By Christine Fernando / USA TODAY
The first one came in February 2016 — a magazine subscription under a homophobic fake name. At first, LeeMichael McLean and Bryan Furze tried to ignore it. But then the harassment kept coming.
McLean, 44, called the mail “an insidious way for a harasser to get inside your house.”
“It brought me back to being a little kid and getting teased for my voice or my appearance,” he told USA TODAY. “We were being picked on because we were gay, and it had followed me into my 40s. I couldn’t believe it.”
During more than five years of harassment, about 30 pieces of mail with homophobic names on them were sent to the couple’s home in Massachusetts. But after their community rallied behind them to find suspects, McLean and Furze say handwriting analysis led them to the perpetrator.
Furze, 45, said they feared the hate mail would escalate into something more physical. They worried about when their son would learn to read the harassment himself. And even as they tried not to let it affect their everyday lives, they became scared of checking their mail and being in their own home.
“It was something that was always in the back of our minds, but we had no control over it,” he said. “So we had to tolerate it and live on.”
When they reported the harassment to the police, they say officers took the allegations seriously but there weren’t many clues to lead to a suspect.
The couple spoke with several law enforcement professionals who told them the perpetrators in these cases are usually someone you can see from your house. But all their neighbors were so nice that they began to think it couldn’t possibly be true.
“For five years, we were living here and wondering which of our neighbors, who were all being kind and neighborly to us, is actually harassing us,” McLean said.
Then the perpetrator made a mistake.
The suspect, who has not been publicly identified, signed the couple up for a Boston Globe subscription, but the McLean and Furze already had a subscription. When the newspaper sent back the order request, made under the name “Michelle Fruitzey,” McLean realized it was handwritten.
McLean brought the handwriting sample to the police station and gave a statement, walking through the years of harassment. He quickly realized the stress and anxiety he had been internalizing for years.
“I walked out of there feeling like a foot shorter because I had so much weight on me,” he said. “It was horrible. I was anxious, depressed. Having to recount those details was incredibly painful.”
McLean also posted the handwriting sample on a local Facebook group, asking the community to help them identify any suspects. Stunned by the homophobic language from the subscription cards, the couple’s neighbors sprung to action, and the hashtag #IAmMichelleFruitzey began trending on social media as locals searched for who was responsible.
“We didn’t realize we’d get love and support and cheers from every corner of town, from people we’d never met to close friends and neighbors,” McLean said.
One community member scoured town election records to find the matching handwriting. He found a match, and a suspect was arrested May 13, McLean said.
During questioning, the suspect admitted to sending the mail and called it a prank that he didn’t think would require police involvement, officers told the couple. The suspect told the detective he sent the subscriptions because he didn’t like how outspoken McLean and Furze were and how the two, both elected Town Meeting members, voted.
“This person was intimidating and trying to silence us,” Furze said.
Milton Police chief James O’Neil would not comment on the identities of the victims or suspect but did confirm that the police department has filed a criminal complaint seeking to charge an adult male with criminal harassment. No charges have been filed.
The couple said the suspect was friendly and never displayed any outward hostility.
To them, it has become a lesson that discrimination can come from anywhere, even in a progressive town like theirs.
“Most people in our area are incredibly supportive, but you can never really be too careful because there are people who are willing to inflict harm in a way that’s invisible,” Furze said.
The couple had long kept the harassment from their son, now 7 years old, but when news of it broke, they told him that one of their neighbors had been unkind.
“There’s no question that it bothers him because every couple days he’ll ask more questions about why,” McLean said of his son. “And how do you answer that ‘why?’ There’s no good explanation except that we are who we are.”
Furze said their son has always been proud of having two dads, but “he’s finally seeing that some people don’t see his dads the same way he does.”
After a suspect was identified, McLean said he struggled with depression, anxiety and anger. A therapist told him he needed a positive outlet for his emotions.
They decided to make #IAmMichelleFruitzey T-shirts and sell them to donate to Gay Straight Alliance organizations at local schools.
People in Massachusetts, Texas, California and Virginia have already ordered T-shirts, and the first 150 are set to ship soon, Furze said. The couple have so far raised $22,000.
“We wanted to take something that was really tough and use it as a way to support and empower young people,” Furze said. “We want to turn Michelle Fruitzey into a superstar and allow her to spread the message that bullying, in all its forms, is not OK.”
Furze said he hopes their story encourages others, including their son, to stand up to bullies who target marginalized people. But he also hopes it serves as a reminder that hateful people may exist in any community, no matter how accepting most people may seem.
“They are among us, and we need to be vigilant to protect our children, our peers and each other,” he said.