Shortly after signing an official proclamation declaring June Pride month in advance of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attended a community town hall meeting at the Affirmations LGBTQ community center in Ferndale. Besides being a fixture in the local LGBTQ community, the center is also the largest of its kind in the state of Michigan. This visit also came on the eve before she opened her office to the introduction of an expansion to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include rights for the LGBTQ community. Before meeting the public, Whitmer was greeted by a toast delivered by Board President Mike Flores, delivered in honor of the Pride season, its semicentennial, and on behalf of members of the Southeast Michigan LGBTQ community and the Center.
“I was asked to make the toast today but cautioned to keep it short, so here we go: happy pride,” Flores said to a cheerful crowd. “Everyone always asks, ‘Why does pride continue to be important?’ It’s very simple: pride allows us to honor the past, pride allows us to celebrate community, but, more importantly, pride allows us to continue building bridges. Since January of this year, Lansing has sent very strong signals that they are interested and focused on building bridges, bridges focused on opportunity, bridges focused on equality for all Michiganders, and I’m here to say that Affirmations is extremely proud to be a partner with Lansing in building bridges.”
After taking time to connect with board members and distinguished guests of the Center one-on-one, Whitmer made her way to the public town hall meeting. There, she was introduced by several speakers representing different aspects of the LGBTQ community who each individually addressed the significance of her visit. Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia started things off, calling Whitmer a needed ally in a time that has been antagonistic to the LGBTQ community.
“When we were bullied on the playgrounds of our youth, when you looked up and you saw your friends and they didn’t do anything, that hurt worse than the bullies. And when that one person would step in when you were lucky, man, you were friends for life,” Garcia said. “Well, we have our share of bullies even as adults — 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. comes to mind. Governor, I just want to say that we’ve looked up and we see an ally and a friend for the first time in a very long time in the state of Michigan.”
Jey’nce Poindexter, Equality Michigan transgender victims advocate and specialist for the Trans Sistas of Color Project, spoke next. She vocalized her support for Whitmer’s dedication to the LGBTQ community overall during her time in office.
“I had a chance to connect with the governor far before she got popular and I had a chance to really talk with her about what her vision was and about what she expected to do with her powers in the administration,” Poindexter said. “And I’m happy to say that she’s credible, she’s honest and she sticks to her word. That doesn’t mean that she’s going to do everything that we all like all the time, but we do know her heart, we do know that she’s a woman of integrity and quite frankly, I trust her.”
Finally, Sen. Jeremy Moss took the stage, the first openly gay member of the Michigan state Senate. He congratulated the Southeast Michigan community first in honor of the gains made in the 50 years since Stonewall occurred and emphasized a message from the late Harvey Milk who encouraged LGBTQ people to advocate simply by living open and honest lives surrounding their sexuality. He then went on to talk about the significance of Whitmer’s public support of the proposed expansion of Michigan’s civil rights act to include LGBTQ people.
“So, this comes on the eve of an important day tomorrow, where we have an ally, a strong, vocal ally in the governor’s office at last, and tomorrow she is opening up her office in the capitol to us as we introduce an expansion to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act,” Moss said to a cheering crowd. “We are going to work to update our state’s civil rights law to include discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity and gender expression.”
He underscored the strength of Whitmer’s support, too, by pointing to how quickly she ensured that state employees could not be fired for identifying as LGBTQ.
“Not only is she true to her word by holding this event six months into her new administration, but I got a call on, like, day five of the administration that said, ‘Jeremy, we’re going to be at Affirmations on Monday, we need you to come along.’” Moss said. “Because she on day seven, day seven of her administration, signed protections from discrimination for LGBT state employees. That was a day seven act. The last governor did something similar on the third-to-last day in his eight-year term. … So, we have somebody who is fighting for us as if she were part of the community and that is just so refreshing and so different.”
When Whitmer took the stage, she expressed her gratitude for her warm welcome and pledged to continue to fight for LGBTQ equality throughout the length of her term in office.
“We’ve made strides in terms of ensuring that people who actually work for the state of Michigan have real protection in their workplace and that is something that I was happy, thrilled to do, unilaterally. And if I could extend those same rights to everyone in our state unilaterally, you’d be damn sure that I would,” Whitmer said. “But we need legislation to do it, we need to amend our state Constitution to enshrine true civil rights protections in the law for everyone who calls this state home, for everyone who is thinking about moving to this state.”
