To get a sense of the immense progress made by the LGBTQ community over the last several decades it’s perhaps best to scale down and examine personal achievement. In Michigan, it’s arguable that the person who might best be used as this human metric is Attorney General Dana Nessel. Michigan’s first openly lesbian statewide official, Nessel’s achievements regarding the LGBTQ community are rivaled by few. It was her case DeBoer v. Snyder that was consolidated into the six-case argument Obergefell v. Hodges presented to the Supreme Court that won U.S. LGBTQ marriage equality. In addition, she founded the nonprofit Fair Michigan that works to prosecute anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and as attorney general has required all adoption and foster agencies receiving public funding to serve LGBTQ families.
But as instrumental as those achievements have been for LGBTQ people both in the state and nationally, Nessel wasn’t always the staunch activist that she is today. She was the keynote speaker at this month’s Equality Michigan Fall Reception fundraiser and gave insight into her struggles on her path to political office, at one point believing that “it was not possible in my lifetime for gays to be tolerated much less legally legitimized.”
“Being gay was not something to shout from the rooftops or to post on a billboard,” Nessel said. “It was a dark secret you tried your very best to hide deep within yourself. So deeply, it felt suffocating. And more than once, I contemplated suicide. And I know now I was not alone in having these thoughts.”
Today, having gotten through that dark period, Nessel’s efforts to protect Michigan’s LGBTQ community seem to be especially vigorous as she fights threats coming down from the national level. In her EQMI address, she cited more than three dozen examples of the Trump Administration’s disregard and active efforts against its LGBTQ citizens. She warned attendees of the real risk of losing the hard-fought gains toward equality like equal marriage and the right to spousal benefits: “we’ve fallen pretty far, pretty fast.”
Those risks are why last month Between The Lines met with Nessel one-on-one for the first time since she took office to get an assessment of her goals as attorney general, her thoughts on the current political situation, where the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act stands and how she’s protecting the most vulnerable groups within Michigan’s LGBTQ community.
November 2018 marked a huge victory for Michigan Democrats. Since you’ve taken office, how have you utilized that victory to forge new partnerships across various tiers of government?
Well, first I represent, my department represents, the governor. So, obviously, we have a very close relationship with the governor’s office and we work with them all the time. In regard to the Supreme Court, I’ve developed very close relationships there — especially with Chief Justice Bridget McCormack. And in fact, we are working together on a number of different initiatives. One of them is the elder abuse task force. And so, I actually spent the summer traveling all across the state with Justice Megan Cavanagh and Justice Richard Bernstein, and we have a number of initiatives that we’re moving forward on, actually in the next few weeks. But I think we’re going to make some much-needed changes to the guardianship system, to the way that law enforcement interacts with seniors and investigates and prosecutes cases of elder abuse and elder neglect and the economic exploitation of seniors.
We have other initiatives that we’re working hard with them on as well, one of them being the Criminal Justice Task Force that I’m on. And I sit on that with Chief Justice McCormack and Garlin Gilchrist, the lieutenant governor, and with the governor and people in widespread agencies, legislators and so forth. What I’m trying to be very proactive in doing is identifying areas where we need changes in the law to best protect people in this state. So, elder abuse, of course, being one of them, but [also] cybersecurity.
What are some of Michigan’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities?
We, right now, don’t have any mechanisms in place where if a corporate entity has a data breach in the private information of potentially tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of Michiganders has been stolen, there’s no mechanism in place where those corporations have to even inform the Department of the Attorney General so that we can assist consumers.
And we have a number of initiatives that we’re moving forward in the next few weeks involving payroll fraud involving folks in the legislature and with a number of unions and are working to protect people’s pay so that they don’t have their employers basically steal from them. By either fraudulently listing them as a contractor as opposed to an employee and issuing them a 90 when it’s not appropriate to do so. And so, we have a number of different laws that we’re moving forward with, that we’re proposing and we found people in the legislature to sponsor.
So, we’re trying to do across the realm of state actors, trying to work with the Department of State, we have a lot of cases with Jocelyn Benson. And we’re trying to find novel ways to resolve issues that exist between her office, between my office, between the governor’s office, so that we can all work together and forge a path forward that protects as many people in this state as possible.
