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There’s no doubt the LGBTQ community can celebrate the political gains made in 2018, but the Trump administration’s attacks on the LGBTQ community have escalated since then — particularly toward transgender people. And last year’s midterm election results, while encouraging, do not reduce the imminent threats the LGBTQ community faces; there is a lot of work yet to do.
Recognizing that, Equality Michigan — a statewide, LGBTQ-centered, anti-violence group — is planning for rapid progress on the issues that matter most to the organization’s members and supporters. With a more politically balanced incoming legislature and a pro-equality governor, attorney general and secretary of state, EQMI’s Interim Executive Director Erin Knott said 2019 is a pivotal year for work to build movement leaders and empower their supporters and community members across Michigan.
“We’ve set an agenda that’s bigger and bolder than anything that you’ve seen from Equality Michigan in the past,” Knott said, during an EQMI fundraising event on Sunday, March 3, at the Ferndale Elks Lodge.
Knott stepped into her existing position in January when the organization’s board unanimously decided not to renew former Executive Director Stephanie White’s contract. This decision, according to a press release, was made as a result of EQMI’s efforts to retool for 2019 and years to come. White held the position since October 2015.
Her departure marks the sixth executive director to come and go since 2007. Jeff Montgomery resigned from the Triangle Foundation — formerly EQMI’s name — in 2007, Kate Runyon in 2008, Alicia Skillman in 2010, Denise Brogan-Kator in 2012 and Emily Dievendorf in 2015.
Michael Rowady, EQMI’s 501(c)(3) board chair, confirmed a search will be conducted for a new executive director later this year by both the board of directors and the Equality Michigan Action Network, the 501(c)(4) arm of the organization.
Rowady had this to say about Knott, who is an established political operative, Kalamazoo Vice Mayor and EQMI’s previous political director.
“[She] has led the organization through recent high-level changes with grace and strength.”
When asked what it’s been like taking on this new responsibility, Knott said, “It’s been a balancing act of doing the fundraising that’s needed, focusing on the administrative work that needs to happen, and supporting my teammates here. But the primary purpose is getting up and doing the work on behalf of the LGBTQ community across Michigan, our supporters, our allies. And that work’s not stopping just because we’ve had some leadership changes.”
Despite Knott’s positive attitude, questions from community members continue to arise regarding the sustainability of EQMI with its frequent turnover in employees, executive directors and board members resigning.
In response, Knott said the board is “being incredibly mindful about what they need to do to right the ship” to ensure they’re never in a similar position again.
Knott’s current teammates consist of Serena Johnson, director of victims services; Jey’nce Poindexter, transgender victims advocate; and Genny Maze, lead victims advocate. Other staff positions were cut as part of “substantial adjustments” EQMI made to their budget including consolidating services and by finding services that better meet their needs that aren’t as expensive.
“We know that our financial health is in question,” Knott said, who said she wants to be transparent with EQMI’s supporters and the general public. “We know that our expenses outpaced revenue that was coming in.”
In an effort to fix that, Knott said, “We’ve tightened our spending.”
“In previous years, we had a budget that was much bigger than we were able to cover with revenue coming in and that focused us to take time away from the mission,” she said. “But we’ve made some adjustments. We have the right people in place. In 2017 and 2018 we were out of balance, we recognize that. It’s not going to look like it has in previous years.”
When Henry Messer died in 2014 he left $3 million to EQMI in two parts. The first was a $1 million gift to be disbursed over four years for general operating expenses. The second part of the bequest was $2 million in an endowment fund housed at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Interest earned on the endowment is available to the organization for general operating expenses.
The original plan was to use the $250,000 per year over four years – in part – to build fundraising capabilities so that when the four years of disbursements ended the organization would be in a position to replace those funds. According to available financial reports, operating income from donors and grants did increase substantially, increasing over 50 percent from $406,000 in 2016 to just over $600,000 in 2018. But that was not enough to replace the $250,000 per year from the Messer gift.
In late 2018 the board realized the organization had expanded and was staffed at an annual operating budget of about $800,000 with only the capacity to raise about three quarters of that.
Despite budget concerns, the organization continues to focus on its policy and its electoral work. Knott said EQMI will renew and increase investments in year-round programming to build a base of active, civically engaged LGBTQ people and allies to help propel their work forward.
First, to help achieve their breakthrough goals, EQMI will work toward changing the minds of decision makers.
“There are two people in positions of power that control the legislature that have said an amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act is not going to see the light of day,” she said.
They are Republican Majority Leader of the Senate Mike Shirkey and the Republican Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield. When asked about the expansion of LGBTQ rights after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first State of the State address in February, Shirkey told Michigan Radio he believes his chamber has higher priority issues. And during a live interview on Off the Record in January, Chatfield said, “I’m never going to endorse a law or allow a bill to come for a vote that I believe infringes on someone’s ability to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Knott has publicly said to both of them that they are not on the right side of public opinion.
“The public is behind us and believes in fully-inclusive benefits for all Michiganders, including those from the LGBTQ community,” she said. “We are going to get the Michigan House to pass a fully-inclusive bill to amend Elliott-Larsen. That’s the benchmark for this year, to get a vote in the state house.”
