After Southwest Michigan First's controversial hiring of former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, followed by his tumultuous tenure and subsequent resignation, it's difficult to say whether 2021 started with a bang or a thud for LGBTQ+ Michiganders and their allies. But Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Kott isn't distracted. In a wide-ranging interview with Pride Source, Knott shared what's on the LGBTQ+ civil rights organization's agenda for the coming year. She began with what one can take away from the Chatfield debacle.
"I think what we've learned is a couple of points," Knott began. "One is for those individuals that are currently serving in the Michigan Legislature that will be termed out in 2022, they need to do right by the LGBTQ community. Otherwise, they might find themselves unemployable when they leave their public service."
In addition, Knott said, businesses and institutions of all sizes are being put on notice that they will be held accountable for instituting inclusive practices: they've seen the backlash that can ensue. She believes it's no coincidence that Bethany Christian Services amended its policies regarding foster care and adoption for the LGBTQ+ community shortly after what happened regarding Southwest Michigan First.
"I think you'll continue to see employers doing right by the LGBTQ community so that they're not going through the public kind of pressure campaign that Southwest Michigan First experienced a couple of weeks ago," Knott added.
Knott emphasized that the business community has great power and influence over lawmakers, often in the form of donation dollars. In turn, when it comes to the bottom line of those businesses, consumers — not to mention employees both current and prospective — hold sway, too. It's all interconnected; however, amending Michigan's civil rights law to include LGBTQ+ people remains at a standstill.
"We have polling that suggests over 75 percent of Michiganders supports modernizing the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression — and those folks are voters," Knott pointed out.
Dismissive of the notion that the judicial system may ultimately resolve the issue before the Legislature acts, Knott stressed the importance of having an explicit law on the books. Yet she's realistic, and acknowledged it will be an "uphill climb." She returned to the outcry surrounding Southwest Michigan First.
"That's just a snapshot of what will happen once we have bills introduced and moving throughout the legislative process," Knott predicted. "I'm looking forward to, at Equality Michigan, a summer that's not as bleak as last summer in terms of the challenges with COVID, so that we're not only organizing online but we're out in communities doing accountability actions in districts where we have lawmakers that are absolutely being obstructionists to holding hearings or giving us that clean bill that our community so desperately deserves."
And there's more the LGBTQ+ community has to look forward to from Equality Michigan this summer.
"With municipal elections coming up, Equality Michigan is going to be helping pro-equality candidates, LGBTQ candidates, that want to serve at the local level," Knott explained. "And that work is just a springboard for the work that will happen in 2022."
Another legislative priority for Equality Michigan is continuing to pursue a statewide conversion therapy ban: until now, Michigan has only enacted a patchwork of bans in a handful of municipalities. While it is encouraging that Democratic legislators have introduced bills that would ban conversion therapy practiced on minors by healthcare professionals — and Equality Michigan has supported them — Knott acknowledged that said bills "sit and go nowhere."
This year may be different, though, with the help of Gov. Whitmer.
"I've … had conversations with the Governor's staff," Knott said. "These conversations actually began last year and the pandemic put a pause on them. She does have the ability to pass executive actions on this matter. It won't be as encompassing as a legislative solution, but that's a first step. There will be follow-up conversations with her team to talk about what that looks like in some of the other states that have recently passed executive actions, just so she sees what's possible."
Within the organization, Knott was eager to share what's new for Equality Michigan's department of victim services.
"That team did a phenomenal job transitioning their work to online services, just because we weren't physically able to go in the last year to the sites where we have partnerships," Knott said. "So that team is making the preparation to be back in our pop-up office areas as appropriate, but we're also looking at expanding the net in terms of who we partner with."
For example, Knott said, they are in the development stages of partnering with various YWCA's to have a formal arrangement where Equality Michigan would be the victim advocate for a member of the LGBTQ+ community who's experiencing trauma. In the future, this would expand to a more diverse range of partnerships across the state.