As someone who was instrumental in securing marriage equality for the LGBTQ community, how do you see religious exemptions, both in the state and out of it, impacting that victory? Are you seeing an erosion of those won protections?
Absolutely. I think you can look no further than the case where they decided that in terms of government employees that you could deny benefits to same-sex married couples and grant them to opposite-sex married couples. I mean, what’s the point? What did we do all this work to try to achieve marriage equality if you’re going to be able to treat those marriages differently, whether they were a same-sex or an opposite-sex couple? And I don’t think that was the intent under Obergefell, I don’t think that was the intent when Justice Kennedy penned that very important decision.
Do you see the attacks on transgender people, especially transgender people of color, as another avenue for chipping away at LGBTQ rights?
It’s devastating for trans women, trans women of color. It’s devastating for everybody in the LGBTQ community. You know, I was just taking a look at some of the things — just some of the things — that have occurred during the Trump administration. I mean, starting from the moment that Trump took office the list goes on and on in terms of the types of rollbacks of protections that existed under the Obama administration. And the only thing I can say for the LGBTQ community is that at least the Trump administration is an equal-opportunity discriminator. I mean, this is an administration that hates minorities of every stripe. So, they’ve rolled back some protections for women, rolled back some protections for the immigrant community, rolled back some protections for people of color. There’s really no end to it. But yes, I mean, I will say that there is very little that we can do if we don’t make some substantial changes in terms of our federal government. And the biggest reason for that to me is because the Trump administration is the one making all the federal court appointments. A nd so many of the gains I know that I personally made in terms of my contributions to the LGBTQ community occurred because of federal courts. Well, when you’ve lost the federal courts, what do you have left? So, it’s incredibly important. And yes, I think that for all people who are in the LGBTQ community need to be very concerned and we need to be very aggressive in terms of being proactive.
Now that you’re an elected official and on the other side of nonprofit work, what do you feel is the best way that LGBTQ organizations can make a positive change?
Well, on one hand, I’m very proud of the work I know my nonprofit has done and continues to do. And so, Fair Michigan, which is now run by my wife, they’re the only task force not just in the state of Michigan, but I think nationally, that tackles hate crimes against the LGBTQ community and they have a 100 percent conviction rate and they’re doing an incredible job in that sphere. They have a name-change project for trans people, which I think are a great benefit. So, the work that nonprofits like Fair Michigan do, I think it’s essential and it’s important.
However, I’m going to say this: without these nonprofits also maybe seeking to maybe have a C4 that allows them to do political work, it’s a for the needs of the community. And at the end of the day I think it’s really important that these nonprofits move forward with trying to encourage the community to become politically active and politically savvy to vote and to tell people what they need to do. Because, ultimately, if we don’t have the right actors in place in both state government and in federal government, we’re going to lose every right that we’ve ever gained. And worse, I mean slide very, very far backward. So, you know, I think all of these nonprofits need to become more active in the political sphere.
If that means filing for a 501(C)(4) so they can also do political work, then that’s what they need to do, because if you have had people with the kind of animus against the LGBTQ community that I have seen. People who have run this state — not now, fortunately, but previous to this administration and certainly that run the federal government now — there are literally no gains that nonprofits can make. There’s so little that a nonprofit can do. The governor, obviously, makes appointments to the state courts — they later have to be elected, but it’s a huge help when you have “HON” in front of your name, right? So, who we have in the state courts is hugely impactful, who we have running the state government is hugely impactful, who is in the legislature. I mean, this is everything for us.
Today there seems to be an air of partnership, but in the past LGBTQ groups have been known to be antagonistic toward one another. How do you see that happening?
We can’t afford to not all work together. All of these groups have to set aside their differences. And, frankly, set aside the competition they sometimes have because they’re vying for the same donors — that’s a big part of it — and decide to collaborate, come together and be supportive of one another. And also be supportive of people who, whether it’s in the judiciary or whether it’s in the state executive or what have you, support individuals who they know are going to work with them.
