A scroll through Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Facebook feed is an exercise in contrast. Mostly, Nessel posts about issues directly affecting Michigan residents: important legislative decisions, education about emerging financial scams, the evolving legal battle over COVID restrictions.
But then, there are the cat videos. And the one with Nessel curled up on her couch in her pajamas, just like the rest of us mid-lockdown, relating to viewers like a wise aunt who expects more from you because she believes in you: “Remember when you used to have to put on pants and even shower in order to vote?” she asks her Facebook followers. “Not anymore!”
And, despite all the political turmoil, including the slowly fading Trump era, Nessel still believes in Michigan — all of it. In a world where someone as ambitious and sharp-minded as Nessel could have been anything, she’s chosen to be herself. Relentlessly. Joyously.
“I’m not shy about who I am,” Nessel tells Pride Source from her kitchen during a recent interview. Amidst the world of politics in 2021, it’s a bold statement. It takes more than bravery to deal with what Nessel has faced, including a seemingly endless stream of acidic criticism from her detractors — not to mention multiple, literal death threats — but to push forward despite it all.
Maybe it’s the thick skin she developed over her years spent as a trial attorney, or her participation in highly competitive sports as a high school student, or her years spent in the closet — an experience she reflects on today as “miserable.” Maybe it’s all of these experiences, and more, that have led Nessel to a place where authenticity is always at the forefront, haters be damned.
To unravel who Dana Nessel really “is” is to accept that she, like all of us, isn’t just one thing. She holds many contrasting roles. She’s a mom (to twin teens, Alex and Zach). She’s a doting wife (to Alanna Maguire, president of Fair Michigan). She’s an accomplished lawyer and a former All-State high school soccer player. Lately, she’s a birdwatcher.
It was their time spent at home during the lockdown that led Nessel and Maguire to their new, unexpected interest in ornithology. “I cultivated this whole relationship with the animals in my backyard,” she says. That relationship, in true Nessel style, led to deeper exploration and self-education. “My wife and I are now experts on Michigan birds, something I never expected to have even an interest in, let alone an expertise in.”
Nessel’s approach to understanding the world right outside her back door reflects her approach to serving the state of Michigan as its top-ranking attorney and the state’s very first out LGBTQ+ elected state official, a leadership role she takes quite seriously. The AG is acutely, personally aware that representation more than “matters.” It’s vitally important.
Growing up, Nessel says, she didn’t have LGBTQ+ role models to look to for inspiration. “There wasn’t anybody on TV or in the movies except for people that were … made to look foolish, or a mockery,” she says. “It was a tough way to grow up because there just wasn’t anybody that I could look to in life, in any realm, to feel like it was OK for me to be who I was.
“I didn’t want that to happen to the next generation,” she adds. “Being the first statewide elected LGBTQ person brings with it a certain responsibility, and I’m not going to be shy about it. I’m not going to hide.”
For Nessel, representation is more than lip service. It’s part of who she is. She’s proud of her wife and her family and seems to see no reason to downplay that part of her life for the sake of some perceived risk to her political career. The obvious political double standard — the one where straight men in politics are practically rewarded for being “honest” about their infidelities while women are held to puritanical standards that haven’t evolved much in the past 200 years — is of little concern for Nessel. It’s almost laughable to imagine a male counterpart triggering headlines like “Dana Nessel Kissed Wife Upon Winning Election,” but here we are.
Given her openness now, it’s hard to believe Nessel is the same person who spent years in the closet, feeling a sense of embarrassment and shame about her identity. That’s not who she is today.
“I talk about the issues that are important to my constituents, but I also am not shy about who I am,” she says. “And honestly, I’m proud of my family. I worked very hard to have a legal family. And yeah, sometimes I want to shout it from the mountaintops because I’m just so proud.
“I talk about my wife a lot,” she continues, referring to Maguire, who Nessel married in 2014, “because she’s also my best friend, and she’s the person who means the most to me in the world. And I’m not going to be ashamed of my marriage.
“I am not going to run away from my sexual orientation,” Nessel adds. “And I hope it will be impactful to people later on, and there’ll be kids that grow up being able to look to me and feel like they can accomplish anything they want to in life and not be held back by their LGBTQ status.” As for her own kids, Nessel says she understands all too well what it has been like for both parents and the younger generation during the pandemic.