With an increase in state grant dollars, Equality Michigan has also been able to increase their emergency funding for victims fleeing a domestic violence situation but who have left behind critical prescription medication.
"We also are in the position to provide resources and dollars so that our clients are able to receive counseling services," Knott said. "This is new for 2021 and we'll be rolling out more information about eligibility and process in the weeks to come."
Not only are there new service offerings in Equality Michigan's department of victim services, but there have been staffing changes, too. Brooke Lindley comes to the organization from the LGBTQ+ center OutFront Kalamazoo and began last year by assisting Knott in the 2020 election cycle. Now, with a case manager position built into the budget, Lindley is assuming that role. Her work will focus largely on trainings in the community. With the same kind of experience working with the YWCA and OutFront, Knott called it "a perfect fit."
"As she assumes the new case manager position, [Lindley] has goals of training, engaging with companies, universities [and] schools on diversity and inclusion [and] workplace education," Knott said. "She's also working with law enforcement agencies, as another example, so that they know how to strengthen civil rights of the LGBTQ people engaged with the criminal system and law enforcement. We've always done the training work; we now have a dedicated person that is out there marketing the offerings, making the connections and building the relationships, and we're looking to do deeper training across the state."
Currently, there is an open position for a victim advocate. Serena Johnson, most recently Equality Michigan's director of victim services, temporarily returned to the organization in the summer on a part-time basis and will help Knott make a hiring decision.
Knott also commented on another new face at Equality Michigan, former state Senator Buzz Thomas, who now heads up the organization's 501(c)(3) board of directors.
"It's been energizing and exciting to get to know Buzz in this different relationship," Knott said. "He has a tremendous amount of connections, wisdom and expertise as it relates to coalition-building and relationship-building, and I've enjoyed his mentorship for the first quarter of the year as the two of us … are working closer together."
Finances and the Future
In terms of the financial position of the organization, Knott was proud to call it "very strong," due in part to a successful Mission Equality fundraising event, held online. Despite COVID, EQMI was able to raise the resources needed to sustain the operation and even expand the work of the previous year.
"We are looking to raise even more money this year," Knott said. "My goal is that we end 2021 in a stronger position than we are right now so that we are hitting 2022 with the utmost momentum going into that election year, because … everything is up in 2022 and it's just gonna be critical for our community."
Certainly, Equality Michigan is in a stronger position than just a few years ago. When asked whether there was any credence to the notion that the organization was considering combining operations with the Affirmations LGBTQ+ community center. Knott's answer was a swift and unequivocal "no."
"That's not on the table," Knott said. "That was something that was floated out there … in 2019 when Affirmations and Equality Michigan were experiencing some transition [but] that has not been a conversation that has … risen to any credible level in some time."
Knott added that she and Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia have a great relationship and talk on a regular basis. She also commented that Equality Michigan, the ACLU and the community centers across the state come together formally on a regular basis to exchange information, update each other on priorities and opportunities, and share best practices.
Not only is Knott executive director of the largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization in Michigan, but she also sits on the Kalamazoo City Board of Commissioners and teaches college students part-time. She explained why she is so passionate about her work.
"It sounds cliched, but I am a workaholic," Knott confessed. "If you were to ask my partner, I am constantly working. And I think the last year with COVID, because we were all at home, there were blurry boundaries as it relates to my work/life balance, and I saw myself working very, very long days. But until we have full equality, until the state of Michigan amends Elliott-Larsen so that our community is protected, you've just gotta roll up your sleeves and keep pushing.
"It's maddening that there are individuals in positions of power that continue to weaponize or distort religious liberty as a license to discriminate," she continued. "My passion will continue to be fever-pitched until we're able to tamp back some of these distortions and we're protected and able to go about our daily lives without fear of harm because of somebody's viewpoint."
Learn more about EQMI and Erin Knott at equalitymi.org.