The harassment began arriving by mail five years ago, a mysterious string of 30 magazine subscriptions ordered under fake, homophobic names that were delivered to a gay married couple in Milton who had never asked for them.
LeeMichael McLean and Bryan Furze had a 2-year-old son, were making a mark in local government, and now faced an unnerving campaign of anonymous bigotry.
“We were scared,” Furze recalled.
But five years later, the couple’s harassment has become a catalyst for an extraordinary show of community support, including the unsolicited help of a stranger with a knack for handwriting analysis.
After years of dead ends, police recently were led to a suspect, a neighbor who lives a few doors from the couple and had shared hellos, waves, and casual conversation with them. Now, Milton police are seeking a charge of criminal harassment against the man in Quincy District Court, according to Deputy Chief James O’Neil.
The news was startling, particularly because the alleged perpetrator had seemed to be a good neighbor, as well as serving with the couple as Town Meeting members.
“There was never any outward hostility,” Furze said.
But the latest fake subscription — ordered this spring for “Michelle Fruitzey,” a homophobic play on the couple’s names — has become a rallying cry in this suburban enclave on the Boston line.
The hashtag “iammichellefruitzey” is gaining popularity and building solidarity for the couple, who have received more than 300 messages of support on social media. The slogan also is bolstering the couple’s fund-raising campaign to benefit the Gender and Sexuality Alliance in the Milton public schools, as well as adorning T-shirts being printed for contributors.
So far, more than $12,000 has been collected through Fundly, a fund-raising website, Furze said.
“For us, this is not really about broadcasting the bad. It’s about embracing the good and finding ways to blow it up into something bigger,” Furze said.
An added benefit, McLean said, is “we can own this slur, this name, and feel better about it.”
Over the five years, the couple received subscriptions to Vogue and Cosmopolitan, among other magazines. The orders did not require payment up-front, so the perpetrator did not have to provide his credit-card information.
The unwanted mailings, including a pitch for life insurance, stopped during the shutdowns and complications caused by COVID-19. But this spring, they started again in the form of a subscription order for The Boston Globe.
McLean and Furze already had a subscription for the Globe, which returned the order form to the couple’s address. Now, they suddenly had a sample of the harasser’s handwriting, which McLean posted on a local website in the hope that someone would recognize the style.
“Thanks for taking a look, neighbors,” McLean said in the posting. He also wrote, in a broad facetious barb, that the “joke is on them. What gay guy doesn’t want free issues of Vogue and Cosmopolitan?”
One Milton resident, bothered by the harassment, felt compelled to file a request for town election records under the Freedom of Information Act. The resident used nomination papers to compare voter signatures, one by one, with the way “Michelle Fruitzey” was written on the subscription card.
Eventually, he found what appeared to be a match. Milton police were contacted, and the man was confronted by a detective. Furze said police told the couple that the suspect confessed, but that he linked the harassment to differences over local government.
“He told the officer that he was motivated by our outspokenness and our opinions about Milton’s politics and Milton’s future,” Furze said. “I have some doubts about that.”
Furze has served as chair of the Planning Board, and McLean has been chair of the Warrant Committee.
McLean identified the suspect during an interview with the Globe, but asked that the man not be named unless a clerk-magistrate at Quincy District Court decides to move ahead with the charge. The suspect could not be reached by the Globe.
O’Neil, the deputy police chief, said that linking a suspect with the mailings had been frustrating and fruitless for years.
“It’s been hard to determine who was signing them up to receive these magazines,” O’Neil said. “But now, for the first time, you had handwriting of what we believe to have been the suspect’s.”
Select Board member Michael Zullas, who jumpstarted the phrase “iammichellefruitzey” with a social media post, said the couple are respected contributors to the town’s civic life.
“It’s a terrible thing that they had to go through,” Zullas said. “I didn’t know it was going on, but they’re great examples of taking a negative and turning it into a positive.”
Furze said the couple want to use donations for the T-shirts, available for $30 each, to endow a scholarship through the Gender and Sexuality Alliance. A co-adviser for the alliance, special-education teacher Liz Hallisey, said that effort has been inspirational.
“The community is disappointed with what they went through, but impressed with their ability to be strong about it, to be able to give back to students who may be going through something similar,” Hallisey said.
Settling on their response took time and thought.
“LeeMichael and I were both struggling with how do we turn this into something good,” said Furze, 45, senior vice president of leasing for WS Development.
That struggle has been eased by the community’s response.
“The majority of the folks who have participated have just donated money and not asked for shirts,” said McLean, 44, senior networks director at Vizient, a national health care consultant. “It’s been shocking. We never, ever could have imagined the outpouring of support.”
Another outcome, McLean said, has been taking stock of the emotional burden they’ve carried since the subscriptions began arriving.
“We did not realize the full effect it has had on us until after there was some resolution,” McLean said. “Prior to that, we had tried not to worry about it too much. At first, it was scary because we weren’t sure how many we would get or if it would advance to violence.
“After we identified who it was, we were both very anxious and depressed, and I was very upset,” McLean said. “I didn’t realize at first that it had been bothering me for the last five years. I didn’t have any place to put it, and I was ignoring it.”
Now, McLean said, the community’s reaction “has helped us get through the realization that we had been affected by this so negatively.”
Another realization has surfaced, too.
“My big takeaway from this is that bullying happens anywhere,” McLean said. “But the bright side is that the number of people who are willing to put up with that kind of bullying is much smaller than the people who are outraged about it.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.