At Home, Yet Together
Although supporters of Equality Michigan could only meet virtually for this year's Mission Equality reception, with a headliner like 'Pose's' Dominique Jackson, the hour was no less compelling. Executive Director Erin Knott kicked off the evening with a little levity.
"Just like many of you, I'd much rather be at the Roostertail in downtown Detroit," Knott said. "But since we can't be together in person, I'm especially excited that you have joined all of us at Equality Michigan from the comfort of your living rooms. To make this more fun for all of us, please turn on your cameras and get ready to strike a pose. I'll do a quick screen save and post it up on social media."
Indeed, on the count of three, participants followed Knott's instructions, after which she quipped, "You all look fabulous." Another fun component of the evening was the EQMI rocks glass sent out to ticket holders, along with drink recipes.
"I raise my rocks glass to each of you," Knott said, with what appeared to be tap water. "Thank you for all that you do. Funds raised tonight during our Mission Equality reception go directly toward fighting bigotry and hatred. With your support we can advocate for LGBTQ+ issues at the state and local levels, we can help homeless youth and victims of hate crime, and we can provide services to those among us in crisis."
Knott talked about gains made by LGBTQ Michiganders in terms of civil rights, but she added how far there is yet to go.
"… In the middle of our current health crisis, it's scary to think that people could be denied the medical care they need when they need it," Knott said.
"Violent crime[s] against the trans community, specifically against trans women of color, have become so rampant the American Medical Association in 2019 declared it an epidemic," Knott said. She then shared that the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is 35 years old.
"Michigan is not immune," Knott reminded the crowd. "Two Black trans women have been murdered in the city of Detroit in less than two years. Kelly Stough in December of 2018 and Paris Cameron in May of 2019. This crisis facing the transgender community is not limited to acts of terror. It's also institutional, as there are countless examples of transphobic policy."
The featured speaker of the evening was preceded by prerecorded messages from a few special guests. Sen. Gary Peters, who faces a reelection campaign this fall, began.
"As we honor the generations of Michiganders that overcame discrimination in the fight for equality, we must continue to band together against the injustices and senseless acts violence that too many LGBTQ Americans, particularly Black, trans women still routinely experience," Peters said. "That's why I'll continue working to ensure that no Michigander is denied access to their basic civil rights because of who they love or how they identify."
"Our constitution guarantees equal protection under the law," he continued. "And I'm committed to fighting for equal rights so that we can always say, with confidence, Black trans lives matter, and everyone is created equal."
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker had a message to share as well.
"As Frederick Douglass said, 'If there's no struggle, there is no progress,'" Booker said. "We see the violence against Black trans women; we still see LGBTQ kids reporting extraordinary levels of fear and missing school as a result; suicide rates are still too high. We still see sanctioned discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, and we still see trans Americans being singled out. Patriots who want to serve in the military are being denied that. That should demand all of us to stand up to rise up to speak up to demand all of us to act up."
The DTE Energy Foundation was the President's Circle sponsor of the reception. Diane Antishin, vice president of human resources and the chief diversity and inclusion officer, spoke on behalf of the foundation.
"At DTE, we're committed to building an inclusive and diverse workforce," Antishin said. "And a workplace where everyone feels safe, welcome and a sense of belonging."
Best known for her leading role as Elektra Abundance on the FX series 'Pose,' Dominique Jackson is also an author, model, advocate and activist. She joined the reception to share reflections on her life, then took questions.
"As a Black, West Indian, trans, American-influenced woman, I carry a lot," Jackson said. "And I carry many of these things not as a burden, but as pride in who I am. I am proud to be West Indian. I am proud to be an immigrant. I am proud to be trans. I am proud to be me. But most of all, I'm proud to be human. And I admire and I love when people recognize humanity: when you see the person standing next to you as human and deserving of people."
Jackson then thanked Equality Michigan employees for the work that they do.
"Your work is necessary," she said, and she then gave voice to the issue of the epidemic of trans women of color being brutally murdered.
"Our lives matter," Jackson said. "For many, they do not realize the struggle of the trans community. The ability to find love, to be loved, to want love. When we see these murders, we think, 'Well, what did they do?' And I'm here to tell you today that all we do is love and want to be loved. That should not cause us to be murdered. We should not have to live in fear for our lives."
The first question of the night addressed the youth who were participating. The request was to share words that would give them hope.
"We may not have been born with silver spoons in our mouths," Jackson said. "We may wake up and look at our lives and think that our lives are not worth much. We may not see the beauty, the uniqueness in us, because society and those around us are not allowing us to see that.
"So I implore you: stand in front of your mirrors and love yourself," she continued. "Empower yourself. Set goals for yourself. Make a plan. Do not stay in a negative space or a defeated space because you can achieve anything that you put your minds to. I am from a small island and from that small island I came to the U.S. an immigrant with nothing. I was homeless. But through everything, there was that inner voice that kept saying to me, 'You can make it.' And I believed in myself, even when others didn't believe in me and it hurt me and I felt discouraged. I'd go under the covers … and cry. I even went through agoraphobia … I still suffer from it, but I motivate myself because I know that the vessel that I am was put here for a purpose and for a reason."
A question was then asked about trans youth by someone who runs a camp for LGBTQ young people. Specifically, how to help them deal with fear.
"It's not about actually understanding their fear," Jackson suggested. "It's knowing that they're fearful and being there to support them as you have continued to do. And it's so wonderful and thank you for the work that you're doing because sometimes we need to feel normal, and to be able to go to camp.
"Of course, it's hard because when we have people that are coming from trauma, and especially a lot of time trans people are coming from trauma. It's not always about telling what to do, it's about looking and seeing where someone is at, how they are developing, how they relate, and supporting them and encouraging them in doing what they love. If I had people that told me I could have been an actor, I know for a fact that I would have gotten a lot more work earlier," she went on. "But then, I also believe that nothing happens before its time."
The evening concluded with final remarks by Knott and a prerecorded message from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
"2020 has been a challenging year," Whitmer began. "Not only are we dealing with COVID-19, and an economic crisis, but the culmination of years of racial injustice has reached its boiling point. This injustice hit the Black trans community hard.
"Many cases go unreported and many victims are misgendered," she continued. "Black trans women were the leaders of the LGBTQ+ activism, yet they were never put at the center of the movement they helped start. Equality Michigan is pushing to change that. Their continued dedication and hard work towards expanding and protecting equal rights in Michigan is making an impact. This moment is long overdue.
Whitmer described how she is leading by example: a more diverse group of voices than ever is now making decisions in Lansing.
"But there's still more work to do," Whitmer cautioned. "We must continue to work together to expand protections for the LGBTQ+ community. It's time to get Michigan on the right side of history. Michigan's diversity is one of our greatest strengths. I'll continue to work tirelessly to endure that in our state, you're not merely tolerated, but enthusiastically embraced, just as you are."