HAYWARD -- Even though his health was failing, Marvin Burrows was determined to join last year's San Francisco Gay Pride Parade in June to celebrate the overturning of California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 and a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, which he had worked to defeat "so others don't have to go through what I went through."

The 77-year-old accepted the San Francisco Fire Department's invitation to ride with them in the parade. "I just can't turn down the idea of riding with all those firefighters," he jokingly remarked to longtime friend Molly McKay.

Burrows, who died Dec. 14, "had very sparkly blue eyes and a gorgeous smile. He was very friendly and fun-loving," McKay said.

Marvin Burrows, right, and William Swenor.
Marvin Burrows, right, and William Swenor.

But the Hayward resident will be remembered for the tale of losing his home and becoming destitute after his partner of 51 years died and his fight for equal rights. He spoke at rallies and testified in support of a marriage equality bill at the state Capitol in 2005 and against the Defense of Marriage Act before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 2011.

After San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom directed the city clerk to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples in 2004, state Sen. Mark Leno officiated at the wedding of Burrows and Bill Swenor -- 50 years after they first met as teenagers in Flint, Mich.

The state Supreme Court later nullified their marriage, and 4,000 others of same-sex couples. A year after they exchanged vows, Swenor died unexpectedly.


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"Even though they had been together for more than 50 years and were registered domestic partners, because Marvin did not have a marriage license when Bill died, he could not access Bill's pension benefits, his veteran's benefits, his health benefits, his Social Security benefits, all of which would come automatically to a surviving spouse," Leno said.

"He could no longer afford the home they had shared for 37 years. In the midst of mourning the loss of his lifelong love, Marvin was suddenly homeless."

Burrows' experience helped people understand the importance of being permitted to marry, Leno said.

"I tell Marvin's story to groups of people, and they say that's not possible. People say, 'You wouldn't kick a senior citizen literally to the curb in the midst of his grief.' That's exactly what we're talking about," the senator said. Leno honored Burrows on the state Senate floor on Friday and will speak at his memorial at 2 p.m. Saturday at LARC Hall, 1101 Walpert St., Hayward.

After losing his home, a Hayward friend gave Burrows a place to stay and others helped Burrows in his fight for Swenor's pension benefits. Ultimately, International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals 6 and 17 renegotiated contracts in 2007 to grant pension benefits to domestic partners and made the change retroactive to include Burrows.

"We were over the moon," said McKay, who worked with Burrows in Marriage Equality USA, a nonprofit group advocating for same-sex marriages.

Burrows championed gay rights from an early age, she said.

"When Marvin came out as a teenager, which was a brave thing to do then, he was kicked out of his house," McKay said. His grandmother took him in, then Swenor's mother let him move in with their family. Burrows and Swenor were never apart after that except when Burrows served in the Air Force.

After they moved to California, Burrows helped start Lavender Seniors of the East Bay for in 1994. He was also a board member of Gay and Lesbians Organized for Betterment and Equality, a political-action committee.

"Marvin fought very hard for what he believed in, always, but he always did it with grace," said South Hayward activist Betty DeForest, who founded the Hayward Gay Prom in 1995 with Burrows and others.

Burrows was a grand marshal in the 2008 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade and also volunteered at Meals on Wheels for more than 20 years.

In 2000, he and then-City Councilman Kevin Dowling opened Lighthouse Community Center in Hayward to create a safe place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people.

"Marvin had a real joy for life. He cared about marriage equality and the gay community, especially in the East Bay, but he was always fun to be around," Dowling said.

Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr.1

Marvin Burrows
Born: Feb. 19, 1936
Died: Dec. 14, 2013
Survivors: Brothers Danny Burrows, of Newman, and Al Burrows, of Flint, Mich.; sister Janet Bearup, of Flint; and niece Tina Thompson, of Newman
Services: 2 p.m. Saturday, LARC Hall, 1101 Walpert St., Hayward