Hometown: Kansas City Metro area
Current Home: Ann Arbor
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University
Marital Status: Married nine years to Emma; one son, age 5.
Work experience: Political Director of Schauer for Governor, Campaign Manager for the 2002 Ypsilanti equality ballot initiative fight, Howard Dean for President organizing, former Army officer, community organizing in NYC and Washington D.C. Currently Treasurer of National Center for Transgender Equality.
BRIGHTON — Working in the trenches on New York City’s lower eastside to organize immigrant residents to challenge the political and legal power structures was the moment Stephanie White knew her life was going to be forever entwined with the topsy turvy world of politics and social equality.
“Watching oppressed people band together and stand up to a local police captain, who was letting the cops be kind of irresponsible around the neighborhood,” she told BTL in an exclusive interview Monday, “and pinning him down and saying, ‘No, Captain, I need a direct answer from you — will you or will you not make your officers obey the law?’ Watching him stammer, and try to answer these folks — that was it for me. A-ha. It was just beautiful.”
That moment and decades of hands-on political organizing experience are about to be put to use as she takes the helm at Equality Michigan — the state’s anemic LGBTQ and HIV affected community and political organization.
The 46 year old native of the Kansas City metro area comes on at a time when the organization has been rocked by controversy — an aggressive, but ultimately failed, attempt to garner enough GOP votes to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act; a controversial call to boycott the beloved Michigan Womyn’s Music festival over a trans-exclusionary policy; and five executive directors in a decade, just to name a few issues.
Also during the last two years, the organization found itself increasingly isolated, politically. When former executive director Emily Dievendorf left the organization earlier this year, the acting ED, Bill Greene, found himself weighing the political, funding and board relations issues which have consistently hampered the organization’s functionality.
But White said that in the vacuum left as Equality Michigan reorganized, an “exciting” level of grassroots activism has risen.
“As Equality Michigan has been a little quieter over the last year or so, it’s really allowed these other organizations in our state, these other leaders, to jump up and emerge and fill the gap, and say, ‘Hey, I can do things, too,'” she said. “‘We don’t have to wait for one organization or one leader.'”
She said she has noticed in the past half a year or so that there is a willingness to collaborate among various organizations to conquer the various issues related to equality.
“Everyone is saying, ‘I’m in,'” she said.
“Our role in this puzzle is to be the political eyes and ears — and the political strategic thinkers,” White said of the organization’s broad mission in driving the equality agenda in the state.
While White is optimistic about the role the organization can play in coordinating and driving the equality agenda in Michigan, she is also stepping in at a time when the Board has just appointed Jim Murray, the president of AT&T, to its ranks. That appointment was seen by some in the political world as a head nod to incrementalism in policy development and advocacy. Murray is controversial because he worked with the state GOP leadership to craft a sexual orientation only bill to amend the state’s civil rights act, a move that left the transgender community behind.
“It’s important for me to say — for you to know, for everyone to know — that transgender equality is central to my beliefs and my commitment,” she said. “I am 100 percent committed to a fully inclusive nondiscrimination law.”
She said the incrementalism discussions happening with board members is “on-going” and “is not done.” But personally, she does not support that move.
“I think equality means equality for all,” she said. “I think when you leave people out of equality, that’s actually called inequality.”
She noted that part of the cause of the debate is a lack of knowledge about the complex interactions between the discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We have to acknowledge that the whole LGBT community is still learning and growing,” she said. “I think there are people all over our state that don’t get it; don’t understand why it’s not OK to leave some members of our community out, or why gender identity discrimination really is part of sexual orientation discrimination.”
She said the newly minted Transgender Advocacy Project at the ACLU of Michigan — and under the leadership of Amy Hunter, a transgender political operative from Kalamazoo — is going to be key in supporting conversations about gender identity in both the LGBT community and the broader community.
Forging Coalitions To Drive Change
At the end of the day, White said, bringing local activism together, harnessing it, is going to be a key part of her vision for Equality Michigan and her leadership. That includes, she said, engaging the broader progressive community as well.
And those who have worked closely with her talk glowingly about her ability to forge political coalitions to drive change.
“She’ll be great at working with people of different political stripes and bringing equality to the state of Michigan,” said Mark Schauer — a former Congressman and Democratic nominee for governor. White was his political director during his 2014 gubernatorial race. He said in a phone interview that White would harness all the resources available “to put together” effective coalitions.
Schauer said White will bring a keen sense of political strategy and objectives to the organization, and drive a powerful agenda through that.
And what is on that agenda?
“Amending Elliott-Larsen, obviously,” she said. She also said it was important to battle against so-called religious freedom bills. Another key policy issue, she said, would be changing Michigan’s rules and laws related to gender markers on state issued identifications.
While such an issue may seem minor to a casual observer, the trans community has long reported that not being able to have an identification which reflects their gender identity — but rather their assigned gender at birth — can be humiliating. It results in outing people as trans, and can put people at risk of violence.
Addressing such violence is key to the mission of Equality Michigan, as well. The group runs an anti-violence project, which White called “huge.” She said she hopes to connect the lived stories of those who have experienced violence and discrimination with political lobbying efforts as well.
“It’s important to ground the organization from our, you know, kind of esoteric political analysis, and the lived reality people feel and experience day in and day out,” she said.
While marriage equality is a national reality, full equality is still not here in Michigan she noted.
“It’s easy to think that now that we have gay marriage — everybody wants to celebrate — ‘Hey, gay marriage, everything’s great!'” she said. “You and I know, lots of us know, that’s not the case. There’s legal equality and then there’s lived equality. A lot of us still struggle with that.”