The happily married couple: James Kirwan and Paul Bruce. Photo: James Kirwan

A Perfectly Normal Guy: Teacher/Theater Impresario Paul Bruce

By Amy J. Parrent

If you're going to read Paul Bruce's list of accomplishments out loud, take a big breath first. You'll need it. He's a fantastic teacher who works mostly with students of immigrant families. He's an ex-Up With People member, a theatrical multi-threat and a serious doll collector. And a new husband to Jim Kirwan.

Bruce teaches world geography and U.S. history at Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn. After working with first graders for 10 years, he was given the opportunity to teach social studies, his favorite subject.

"Most people think, 'Oh, junior high school monsters.' But they're the sweetest kids," he said.

Back in the late '90s, Bruce took a two-year break from teaching to do theater in New York. His revue "A Perfectly Normal Boy (Every Gay Man's Life in Thirty Musical Numbers or Less)" played off-Broadway at the Sanford Meisner Theater, and his cabaret act "Bachelors and Broads," a celebration of gay men and women of size, played The Duplex.

Within a month of returning to Michigan - "the day after Thanksgiving," he remembers - he met Kirwan.

After 14 years together, they had a practical reason for getting married: Last year they discovered the IRS would allow any two married people to file jointly, no matter where they live. So last fall, when Bruce's school was closed for a three-day Muslim holiday, they traveled to Niagara Falls and were married at the clerk's office.

"I saw the line of [gay] couples waiting with us and thought, 'My state is losing a fortune,'" he said.

The frustrations of Michigan's laws leave the couple in a limbo in other ways - for instance, Kirwan's healthcare.

"Our governor - that asshole - attempted to keep same-sex couples from getting [a partner's] benefits," said Bruce. "A judge rightly threw that out, saying he couldn't tell private companies what to do. But I'm a teacher, a public employee, so I can't get those benefits for Jim."

But because their marriage is recognized by the Federal government, their combined income, not just Kirwan's, is used to determine an ACA premium, putting it over what they want to pay.

So for now, Kirwan is without health insurance.

Asked whether discrimination had ever been a concern when he went into teaching, Bruce acknowledged, "That was something you didn't talk about. It wasn't until we got married that I learned how loved I am at school.

"When I came back after the wedding, a little girl - and you have to remember she's dressed traditionally, she's covered - came up to me and said, 'Congratulations.' I turned around and I was surrounded by a gaggle of girls. I was thinking, 'You do know I married a man?'" But they had seen the couple's Facebook profile.

"Later one student said, 'I saw your husband, he's handsome.' Another student brought wedding gifts to school, saying, 'My father and I went shopping for you.' This spring a girl came up to me all excited, asking if I'd heard 'the news.' I thought maybe the volleyball team had won or something, but she was excited about the same-sex marriage ban being struck down."

He said this points out the misconception people have about the Muslim religion, that it is always ultra-conservative and extreme.

"They detest Islamic extremists the way Christians feel about the Westboro Baptist Church," he said.

A Collecting Passion

Bruce has been interested in music since childhood. "I was in Sing Out Dearborn as a kid. I toured for a year in Up With People. But I didn't really learn what theater was until later."

He started teaching and eventually found his way to Northville's Marquis Theatre. Acting there led to directing and designing.

"I made the quantum leap to choreography too," he said. "And then morphed into writing scores."

He's worked with Dearborn's Players Guild, as has actor/designer Kirwan. That company is considering producing his original musical of "Little Women." Another Bruce show, "Madame X," has been performed at Chicago Center for Performing Arts. Recently, he was contacted about the rights to a South Korean production. "Evidently they're crazy about doing new works there," he said.

On top of all this is his active involvement in collecting and selling fashion dolls, in this case vintage and mod Barbies.

"In 1994, I was in a Borders and saw a big coffee table book, an encyclopedia of Barbie. I read it for a half hour, went home, went back and bought it."

Bruce, who's never seen a garage sale he didn't like, started noticing these dolls at such sales, like a Ken doll worth $250 going for a pittance.

He began a serious collection, became active in clubs and writes articles for hobby magazines, featuring clothing and a "set" he designs, photographed by Kirwan.

"I taught myself how to sew doing this," he said, showing off an upcoming Halloween-themed collection highlighted by a set of dolls in a candy-corn look.

The collectors benefit more than Bruce and Kirwan; At this year's Great Lakes Fashion Doll Club convention, Bruce helped run an auction that raised $38,000 with proceeds going to local charities.

Bruce and Kirwan live just blocks from the childhood home where Bruce's parents still reside, in a white two-story renovated farmhouse. They share it with a striking cat and what seem to be some friendly spirits who make their presence known, but are not intimidating.

Recalling tales he's heard of past tragedies there, Bruce said, "This house had a bad history. I think (the ghosts) are glad there's happiness here now."

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