But if you just take Gov. Whitmer and just her policy directives — some of which she initiated within hours of taking office — I mean it’s so substantial to say that in state government we’re not going to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Or just even flying a Pride flag outside the Romney Building and the message that that sends. I mean, it’s so invaluable to the community and there is nothing that you can do in the nonprofit sphere that can compensate for having bad actors in these positions.
These organizations, we are at a critical time in our nation’s history, and we can’t afford to work against each other anymore. These organizations have to work collaboratively, they have to work together, they have to set their differences aside and they have to have one mission. And that’s to do anything and everything they can to protect this very vulnerable community. And I’ll say when I look at Fair Michigan, look they do amazing work when it comes to investigating and prosecuting hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. But the fact of the matter is they’re overwhelmed because hate crimes have risen so substantially. So, just in the month of June alone, you had five homicides in the city of Detroit. There were, let’s see four gay men and one trans woman. In one month! And these weren’t incidental to their sexual orientation or gender identity they were targeted for that reason.
Well, they’re doing amazing work. They’re out there investigating, they’re out there prosecuting and they’re getting convictions, but the goal should be fewer LGBTQ people getting murdered, right? But if you have an administration in power, at least now at the national level, that’s out there and is this source of hatred and is out there on a continual basis — not just in terms of promulgating policies that hurt the LGBTQ community, but out there speaking about the community in a way where it basically grants permission for people to commit violent offenses and assaults against this community. You know, that’s great that we’re investigating these cases, that’s great that we’re prosecuting them and putting people in prison, but my goal is to see people just not get murdered. And the problem is when you have hatemongers in these important offices, it sends a not-so-discreet signal to people who are bad actors out there that it’s OK to target these individuals with violence.
This year there were Neo-Nazis at Pride.
And you know what? It’s great to have somebody like Chief James Craig who cares deeply, I think, about the LGBTQ community and wants to protect the LGBTQ community in Detroit. It’s great to have Prosecutor Kym Worthy who cares deeply about the LGBTQ community and wants to protect them, but you know what’s better than having James Craig and Kym Worthy there? No Nazis at Pride! That’s what’s better. But what’s inspiring them? Well, it’s the president of the United States that’s inspiring them. So, we didn’t use to have Nazis at Pride. I’m telling you, I’ve been to my share of Prides over the course of many, many years and Prides were always a place, they were a safe space to have fun. And you enjoyed being with you friends and you enjoyed being with your community and to relax and listen to good music and maybe get some information from people. It shouldn’t be a place that you go to be terrified that someone’s going to kill you.
Regarding the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, LGBTQ and progressive legislators seem to have learned to keep their expectations low. As we move toward the 2020 elections, do you see the expansion occurring?
I see a 0 percent chance of Elliott-Larsen being amended with the current legislature we have, both between the speaker of the house and the majority leader in the Senate. They have both indicated that they won’t even allow it for a vote. And while I think each and every Democrat in both chambers would vote to support — I hope they would anyway. You know, I don’t know that you have a single Republican legislator at this point that has indicated that they would intend to vote yes? What can you do? This is why it’s so important that we either mount a ballot proposal because we have in the neighborhood of what? Seventy-seven percent of Michiganders who are likely voters in support of an expansion of Elliott-Larsen to include sexual orientation and gender identity. I think either you have to move forward with a ballot proposal, or you have to work like hell to oust these Republicans who don’t subscribe to the notion of equality for everyone.
What’s one thing that’s surprised you since taking office? Perhaps an unexpected challenge or victory?
You know, to be really honest with you I’m surprised at the quality of my staff. I spent a lot of years trashing this office (laughs) but I see now that what it was, it’s who is the leadership in the office. Who is the attorney general sort of dictates how things move forward and I think I have an amazing staff of people and I’ll tell you what, they’re always coming up with helpful suggestions, what we can do to expand peoples’ civil rights and protections for all communities of people here in the state of Michigan. I’m incredibly impressed with their dedication to the public and I think sometimes it just means having the right person who is the elected officeholder. Because what I see are dedicated public servants who care about their community and care about all communities in this state, but sometimes they just need the right direction. And the permission to go in the right direction, really more than anything.