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It’s been two years since Equality Michigan hosted a major fundraising event, and while the organization’s Fall reception – a political mixer – on Dec. 2 offered up a number of reasons to celebrate, a cloud loomed over DTE Energy’s Headquarters in Detroit where the event was held.
The 200 or so people in attendance might agree that the event logistically was stunning. The venue was gorgeous and all were welcomed by gracious hosts. Awards were given to some worthy recipients who exemplify leadership and deserve to be acknowledged for their work as LGBT activists.
They are Aiden Ramirez Tatum, recipient of the Henry Messer Youth Award; Detroit Police Officer Dani Woods, recipient of the Heather McAllister Activist Award; and Congressman Dan Kildee, recipient of the Catalyst Award.
But this was overshadowed by EQMI’s decision to also honor Greg McNeilly with the Change Maker Award. Many viewed this as problematic since McNeilly has been a long-time trusted political advisor to the DeVos family, known for their anti-gay past and has himself advocated on behalf of anti-gay positions.
Last month, President-elect Donald Trump named Betsy DeVos to his cabinet as Education Secretary. Her selection leaves civil rights and LGBT groups feeling “deeply concerned” as DeVos has a long, well-documented history of funding organizations dedicated to undermining and restricting the rights of LGBT people.
This controversy begs the question: Does McNeilly deserve to be recognized having done harm without apology to LGBT citizens across the state?
As demonstrated in her speech Friday night, and again in this week’s BTL op-ed, White explains EQMI’s choice to award McNeilly as part of a strategy.
“To be clear, we’re not endorsing the educational philosophy of the DeVos family and we don’t agree with Greg on everything,” she said. “But he’s been an important and powerful ally in helping reach segments of our state that have been resistant to us. If ever there was a way to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ community and the conservatives in Michigan, Greg is that bridge and we celebrate his courage to engage in this work with us.”
Political operatives in the room, who preferred to remain anonymous, are fully aware of McNeilly’s past. They understand that tactics matter when reaching across the aisle to unite in a bipartisan fashion. But not before McNeilly “delivers the goods” and “acknowledges the pain he inflicted upon the LGBT community.”
April DeBoer and her wife Jayne Rowse attended the event and were acknowledged and applauded for their historic fight for marriage equality. However, in what seemed a glaring omission, they did not receive an award for helping change history for same-sex couples in the state and across the country.
EQMI also seemed to drop the ball forgetting to mention the late Jeff Montgomery, according to Stephanie Newman, a former volunteer and events coordinator for the organization for more than 20 years.
“There was no silent auction, no official ‘ask’ for donations, and the biggest missed opportunity — and most importantly — was that of honoring the legacy of the organization’s founder,” she said about Montgomery, who was a renowned leader in the LGBT community until his recent passing in July.
“I’m sure not everyone agreed with him at all times, but I can safely say we all benefited from his groundbreaking work in victim’s service work and moving the LGBT movement forward. It saddened me that the organization missed the perfect opportunity to honor a man who literally built it from the ground up with his blood, sweat and tears. I would hope that Equality Michigan would do something in the near future to acknowledge this missed opportunity and honor him somehow – to ensure that Jeff’s memory and legacy lives on and that the very real history of our struggle as LGBT people wont be forgotten.”
Newman points out that activist and former staff member Heather Mcallister and co-founder Henry Messer both have awards named after them.
“It seemed awkward and out of place that Jeff wasn’t even mentioned,” she said. She was not alone in this sentiment.
Anti-Gay Behaviors Demonstrated
During his speech at the event, which was much longer than other award recipients, McNeilly shared a story about the first time he admitted in the workplace that he was gay. It was 2003 while serving as executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.
An unnamed senator threatened to expose him. McNeilly said he found himself conflicted about how to handle the situation and sought advice from Betsy DeVos who – as it appears to many in the LGBT community – helped him keep his job, stay in the closet and continue to advocate anti-gay and anti-union positions. While he recalled this as a positive experience on Friday night, it’s hard to look past the damage that followed when he leapt into the Dick DeVos campaign for governor just a few years later.
McNeilly is best known in the LGBT community for his anti-gay rhetoric in 2004 while serving as the Michigan GOP Executive Director.
He told the Detroit Free Press that the Republican Party vowed to attack Gov. Jennifer Granholm on the same moral issues that helped President George Bush defeat Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
“The 2006 race has begun today, and we are laying the values debate at Gov. Granholm’s doorstep…She’s wrong on abortion, she’s wrong on gay marriage and she’s wrong on the war on terror,” he said.
For many in the LGBT community, becoming one of the first gay men to marry in Michigan – to attorney Doug Meeks after Judge Bernard Friedman’s March 2014 ruling – does not excuse these remarks.
In addition to his other work, McNeilly helped the Michigan Family Forum, an organization that has a long and troubling history of anti-gay activism. On behalf of the group, a younger McNeilly would swing into various political districts and work for candidates. A former state GOP operative, who did not wish to be identified because of their current work situation, said McNeilly worked for “pretty much any (Republican) in the mid-90s,” including current Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Also in the early to mid-90s, while a student at Lansing Community College, he penned several anti-gay columns at the campus newspaper, The Lookout.
