filmed as incuriously as possible.”

Content Warnings for this documentary include:

  • homophobia
  • transphobia 
  • familial rejection
  • conversion therapy testimonials
  • detransitioning testimonials 
  • derogatory language of transitional care 
  • self harm 
  • suicide 
  • mental and psychological abuse 
  • sexual assault 
  • mental illnesses, including depression and PTSD symptons 
  • death realted to AIDs and justification of such 
  • alcohol consumption
  • masturbation mention 

For more information about what survivors of conversion therapy, in particular, may find harmful about this film, click here to read more.

St. Joseph City Commissioner Election Questionnaire

With the City of Saint Joseph’s primaries approaching this Tuesday, August 3, 2021, the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan sent out a questionnaire to the 9 candidates running for the Saint Joseph City Commission. Those candidates include one incumbent, Michele Binkley, as well as eight challengers, Thomas Dean Jennings, Chris Lannert, Ben Rimes, Michael Sarola, Brook Thomas, Elizabeth (Bits) Thomas, Tess Ulrey, and Marc Williams. Each candidate was emailed three times and called once regarding completing the questionnaire, or their campaigns were messaged directly on their websites or other social media. 

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South Haven Mayoral & City Council Election Candidate Questionnaire

With the City of South Haven’s primaries approaching this Tuesday, August 3, 2021, the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan sent out a questionnaire to the 3 candidates running for the South Haven mayorship. Those candidates include Ahmmad Goodwin, Scott Smith, and Tim Stegeman and those running for City Council: Kam Daugherty, Wendi Onuki, Joe Reeser, and George Sleeper. Each candidate was emailed three times and called once regarding completing the questionnaire, or their campaigns were messaged directly on their websites or other social media. 

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Letter to the Chikaming Township Board of Trustees

We at The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan are so grateful to hear of the local efforts to pass non-discrimination ordinances (NDOs) throughout southwest Michigan! Whether an NDO passes or fails, any attempt to create a more equitable, safe, and even brave community is a great step forward for all people. According to MAP, only 31% of LGBTQ+ Michiganders are protected in private employment, housing, and/or public accommodations.

Congratulations to Three Oaks on passing their NDO on July 14th! The town joins Saint Joseph, the seat of Berrien County, and Buchanan in protecting all citizens from discrimination and harassment in their town. 

And while we are grateful for Three Oak’s progress, we are sad to hear about the news from Chikaming Township about not taking up the cause of an NDO, despite the supportive statements from constituents. To those leaders and community members who led this initiative, we thank you for fighting for not only the LGBTQ+ community, but the whole community!

Your work and dedication to protecting your LGBTQ+ neighbors not only helps protect LGBTQ+ people, but creates a greater sense of community, engagement, and safety for people of all ages. Even though we expect the Michigan Supreme Court to decide favorably for the LGBTQ+ community post-hearing the upcoming Rouch World v. Michigan Department of Civil Rights on the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (in October), nothing is more powerful in small towns and rural areas than local conversations – changing hearts and minds and policies.

For those wanting their town to become truly inclusive of LGBTQ+ people and their families, please know you do not have to go through this process of change-making alone. The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan is dedicated to making progress for the LGBTQ+ community throughout Berrien, Van Buren, and Cass counties. We will gladly leverage our many years of experience in political engagement and systems change initiatives to assist you in the process of developing and implementing an inclusive NDO in your town. 

Our mission is to provide support and advocacy for respect, understanding, and non-discrimination to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allied persons and their families in Southwest Michigan. In 2020, we promoted or helped modify 422 LGBTQ+ inclusive policies & practices across Van Buren, Berrien, and Cass counties and organized 76 partner organizations to provide more robust and appropriate responses to LGBTQ+ inquires. 

If you are interested in making progress in your hometown and joining the more than 40 towns protecting the LGBTQ+ community across Michigan, please do not hesitate to contact us at and we will be happy to help! 

Pride Returns to Benton Harbor!

The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan is hosting Lake Effect Pride, as a “Pop-Up,” on June 26th from 2 – 4 pm, in the greenspace between The Livery, Mason Jar Cafe, and The OutCenter; and we hope the community will “pop in” to celebrate Pride! 

This is the first time Lake Effect Pride will be outside, and we invite the community to join us for the event. If possible, we ask for attendees to RSVP here. This is a family-friendly event, and the first 30 children will receive a free Swag Bag. The Center will also be selling Pride and Lake Effect Pride limited edition merchandise throughout the event. You can ensure that you have Pride merchandise waiting for you at the event by pre-ordering here

Space is provided by Prairie Real Estate and food will be provided (for sale) from food trucks Silly Sausage and Nola Roux; and beer (for sale) will be provided by The Livery. Meet and greet some of our sponsors who will be at the event, as well as OutCenter board members, staff and program facilitators. Music and radio coverage at the event will be provided live by Zack East and 98.3 The Coast. 

