DETROIT – Unity, collaboration and getting things done were themes at Equality Michigan’s 2014 Annual Dinner Feb. 22. The elegant event at Motor City Casino’s Amnesia Lounge attracted about 200 people and featured great food and drinks, awards, speeches and a silent auction.
Dr. Henry Messer, who had died earlier in the week at the age of 86, was remembered by many and a special tribute to him was set up with a photo and candles. The longtime LGBT activist founded the Triangle Foundation in 1991, the organization that has evolved into Equality Michigan. Director of External Relations Greg Varnum spoke eloquently about his relationship with Messer, saying he felt closer to him than to his own grandfather.
Emily Dievendorf, the group’s newly named executive director, and Equality Michigan received a special tribute from the Michigan House of Representatives in honor of their work to advance LGBT civil rights in Michigan. Rep. Brian Banks who was joined at the podium by other Democratic state house members including Vicki Barnett, Bert Johnson, Roberta Tinsley-Talabi, Adam Zemke and Rudy Hobbs presented the tribute plaque.
In accepting the award, Dievendorf said, “We need to focus on who is running for office and we need to hold them accountable. Because it is people like this group that gets it done!”
Richard Carlbom from the Freedom To Marry Project delivered the keynote address. He had led the campaign to defeat a proposed anti-marriage ballot initiative in his home state of Minnesota and then six months later led the campaign in the Minnesota legislature to pass the bill bringing freedom to marry to that state. He announced that Freedom To Marry will bring its resources and experience to Michigan to help win full marriage equality here. He said Freedom To Marry, a national organization focused on getting marriage equality passed in all 50 states, will work with Equality Michigan and the Marriage Project on legislative initiatives and a possible ballot initiative in 2016 to make marriage legal in Michigan.
Adding further momentum towards marriage equality, Dievendorf announced results of a new Glengariff Group, Inc. poll that show marriage equality is already winning in the court of public opinion. More than 56 percent of respondents in Michigan support marriage equality, and 59 percent think that the current ban in unconstitutional. These numbers are up over 12 points from just a year ago. Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom To Marry, has said often that 60 percent public approval is the tipping point for marriage equality to win in any given state.
“We’re there as a people, but we’re still getting there as a movement,” said Dievendorf. “The message for this year; leave nobody behind. We need to become more functional as a movement. We need to be more honest as a movement. We have not shared the stage, we have hoarded the stage. We need to be a machine. We need to think three steps ahead, and we need to be honest.”
Jon Hoadley and his consulting firm, Badlands Strategies, received the Partners in Progress Award. In presenting the award, Dievendorf called Hoadley her “gay life partner.” “Jon is brilliant and is part of everything happening in Michigan,” she said. Hoadley leads Unity Michigan, a coalition of LGBT groups focused on passing civil rights ordinances at the city, township and county levels. There are now more than 30 such ordinances in Michigan, up from just a half dozen five years ago.
“A few years back at this dinner I received the Henry Messer Youth Award,” said Hoadley remembering his first annual dinner. “I had come out in high school, and things were still a bit uncomfortable with my parents. They came to see me get that award and we were seated at a table with Gov. Jennifer Granholm. She and my mom bonded instantly, and it was at that event that my parents realized that things were going to be OK, for me and for us.”
Megan Bauer received the Henry Messer Youth Activist Award this year. “It is truly an honor to stand in the shadow of Henry Messer,” said Bauer. She thanked both her parents who were in attendance. Bauer works at the Kalamazoo Resource Center, but last year she relocated for several weeks to help the One Royal Oak campaign fight back a challenge to the city’s inclusive non-discrimination policy. “We have to have faith in each other,” said Bauer.
Varnum presented the Heather MacAllister Award to KICK – the Agency for LGBT African Americans. Each KICK staff person introduced themselves, then Executive Director Curtis Lipscomb came to the microphone and introduced himself by saying, “I’m Curtis and I work for them,” pointing to his staff. Lipscomb said is empowered by working with his staff, and collaborating with other groups such as the Unity Coalition, Equality Michigan and BTL.
Hank Milbourne was presented with the first-ever HIV Advocacy Catalyst Award. He spoke passionately about the need to remove internal stigma. “I didn’t really want to do this work,” said the longtime HIV activist and program director at AIDS Partnership Michigan. “The stigma exists right here in the heart. It’s internal. I was diagnosed with HIV in 1996, but it took me five years working in HIV to go get an HIV test. The internal stigma of being black, gay and Puerto Rican kept me from facing what was already clear to me – that I had the virus too,” said Milbourne. “Much of the HIV activism is what brought us to where we are today,” he said in recognition of the huge gains in recent years on LGBT civil rights.
County clerks Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum were ready and waiting to marry couples last October when it was hoped Judge Bernard Friedman would strike down Michigan’s marriage ban. Instead he referred the case to trial, which will start Feb. 25. “We remain at-the-ready and completely prepared if the opportunity presents itself to marry,” said Byrum, Ingham County’s clerk, in accepting the Catalyst Award. “It is my intention to issue as many licenses as possible as soon as I can. A loud minority has terrorized so many elected officials into denying equality. Henry Messer invited me to one of the first Triangle Foundation dinners – and the second and the third. I’ve been here ever since,” she said.
“Never could I imagine I’d be so excited about being a defendant in a lawsuit,” said Brown, who as Oakland County Clerk is a named defendant in the DeBoer v. Snyder case. “I hope that very soon – maybe March 7 – I will no longer be forced to discriminate against my friends and that they will have the same rights that I do.”
Yvonne Siferd, Equality Michigan’s director of victim services, presented a Catalyst Award to Oshtemo Township Trustee Dusty Farmer. “Right after I was elected in Nov. 2012 I called Yvonne and said I was going to introduce a non-discrimination ordinance. Yvonne said for me to be prepared for backlash, and I just said – why?” Farmer’s ordinance passed.
Dievendorf inserted a bit of levity with her presentation of the first Dave Agema Award, a dubious honor to a person who has harmed Michigan’s LGBT community. Agema, Michigan’s co-chair to the National Republican Party, has insulted and defamed LGBT people repeatedly. “Each year we will present this award. I will send them a letter – and then we will cover it up,” she said to laughter and applause. “This year’s Dave Agema honoree is – Dave Agema.”