“It’s been tough on parents who have to work while taking care of their kids,” Nessel acknowledges. “At the same time, I’d say it’s really tough on the children, to really not have any semblance of a normal life for a long time.” Even though she recognizes that there are “worse things in the world,” her sons didn’t get to make the same kind of memories in their senior year of high school that she remembers making, the experiences “you learn from, that make you into an adult,” she says.
If Nessel’s social media accounts are an indication, much of her sons’ senior year was a far different experience than the typical focus on prom and graduation. At the beginning of the lockdown in 2020, she tweeted, “Distancing from my wife who has an immune deficiency means living in the basement where I spend hours each evening watching my teen sons play Grand Theft Auto while shouting out MCL (Michigan Compiled Laws) statutes being violated. No one seems to appreciate how this might add value to the experience.”
Nessel’s own high school experience included a deep focus on athletics. The former West Bloomfield High School All-State soccer player spent time on the Olympic development team, though she didn’t go all the way to the Games. Nessel is the first to aknowledge being a stereotypically sports-loving lesbian (“I completely fit the mold,” she says). Partly, playing sports appeals to Nessel because she has “an element of competitiveness,” but more importantly, she adds, “Sports teaches a lot about life in terms of being able to work as part of a team.”
Nessel may be a team player, but she’d really prefer it if that team were always winning. “I don’t like to lose,” she admits, laughing. “I don’t know anyone who does.”
It’s no wonder Nessel’s political opponents seem hyper-focused not only on Nessel’s tenure as AG, but on her uncanny ability to simply relate. This quality is at the heart of why her social media videos are so popular, including her PSA in March focused on imposter scams. In the short clip, Nessel and her cat companion patiently explain to her “parents” over the phone that they shouldn’t actually send the water company Edible Arrangement gift cards to take care of an outstanding balance. “Say ‘objection!’” she instructs the cat before answering back with “I object!” in a spot-on cat-person impression.
It’s a lighthearted take on an issue affecting many Michiganders, especially older populations, delivered in a way that’s wholly relatable on both sides of the call. “What are you doing?” asks the actor playing her mother. “Attorney General stuff,” Nessel replies. Toward the end of the video, Nessel’s mother asks, “Where do I file a complaint that my daughter hasn’t visited in over a month?”
Nessel’s descriptions of her videos are almost as inspired as the videos themselves. Take this Twitter introduction from last October, centered on early voting: “Is it unfortunate the cat in this video spent the entire shoot cleaning its nether-regions?” tweets the Attorney General. “Yes. Does it distract from the very important message about voting in Michigan? You be the judge!”
If you sense a theme — and that theme is cats — you’re onto something. Nessel, Maguire and their boys are basically running a cat sanctuary out of their home. “We have maybe a few cats too many, but we love cats in this household,” she says. “You’re never alone when you have your four cats… except when you have one who won’t leave your side, which is what I have, although when I do interviews, I have to shut her out of my office.” Nessel is referring to Facebook-famous “Daisy,” a constituent favorite.
It’s not all cats and impeccable comedic timing 24/7, however. Nessel is, rightfully, proud of her record as attorney general so far, and is in a race against time, just in case. If a Republican succeeds her in office and the cases her office has worked so hard on are still pending, Nessel believes that person will simply dismiss all of them.
That would include countless hours spent creating new initiatives to combat hate crimes, elder abuse, and insurance and payroll fraud, issues she campaigned on leading up to her election in 2018. “What I’m most proud of is that I am an office holder who has largely kept my campaign promises,” she says. Among those fulfilled promises is providing support to wrongfully convicted prisoners and shutting down the Line 5 pipeline project. “I’ve done everything I can to try to do that job,” she says.
Nessel says she’s followed through on her commitment to the LGBTQ+ community, as well. She issued an opinion that allows transgender people to change the gender on their birth certificate without undergoing gender reassignment surgery. She rewrote her predecessor’s policy on defending LGBTQ+ people before the Department of Civil Rights. She wrote an amicus brief in support of Kym Worthy’s efforts to include gender identity as a class under Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act.
And at the time of print, Nessel said she “can’t wait” to argue a case before the Michigan Supreme Court “where I expect it to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Elliott-Larsen through the court system.”
Once the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act has been amended to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, Nessel said she wants to see LGBTQ+ people protected wherever other marginalized groups are protected.
However, Nessel adds, “I’m very aware of the fact that if I don’t get a second term in office, all of my initiatives will just disappear, and many of the cases that I brought that are so important.”
A second term isn’t a given, but no matter where Nessel lands next, the people of Michigan are sure to benefit. “I am addicted to trying to make a difference,” she says. “There’s so many different ways you can do that.”