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Gov. Whitmer Talks Pride, Violence Against Trans Women and Her Latest Reaction to Running for President

Chris Azzopardi

It’s Pride Month, but this one feels different. There’s both a sense of joy (because the Democratic majority in the Michigan legislature is still working to protect its queer population) and dread (because, nationally, anti-LGBTQ+ laws are rampant). This “dichotomy of emotions,” as she calls it, is one that is familiar right now to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, an LGBTQ+ ally whose own daughter, Sherry, is lesbian.

The Michigan governor leads the charge on strengthening the state’s pro-queer powerhouse status, thanks to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act amendment that grants protections to LGBTQ+ people, which Gov. Whitmer signed into law in March.

Shortly after the signing, when asked by Pride Source about conversion therapy — two bills were recently introduced in the House and Senate that would essentially end the practice on minors in Michigan —  Gov. Whitmer said she was “eager to continue working with the legislature to expand rights and protect fundamental rights for the LGBTQ community.”

When she recently checked in with Pride Source again just before Motor City Pride, Gov. Whitmer discussed her mixed feelings during Pride Month, how she sees the trans community as “uniquely vulnerable” after another trans woman was recently murdered near Detroit and her thoughts on bringing her pro-queer allyship to the national level.

I hope you get a chance to see our new Pride issue. It includes a big celebratory nod to Michigan as a leader in LGBTQ+ issues in our country right on the cover. Michigan is leading a Pride parade with other states in the back, especially Florida. 

[Laughs.] Poor Florida. I mean, not poor Florida but poor people of Florida, right? It's really a very new day in Michigan. And it's a good day, that's for sure.

We’re seeing states like Minnesota and New York becoming sanctuary states for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Do you think Michigan could potentially become one too?

One of the great things about getting Michigan on the right side of history, finally, after so many years of trying to get this done, with this new legislature we can get it done, and we did it in the first 100 days. People know that the future of our state, the future of our economy, the future of our population, depends on Michigan being a place where all people, no matter who you are, how you identify, who you love, what color your skin is, what decisions you make about your life, about your body, about your future, it's gonna be a real selling point for Michigan. And so part of my message to the LGBTQ+ community across the country is, “Maybe you should make your home in Michigan. We will be a place where you'll have respect and protection under the law, and that's one huge step that we've taken.” But our work’s not done yet.

The national sentiment around LGBTQ+ issues right now is very different from what it is in Michigan. As a staff, we’ve been wrestling with the current competing realities of being joyous and celebratory during Pride Month, but fearful for our community at large. What's on your mind right now when you think of Pride Month?

I feel that dichotomy of emotions. Because you see the hate that is then normalized and that has grown in certain parts of our country and certain parts of the internet and in certain rhetoric. And yet, I feel very hopeful and pleased about the steps that we've been able to take in Michigan. But we've gotta stay vigilant. We cannot ever assume that the job is done. We can never assume that all people understand why this is important. We can never assume that there aren't people who are listening to that rhetoric who might take it upon themselves to do something harmful to others.

And I hate to say that, but after the last few years and just the ugliness that has been directed my way, that's a lesson that I take to heart. It's gonna be important for people like me or any person who's got a platform, whether it's a corporate platform or a government platform or an online platform. Use it to show support for the LGBTQ+ community and to call out and hold accountable those who want to harm their fellow Americans.

You used the word “vigilant” and that is the word that comes to mind when I think about what it's like to walk the streets as an LGBTQ+ person right now. Ashia Davis was a trans woman who was recently killed in Highland Park on June 2, the beginning of Pride Month. Ashia was not the first trans woman to be killed in the Detroit area — there have been several trans women killed here. It is a national epidemic too, and we are seeing that kind of violence against trans people right here at home. What does our state do to solve this ongoing problem that is both a national and local issue? 

I think so much of our work is around coalescing allies, raising voices and educating the public. But also holding those who inflict harm on, or murder, members of the community accountable. I think our attorney general [Dana Nessel] has worked very closely with our legislature to ensure that we're strengthening our hate crime laws. She's endorsing them. I think those are important components of addressing the issue as well.

I can tell you that when I was in the legislature, we got really close to amending Elliott-Larsen. It was a Republican Senate Majority Leader [Randy Richardville], who I think was trying to do the right thing. but did not understand the community like I had gotten to. It's always a process to become an ally. You have to learn, you gotta listen, you gotta ask questions and not be afraid to do all those things. And I remember him saying, “You know, I think we can get part of it passed but we'll have to leave the 'T' behind” was how he phrased it. I said, "I don't think you understand this community. We're never gonna go for that.” He's like, "Are you telling me you'll vote against something that gives civil rights to lesbians and gay people?" And I said, "They would want me to, to make sure that we don't go forward without the trans community because they're uniquely vulnerable." And he just didn't understand that. And I don't fault him for it, but that was a moment where it was a learning moment for me to become a better ally to give voice to why the trans community is so uniquely vulnerable.

It has seemed to me that you have wrapped your arms even tighter around the trans community. I was in the background at your roundtable discussion with local members of the LGBTQ+ community before signing ELCRA. You were just listening and absorbing information, and there were quite a few trans people at the table. You were just taking it all in. And I thought your silence in that moment was powerful. 

Well, thank you, that's very kind of you to say. And I’ll just say that I think the best allies listen and then ask, “What can be done that would be helpful?” And there's even been talk about my own daughter. Before Elliott-Larsen, she had come out publicly; she'd come out to me a couple years before she was comfortable sharing in a national article. And I didn't ask her to, but she wanted to. I was so proud of her. I said to her, "When I sign Elliott-Larsen, how do you want me to refer to you? Do you want me to refer to you as a lesbian, or a gay woman, or a member of the LGBTQ+ community?" And she laughed at me. She's like, "You are weird, mom. I'm a gay woman. Just call me a gay woman.” I'm like, "OK! But I didn't know." And then she has been referring to me as “non-community member but ally.” [Laughs.] Which I think is funny, because even in my own household, I've gotta ask questions and I wanna make sure that I'm doing the right thing on behalf of the community. Because I'm not a member, but I wanna be the best ally that I can be.

There's been a lot of buzz about you running for president. I wonder, could what we're doing in the state for the LGBTQ+ community be brought to a national level if, say, you were calling the shots at that level?

You're very creative… asking me the question I told everyone else not to ask me. [Laughs.] I really think that what we are doing is important and it is to our state's benefit. Growing our population, growing our economy, and so I do think that when people look at what's happening in Michigan that next year, in five years, in 10 years, they'll see our growth and our success and that it's replicated in other states and on the national level. That doesn't require me to be the one, but I think our success here is going to have a ripple effect across the country and it would be nice if that happened at the national level so we didn't have state-by-state patchwork of friendly states or scary states but to be the United States,

where every American is respected and protected under the law.

On a lighter note, you got that Pride pronoun jacket last year for Pride. What is in your Pride wardrobe this year? 

Well, I've got my rainbow Hush Puppies that I'll be wearing… I'm not quite sure what else I'll be accessorizing with. But as you can imagine, I've got a lotta options in my wardrobe. I don't know what I'm gonna pull out yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I think the Pride parade, the opportunity to connect, it’s just one of my favorite things that I do.

As a reaction to all this anti-drag controversy, I was talking to the staff about getting some local drag queens, like Sabin, to make you over as a drag king called “Governor Whitman.” What do we need to do to make that happen?

[Laughs.] I mean, I love it. Let's follow up with Julia Pickett on my team.

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