The first time the legislature tried to amend ELCRA to include sexual orientation and gender identity was in 1983. Since then a number of additional bills have been introduced to add protections for the LGBTQ community without passage. This makes Michigan one of 31 states that do not have fully-inclusive protections for LGBTQ people. Although there are more than 40 municipalities that provide a “patchwork framework” of non-discrimination ordinances, Knott said, “That really doesn’t work so well” when, for example, an LGBTQ couple can go out to dinner in one city without being discriminated against, but in another city in the same county, that LGBTQ couple may be asked to leave the restaurant because of how they identify.
“It’s unjust and it’s unfair and we’re going to change that this year,” she said. “Our focus will make sure that we are prepared going into 2020 and beyond. In order to change the lived experience of LGBTQ people, we need to do four things.”
Building Political Power
To build the kind of political power EQMI needs to make changes, they will work at strengthening “farm teams” across the state of Michigan.
“We need to change who is making decisions up and down the ballot. I think we’ve done this, but there’s more room for improvement,” Knott said.
But how is the organization going to get there? EQMI plans to engage more members of the community to support LGBTQ city and township elections.
“2019 is a year that often times we don’t think about civic engagement because it’s municipal elections. Those folks are the farm team, like me. We need to be electing more pro-equality lawmakers at the municipal level,” Knott said.
Cultivating LGBTQ individuals to run in local races requires training, which EQMI is prepared to do. Knott said they will host three perspective LGBTQ candidate trainings across the state. EQMI will also hold an advocate training day to help members of the community learn how to grassroots lobby at the Capitol in Lansing or in municipalities where NDOs are to be voted on. This particular training, Knott said, will help members of the community who have experienced various forms of violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, hate violence, harassment and discrimination to “effectively tell their stories in whatever capacity that they feel safe so that it impacts lawmakers.”
As they have in the past, the advocacy and political arms of the organization will continue working together to gather those important stories. Last year, EQMI’s Victim Services Program – which provides 24-hour, seven days a week, crisis support and advocacy services for LGBTQ, SGL (Same Gender Loving), and HIV-affected people – was able to serve over 400 LGBTQ people.
“Our goal for 2019 is to grow the program budget by 65 percent to provide accredited support to over 600-plus LGBTQ people in crisis,” she said.
The organization has already expanded their reach across the state to cities like Bay City, Grand Rapids, Holland and Traverse City, maintaining regular pop-up office hours where the community has direct access to Johnson, Poindexter and Maze, a staff of three that Knott said is doing more than the work of three employees.
“There is so much opportunity, unfortunately, for us to go deeper,” Knott said, who is faced with finding a way to provide additional support for her staff so they are able to serve more members of the LGBTQ community, especially the transgender community.
“The fact that trans women of color are getting gunned down in the streets, they’re getting physically attacked just because of who they are – we need to be amplifying that call, that crisis, like ring the bell that this is an emergency.”
Part of going deeper means educating the community. EQMI plans to engage companies, universities, schools and maybe even governmental units on diversity inclusion workplace education through facilitated employee trainings. EQMI will work in partnership with organizations like the ACLU of Michigan, community centers across the state and PFLAG to hold Michigan town halls and community forums to explain what Whitmer’s historic executive directive means. And, EQMI will help their supporters learn how to file complaints with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.
Legislative and Executive Branch Advocacy
EQMI is currently working in partnership with the ACLU of Michigan and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to create a more inclusive policy for gender markers on drivers licenses and state IDs.
“We’re exploring the possibility of a third option regarding gender,” Knott said.
In addition, EQMI is working to ensure that the Michigan Department of Civil Rights can continue taking the complaints of LGBTQ discrimination that the organization will be helping members of the community learn how to file.
Knott said the organization is going to work with the governor’s office, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Insurance and Financial Services to make sure that Michigan’s Medicaid programs do not discriminate against transgender recipients and that their medical care is provided.
“It’s not about cosmetic surgery, it is medically necessary and we’re going to change that,” she said.
Knott said that EQMI will work with their partners in the legislature to reintroduce a bill to ban conversion therapy.
“Plain and simple. This is a barbaric policy, principal that happens,” she said. “Other states are doing it, heck, other cities across the U.S. are doing it. It’s time for Michigan to pass a conversion therapy ban.”
And if the organization can’t get the legislature to move on this, Knott said they can work with the governor’s office, particularly as it relates to Medicaid programs.
“There’s ways in which the Department of Insurance and Financial Services can put some rules in place so that if you are a recipient of Medicaid funds, you can’t be engaging in conversion therapy practices.”
EQMI hopes to make a lot of progress in the next few years, but none of this is possible without support from members of the community.
“We need people to join our movement,” Knott said. “I need to build my network of folks that I can mobilize. Whether it’s a lobby day that comes up later this year. Whether it’s a rapid response event we need to turn out for a particular committee hearing. I need people to flood the phone lines … We need stories and obviously, we need the financial resources to be able to do this work. We can’t do it without the support of the broader community and our allies. I’m trying to make the pitch so that people understand why investing in Equality Michigan, particularly after marriage, is so critical for this work going forward.”
Board of Directors
Currently serving on the EQMI board is Michael Rowady, chair; David Worthams, vice chair; Mira Krishnan, treasurer; Tim Atkinson, secretary; Buzz Thomas, member at large; Chuck Otis; Richard Vaughn; and Jeff Hastedt.
The EQMI Action Network consists of Trevor Thomas, chair; Cheryl Gilliam, vice chair; Mira Krishnan, treasurer; Tim Atkinson, secretary; Ronald Moore, member at large; and Chuck Otis.