When asked to speak about McNeilly, Ernesto Todd Mireles, former editor and a straight LGBT ally, said McNeilly was the “strict, right-wing Christian type, outspoken on homosexuality. It was wrong and immoral. He was a conservative fuck.” Mireles, now an associate professor at Prescott College in Arizona where he teaches about political activism and intersectionality, said he agrees that McNeilly owes the LGBT community an apology.
“Yes, I absolutely believe he should. When it comes to people like him who do play a role with respectability politics that allows them to benefit from appearing on the surface of being part of a dominant paradigm when it becomes convenient to them they come out.”
He continued, “Clearly this is a person who has gone through some serious self-loathing and if this is behind him – and I’m not sure it is – it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be standing up and saying this is what I did and this is why it’s wrong and this is why I need to become a role model. Because we’re killing ourselves otherwise.”
BTL contacted McNeilly’s office for comment at the time the award was announced and the call was not returned.
The McNeilly Backlash
Members of the community have expressed their disdain in a variety of formats. One event attendee said, “Giving Greg this award dishonors Jeff, dishonors the organization and dishonors the LGBT community. Think about this: the organization’s foundation was in establishing coalitions with like-minded progressive organizations – environmental groups, unions, you name it. Then you give an award to someone who is anti-union, Republican. It destroys all those years of coalition building. We could have potentially lost allies. At least the organization did for sure. For what? To give a Republican an award? And him? His own Wikipedia page states the awful things he has done – leading the Michigan Republican Party – trying to get sexual orientation in Elliott-Larsen all while supporting a religious freedom bill that allows someone to use that excuse while discriminating against our community. So therefore getting sexual orientation into Elliott-Larsen means nothing because someone could just say, ‘I can’t hire you, it’s against my religion.’ So what was the point? You just negated your so-called victory.”
While some people have “liked” or shared posts regarding McNeilly on Facebook, others have not.
John Joanette said, “Un-freaking-believable.”
Eddie Mitchell said, “Jeff Montgomery and Henry Messer are rolling over in their graves. Equality Michigan is a joke. I don’t know if there is something in the water over there or we’ve just been sold out by the Board to Republican interests. It’s like I’m living in some terrible parallel universe.”
Rosemary D Ruppert said, “So all I have to do to get equality in Michigan is sell my soul, become a wealthy Republican and chum around with Betsy. Cool, I’ll start working on that right away.”
Kevin McAlpine said, “So much for being part of a progressive movement. EQMI has let our community down.”
Sommer Foster said, “I’m sure McNeilly will put his ‘changemaker’ award from Equality Michigan right on his desk, so he can look at it every time he writes a check from the DeVos family to some anti-LGBT politician.”
Froken Sassen said, “All I know is every time I think they can’t get worse, they surprise me by getting worse. The board is truly the root cause of all the problems over there and why they can’t seem to actually progress and do meaningful work. I am proud of the work our team did when we were there. We didn’t always get it right, but we worked our butts off to do what was just and right for our community and the people in it. We did it all in spite of the board, who actively worked against us most of the time. It was maddening and hard, but we all loved serving our community. We worked to honor Henry and Jeff and the legacy they left us. Looks like when we left, honor did too.”
Johnny Rheaume said, “Wtf?”
Nick Krieger, author and blogger at Fix the Mitten, wrote about “Betsy DeVos’ Unlikely New Ally” on Nov. 30.
“In a recent Politico article, a representative of Equality Michigan seemed to support Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, indicating that she hoped DeVos ‘will protect LGBT kids.’ This statement was apparently based, at least in part, on the fact that ‘Greg McNeilly, a political adviser to DeVos…is gay and was one of the first to marry his same-sex partner in Michigan.’
How, exactly, will Betsy DeVos ‘protect LGBT kids’ as Secretary of Education? And even more importantly, why would a progressive group like Equality Michigan speak out in support of a future Secretary of Education who happens to hate public schools? I’d sure like to know.
“I’d also like to know why Equality Michigan has decided to honor Greg McNeilly — an executive in the DeVos family’s company Windquest Group and a former campaign manager to Betsy DeVos’s husband — as a ‘Champion for Equality’ at an upcoming event. Yes, McNeilly is gay; I completely understand that. But he’s also a vocal proponent of right-wing ideas that don’t generally mesh with progressive causes. For instance, McNeilly serves as chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization that advocates repealing the prevailing-wage law, breaking up unions, and eliminating teacher certification and endorsement requirements. McNeilly has also defended partisan gerrymandering by the Michigan Legislature — the very scheme that keeps Republicans in control even when they receive fewer votes than Democratic candidates statewide. And yes, I’m talking about the same GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature that has promoted anti-LGBT policies and expressed disdain for public education. McNeilly, like DeVos, has worked hard and spent money to keep these anti-LGBT, anti-public education lawmakers in office.
“Equality Michigan wants us to believe that, with McNeilly by her side, Betsy DeVos will be an inclusive and reasonable Secretary of Education. I just don’t get it. The naivete would probably be humorous if it weren’t so thoroughly frightening.”