Our Gold Sponsors this year include @Properties, Bronson Healthcare, Comcast, Conybeare Law Office PC, DC Cook Nuclear State, Gast Manufacturing, Horizon Bank, Lakeshore Inn, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Silly Sausage, and Whirlpool Corporation. Our Silver Sponsors this year include 108 Yogi Kate, Apothica Teas, Mason Jar Cafe, Michigan Shoe Repair, Peat’s Cider, Pilgrim Congregational UCC, The Livery, Temple B’Nai Shalom, Zoovolution. Our Bronze Sponsors this year include Accents- Himalaya Textiles, Citadel Dance & Music Center, Forte Coffee, Full Circle Cafe, Small Town Wedding, Three Pillars Music. 

In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we encourage unvaccinated Lake Effect Pride attendees to wear a mask. We encourage all attendees to respect social distancing, sign in upon arrival (for contact tracing if needed), and to follow all guidelines provided by the State of Michigan. We encourage the entire community to pop in, but also to be considerate for all attendees present and abide preferred social distancing. For those uncomfortable with an outdoor gathering, donations, support, and merchandise can be picked up or dropped off via a car drive by! 

The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan’s mission is to provide support and advocacy for LGBTQ+ people and their families in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren Counties of Southwest Michigan. Learn more about this mission at Lake Effect Pride by connecting with a Program Facilitator or head to our website

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Leading the Way: Sam Moyle

As shocking anti-LGBTQ bills progress in legislatures across the country, LGBTQ kids are stepping up to advocate for awareness, equity and inclusion at the local level: in their schools. Among them is Sam Moyle, rising senior at Lakeshore High School in Stevensville, and incoming president of Prism, the school’s GSA, this fall.

In March, when a Lakeshore teacher posted an acid, inaccurate comment on Facebook about teachers’ bathrooms being repurposed for the sole use of “one or two” trans students – and others chimed in with comments suggesting violent means of addressing that situation – students, teachers and graduates were shocked. Moyle and other LGBTQ students at the school were frustrated – and scared.

“There was a lot of talk and not a lot of action,” following the incident, Sam recalled. After a brief suspension, the teacher returned to the school. “It sparked the realization of how uncomfortable trans students in particular are at Lakeshore. It seems like the comfort of the majority of students is prioritized over providing respect and security for LGBTQ students,” Moyle said.

Recalling a presentation that OutCenter executive director MaryJo Schnell made to the school about inclusion and diversity, Moyle emailed her a letter and then picked up the phone and called her to ask for help. “Seeing my friends really upset – that upset me a lot,” Moyle recalled. “That made me take action. It came from the anguish of a lot of other people.

“I wanted adult support beyond our small group and our advisor. I wanted to see if there was someone who cared about the situation and could help us somehow better understand the community in which this was allowed to happen,” Moyle said.

Schnell talked to the administration. She also helped GSA members understand the origins of transphobia and possible steps the GSA could take to be more visible and seen.

While the school superintendent told the Herald-Palladium of his plan to form, by the end of the school year, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Team including staff, students, board members, parents and community members, Moyle said they waiting for visible effort and establishment of the team in the community and at Lakeshore High School.

Moyle is looking forward to being back in “real” in-person rather than virtual school this fall. And they hope they and their peers can find ways to make LGBTQ students seen and respected by teachers, staff and their peers.

“Once teachers and staff recognize and respect LGBTQ kids the other students will, too,” Moyle said. Her hopes for the year?

Her top goal: “Creating a community where hate speech and bullying is not tolerated,” Moyle said. “Right now there is a lot of fear about speaking up,” they said. “I would love it if more students would speak up about things they are concerned about or things they feel should change, and communicate that to the administration.

The more people who come forward and speak about these issues, “The better things will get,” Moyle said.

“The real hindrance to acceptance and respect at Lakeshore is the devaluing of

LGBTQ+ voices.”

Let the OutCenter know about affirming and inclusive businesses and organizations in our area

The OutCenter of Southwest Michigan prides itself on being a resource for the community, and we know that we are not the only resource in our area that cares for the LGBTQ+ community. 

We regularly work to keep our record of LGBTQ+ inclusive businesses, practices, nonprofits, et al, updated and now, we will be promoting these groups as affirming and brave spaces for LGBTQ+ people and their families across Berrien, Cass and Van Buren Counties!

If you represent a resource in Southwest Michigan that is both affirming and inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, please fill out this form. We will follow up with you and explore adding your organization to our resource guide. 

We aim to better serve the community by recognizing the services that also work to make a safe and inclusive SWMI for the LGBTQ+ community. 

Thank you for your submission! 

If you know of an organization that should complete the form, please send them this link to it: