Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
By Crystal Proxmire
Change is bubbling up in Michigan’s LGBT community, with people who weren’t even old enough to vote when Proposition 2 imbedded marriage inequality into the State Constitution, now taking up the task of trying to get that amendment removed, perhaps as early as 2014.
Pockets of activism not currently associated with any of the established LGBT agencies has people riled up, some wondering what it will take to move forward on the marriage issue in the state, while others contend that 2016 is a more realistic timeframe for this battle.
The perspectives vary among interested parties, but the passion is the same. With a quickly changing national and pop culture acceptance of LGBT relationships and the inexpensive and easy mobilization that comes from internet resources, it is simply a whole new world for activism. How the parties come together, and how the energy of the youth movements will coalesce are currently working themselves out. Those who are ready to fight are finding a place at the table, and those who want to wait are sticking to their research. But ready or not the youth of Michigan are revved up and ready to go.
MiLove – Ann Arbor
Andrea Ernst of Ann Arbor is at the forefront of the youth marriage equality movement. She and her friends have formed MiLove, a group that has officially registered as a Ballot Question Committee with the state of Michigan. Their goal is simple; collect enough signatures to put a repeal of Prop. 2 on the ballot for Nov. 2014.
Inspired by the victories in other states, MiLove wants to put the issue to a popular vote in Michigan.
“If we’re successful then it’ll open the door to so many LBGT rights,” Ernst said. “At the end of the election we saw progress. Myself and a few of my friends said ‘why can’t we do this here?’ We researched other agencies and couldn’t come up with people who were actually working on marriage equality around the state, so why not us?”
The friends learned that they would need over 300,000 valid signatures, but that they’d have to collect double that to protect against the invalid ones. And while they know that money is an issue, they believe in the power of social media and grassroots organizing to overcome some of the things that made communication difficult in past election efforts.
“We’re focusing on colleges campuses. The young people will be important to the cause. We’re reaching out to LGBT groups and hoping they will help. We’re trying to tap into larger organizations and list servs, and doing a lot of email and social media,” Ernst said.
She explained that having tables at pride events and on campuses during welcome weeks will be a big part of their efforts, and they hope that statewide and national organizations will get on board to help them with fundraising and support from older voters.
So far they have found an ally in PFLAG, who has helped spread the word through their email lists. “We started there because it’s a well-known organization with many chapters,” Ernst said. A recent email blast helped them increase the likes on their Facebook page to over 1,000.
They’ve contacted other organizations through the state, and will be meeting with leaders from Unity Michigan and the Community Center Network next week to discuss a broader plan. “I’m very eager to learn,” Ernst said. “I’ve never done a campaign before. I’ve always wanted to be part of LGBT advocacy, but this is the first thing that has fallen in my lap.”
MiLove can be found on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/MiLove2014.
Marriage Michigan – Grand Rapids
A seven-member board in Grand Rapids is also taking on same-sex marriage from the grassroots up. Marriage Michigan is attempting to form a Political Action Committee and plans on putting language on the ballot to not only remove Prop. 2’s language from the constitution, but the new ballot language would include legalization of same-sex marriage.
“We anticipate there’s not going to be too much opposition,” said co-founder Chris Surfus, citing a study that says 56 percent of Michiganders favor marriage equality. “The reason 2014 is best is that there is a lot of political outrage in Michigan and a more progressive demographic. They say voter turnout is not as big if it’s not a presidential election, but there will be a lot of backlash in 2014.”
Some have suggested that 2016 would be a more practical target date, but Surfus is not convinced. “We are absolutely set in getting this done in 2014. Equality Michigan wants to push it in 2016. They want to focus on advocacy, but they’re advocating to people who won’t listen to you. The representatives aren’t representing us. The only way to do it is to take it to the people. We’re going to put it on the ballot and make it happen.”
What makes the Marriage Michigan approach different Surfus said, is that they will appeal to all political persuasions. “It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue. There’s rising support in conservatives. We’re going to take a tax and government non-intervention approach. We’ll make it clear we’re only changing civil marriage, not religious marriage. We’ll include religious protection language and do a lot of faith-based outreach.”
Surfus is a student at Grand Valley State working towards a masters degree in public administration, and members of the board are fellow students. Their goal is to raise $2 million to hire a firm to get the signatures they need and to use social media to help them recruit 2,000 volunteers throughout the state. Surface also founded TEAM – Tolerance Equality Awareness Movement, and has spoken to school districts about bullying policies as well as other equality-promoting events.
Find out more about Marriage Michigan at http://www.facebook.com/MarriageMI.
The Legal Perspective On Michigan’s Marriage Fight; Jay Kaplan – ACLU’s LGBT Project
Attorney Jay Kaplan of the Michigan ACLU has seen the damage done by the 2004 Prop. 2 passage, and is familiar with the legal struggles that could come from trying to have it repealed. He noted that in Michigan, Prop. 2 takes so much off the table for LGBT people because of the way the amendment is worded to not recognize same-sex couples for any reason.
“I applaud people who are willing to explore this,” Kaplan said. “It’s going to take a great deal of financial resources and people resources.”
He said that the risk of having multiple groups bringing forward petitions is that people opposed to same-sex marriage are likely to try all they can to invalidate signatures. For example, if there were to be two petitions and someone signed them both, there is a possibility that neither signature would count if challenged.
Kaplan said that if a ballot initiative comes forward and does not pass, that it won’t stop people from trying again in 2016. “But people could be confused, and that confusion could remain.”
Another concern is that if it doesn’t pass, it could create another hurdle to public acceptance in the state. “Opponents would argue that if it failed they will say its proof society isn’t ready. If it fails you could try again, but voters can get confused.”
Kaplan added that some are holding off on any efforts until later in the year when the U.S. Supreme Court makes their ruling on the California Prop. 8 case. One possible outcome is that the Court could chose to invalidate all state laws that oppose the right of same-sex couples to marry, in which case no ballot measure would be necessary.
What About The Politics Of It All? Emily Dievendorf – Equality Michigan
The Director of Policy at Equality Michigan, Emily Dievendorf, is set on waiting until 2016. “The next two years our focus is on public education and polling,” Dievendorf said. “We’ve had conversations with national organizations and political consultants who support our first amending Elliott Larsen (the state’s nondiscrimination legislation). We still need to be doing public education. We’re not going to get the excitement or funding necessary to get people to the polls unless a great number of Michigan citizens know what we lack.”
She pointed out that in Michigan people can still be legally fired for being LGBT. They can be discriminated against. They cannot have second parent adoptions. And there are no hate crimes laws to protect them. Her thought is that these issues need to be addressed before the general public will support marriage equality. In states that have achieved marriage equality other protective policies were already in place for the LGBT communities.
Equality Michigan is planning a state-wide tour to educate people about how LGBT folks are treated unfairly. Dievendorf said she has not met with the newer regional groups yet, but instead hopes that people will be patient. “Allow us a chance to engage them in a statewide strategy,” she said. “Islands never win. It needs to be a smart collaborative effort.” She explained that Equality Michigan is doing research and putting together a plan to lead the way to a 2016 victory. In the meantime she said those who feel like being involved should spend their time doing lobbying of their elected officials in support of amending Elliott Larsen. Dievendorf is hopeful that legislators’ minds can be changed with sharing stories and public pressure.
“What I’ve learned is to make it a point not to assume that a legislator has no interest. It’s a very small minority, in either party, that don’t favor fairness. What they need to hear is that it’s important to the people they represent. They need a reason to vote in our favor…Our leaders only feel accountable to our needs if they hear from us,” said Dievendorf.
She noted that, “all the Unity Michigan partners are moving forward toward repealing the constitutional amendment without leaving Elliott Larsen behind. Equality Michigan is doing the homework with national organizations to make sure we have a strong and sustainable plan. After the planning, we absolutely will need all the help we can get. This is an incredibly expensive effort and we intend to ensure it is a sound investment for supporters. We also don’t need to reinvent the wheel. This has been tested in other states. We are looking at tested approaches and learning from successes and failures experienced by similar states. We can do this right the first time, but only realistically and together.”
The Grassroots Involvement; Dave Garcia – Affirmations/Community Center Network
Dave Garcia, executive director of Affirmations Community Center located in Ferndale, which is part of the Community Center Network (CCN), is serving as one of a handful of point persons for much of the organizing that is happening statewide. While he’s excited by the groups who are coming together, he’s concerned about the efforts being disconnected from one another.
“I don’t want to throw water on anybody’s enthusiasm and effort. We all want to repeal the marriage amendment. We all want the same thing, and we have to be smart about it. One of the biggest challenges in 2004 is we didn’t have enough people working together and on the same page. We need to better understand where key leadership is, and how we can bring more people together.”
The Community Center Network, along with Unity Michigan partners, has reached out to the groups in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor and scheduled a breakfast with them and leaders from around the state on Feb. 16. “I don’t know if 2014 is feasible or not, but I do know that whether we fight this in 2014 or 2016 we will need everyone at the table.”
“What does not make sense is to have a small group doing something on their own – we’re not going to win unless we do it together. We will need progressive churches, university coalitions, labor, and LGBT leadership working together. We need to reach out to all age groups. We can win, but we have to play smart.”
Garcia volunteered on the 2004 campaign and remembers the struggles the group faced, but he also remembers what it was like to be fired and willing to go the distance for the cause. He once walked from Swartz Creek to Lansing in protest of being forced out of his job for standing up for gay rights. “You can’t ignore this kind of passion and it’s exactly what we need. All the CCN partners are here to help.”
It’s Not The Same As 2004; Michelle Brown – Former Co-Chair of Coalition For a Fair Michigan
In 2004 Michigan was hit with a ballot proposal that enshrined marriage inequality into the state’s constitution. Heavily funded efforts were launched in 13 states that year, and the LGBT community was caught off guard and under attack. Michelle Brown was one who stepped up to lead the defense in the state. While voters passed Prop 2 by 59 percent, Brown is careful not to characterize the efforts of the gay community as a “failure.”
“There are people who are cautious now, who say that we failed before and fear we may fail again. But we didn’t fail. It gave us an opportunity to talk about these things. We had conversations with people who knew nothing about the community. It forced us to get people out of their sandboxes and work together. It was hard, but we did it. We didn’t back down and we made progress. A lot of people came out as activists because of Prop. 2 and those people are still out working today.
“We gained visibility and put a face to our LGBTQ communities in places where it had never been before,” she said.
“Marriage was never one of my hot button issues. But when this happened and I heard the way they (proponents of Prop 2) were talking about us I could not be quiet. I was at the art fair by Wayne State and saw it right in my own back yard. There were people getting signatures, and I knew they were being paid, and it was terrible. I knew then that I had to get involved.”
The rush to combine resources and the overwhelming odds being faced, meant that groups hunkered down with a fresh mindset of efficiency. Individuals stepped in and became spokespeople, simply traveling the state, sitting on discussion panels, speaking to groups and introducing themselves to people who had no idea what it was like to be gay in Michigan.
Money was a factor, and contributions from national organizations helped to fund the defense, but significant funds were raised from grassroots efforts like house parties as well.
An outside consultant was brought in to manage the effort, and data and techniques were borrowed from efforts in other states. Brown said that whether the move is for 2014 or 2016, money and research will be important to the success of the campaign. For example, one thing she learned from 2004 that stuck with her was passed down to her from David Wilson of Massachusetts.
“There they learned that placing an emphasis on family and the issues tied to it helped to break down barriers more effectively than dialogue about individual rights and gay rights did,” said Brown.
“When you broke it down to what is a family, the anti-marriage sticking point vanished. You speak in terms of adoption, of parenting, of being able to help someone you love when they are sick and economic issues like healthcare. Then bring in kids whose parents are gay or whose aunts or uncles are and you speak from their perspective. It’s powerful,” Brown said. Networking with Wilson helped the movement in Michigan because they were willing to learn from each other.
Another lesson came from talking with people in other progressive groups. “Sometimes we go out and talk about our issue without working with others on their issues,” Brown said. “Being visible makes a difference. We are each more than just gay.”
She remembered going to a town hall where the push back from the mostly anti-gay crowd was terrific. “I was getting nowhere with the crowd on presenting our side. We were ready to give up when a woman in the audience stood up with encouraging words. She remembered me from a community clean-up event and she said, “I don’t know about gay stuff, but I remember that woman who came in and cleaned up a park. I know she cared about our community. So if this is something that’s important to her and helps her stay here than we should listen to what she needs,” Brown recalled.
She learned that responding to attacks with grace and humanity is more effective than defensive indignation. And she was able to teach others that even within the LGBT community there is a diversity that needs to be recognized. “There is an assumption when we’re talking about gays that we’re talking about suburban whites. That’s not the case,” she said. One stereotype that grated on her nerves was when others in the LGBTQ community would complain to her about the hate spread by the Black Baptist Churches and want to know her insight. Even though it’s been years since she practiced, she felt compelled to say, “I don’t know. I was raised Catholic.”
Despite misunderstandings and conflicts, the group succeeded in presenting a solid public front in fighting the bigotry that had been sprung upon them. Overall Brown was proud of the effort. Her disappointment comes not from the voters, but from the divisions in the community that came about after.
“Afterwards we went back to our respective sandboxes. We’re still operating the same way in some instances. There is a way to plan and manage things, but things also need to happen virally. There’s a vitality to young people. They don’t have that baggage or those power struggles that the people who went through this before keep carrying,” said Brown.
If she could give any advice to the young people, Brown would tell them that, “they need a strategy. Don’t close the door to those before you. Be open to hearing what they have to say because there are lessons to be learned. But also stand your ground and recognize what you bring to the table. Recognize your power.”
Brown said that personally she is ready to step back and support the youth who are moving things forward and hopes that other established leaders will do the same. “This isn’t 2004,” she said. “There wasn’t Twitter and Facebook. There weren’t gay characters on TV. There wasn’t all this support in the public and the media. And there is a whole generation without the same baggage. They have no idea what we went through, and they don’t have it to weigh them down. They look at the world and say, “Why not now?”
How To Get involved
Individuals and groups that want to be at the table as the marriage discussions are happening can contact Megh Hollowell at Affirmations at email@example.com. While the plan and leadership may change moving forward, Affirmations has been active with the Unity Partners and the Community Center Network and Hollowell is serving as the point person for organizing volunteers and referring them to other community centers and organizations to help. The Community Center partners all offer volunteer opportunities on the marriage issue and on educating Michigan residents about the challenges LGBT people face. Those interested in lobbying their legislators can learn from Equality Michigan, which is also part of the Unity Coalition.