Town Hall Q&A
After Whitmer’s introductory speech, the town hall progressed into submitted questions from the audience directed at both Sen. Moss and Gov. Whitmer. When asked how to increase the involvement of youth in politics, Moss answered first. He said that current politicians would do well to learn from the movements made popular by the youth of today like gun rights, that involvement could be increased by providing better mentorship opportunities and increasing support for safe spaces like Affirmations that allow youth to be themselves openly and to talk about the issues that they feel are important. Whitmer agreed, adding that today’s young people inspire her.
“As the mom of daughters who are 15 and 17, there’s nothing that gives me more inspiration and more hope than talking to young people in their generation who don’t understand why it’s taken so long to have true equal rights and equal protections under the laws, who don’t take the bullying that we know exists and stand up to it,” she said. “The conversation that young people are having is what gives me more hope than anything. Whether it’s around climate change or civil rights, we have got a lot of work to do and encouraging young people to run for office, to participate, to support leaders, to learn from leaders like Moss [is vital].”
Regarding a question about Whitmer’s plans to support older LGBTQ adults, she acknowledged that older LGBTQ people have been significantly marginalized. She said that making strides toward equality like pushing to expand LGBTQ rights in Michigan and funding programs with all voices at the table is key to aiding all parts of the LGBTQ community.
“I am proud of the cabinet that I have created … When having real voices around the table that are representative of different communities in this great state is how we drive an agenda that makes this a state where everyone can get ahead and that includes older members of the LGBT community as well as younger,” Whitmer said. “This is, I think, reflected in everything that we are putting forward in terms of setting the right priorities in this state and making this a place where people come to for opportunity. And no matter who you are you’ve got a path to prosperity in the state of Michigan.”
Whitmer was also asked about her support of the state’s public school districts, in particular, Detroit Public Schools and other underprivileged regions that primarily serve populations of color. She said that improving the state’s education is one of her main priorities while in office and especially fighting Michigan’s overall bottom ranking in literacy that she plans to tackle starting with an increased budget.
“One of the things I’m most proud of [is] the budget that I introduced, [and] that there is true equity built into the education system for our children. So, DPS, having one of the biggest districts who are living in poverty has disproportionately the biggest investment made in the children of DPS: $426 per student,” she said. “It’s the biggest investment in 20 years. Now, we’ve made every school district get the biggest investment they’ve seen in 20 years, but a district like DPS sees the biggest step forward because there is equity that’s built into this budget.”
This funding, she said, will help to serve the district in many ways like getting smaller class sizes and resources for teachers like social workers and councilors.
Asked also about ensuring that Flint residents receive clean drinking water, Whitmer said that she and the current Mayor Karen Weaver have partnered resources to remove all lead service lines in the city of Flint and are on track to do so by July while ensuring the availability of bottled water.
Perhaps the standout question of the night asked the likelihood of the modified inclusive version of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act passing. Sen. Moss answered, calling to attention the many gains in support that have been made, but also calling on the community to aid the process as much as possible.
“We have to introduce legislation that reflects our values and then we work for it to gain allies one, by one, by one. We have a Republican co-sponsor of this legislation but the reality is that we have very tough conversations to have with the conservative Republican leadership of both the House and the Senate,” Moss said. “And this is where you come along: we need you to advocate, we need you to be our lobbyist for the LGBT community to talk to our colleagues, one, by one, by one.”
Moss also encouraged audience members to participate in Equality Michigan’s newly formed Lobby Day, “Where people from our community from every corner of our state come down or up to Lansing to meet with their representatative and put a face to the issues that impact us. We want to make sure that not a single legislator can say, ‘I don’t know anybody from the LGBT community.'”
The town hall meeting concluded with a question about the value of safe spaces in schools and centers like Affirmations where LGBTQ youth can be open about their identity. Whitmer said that it’s incredibly important and inspiring that today’s youths are far more in touch with their identities and comfortable starting conversations that are political in nature.
“Young people across our state are very different from how we were back in the ‘70s when I was a second-grader. Young people write me about the roads. One drew a picture of a pothole that says, ‘Two hours later still falling,'” Whitmer said with a laugh. “They wrote about water quality, they wrote about climate change, they wrote about affordability of college. These were not the things I was thinking about as a second-grader. … And I think that the stories of young people and the ability of young people to use their voice and to speak in a safe space at school or at Affirmations or in their homes is incredibly important. [It’s important] that we foster that and support it because that’s how change is made, through speaking our truth.”