By this time next week, Michiganders will have already voted in the Aug. 7 primaries. However, in anticipation of that vote, Between The Lines reached out to each of the three Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Gretchen Whitmer, Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar — to get their thoughts on LGBTQ issues and their priorities in the social justice arena as a last-minute update to undecided voters.
Below are the answers El-Sayed provided in his interview with BTL.
Each of the gubernatorial candidates running has put forth progressive, pro-equality messages. Why should an LGBTQ voter vote for you?
I think it’s a couple of things. I come from a background of public health and medicine and my work has always been about healing and about providing access to a basic set of things health wise. I don’t come from a political background, I’m certainly not a businessman and I’m the only one in this race that has executive experience in government. My outset and perspective around empowerment and engagement are something that I’ve put work down on as health director. I ran one of the state’s biggest health departments — rebuilt it, in fact. And in that process, I actually also was involved with leading efforts to stabilize and improve the state’s Ryan White grants for the federal government. And in that role, really thinking about how we move that program into the 21st century, really thinking about access to PrEP and destigmatizing HIV and the responsibility that we have to make sure people are safe and healthy.
I’m also not taking a dime of corporate money. So when I talk about being able to provide a set of goods around Michigan, to provide every Michigander access to care including mental health care and vision care and dental care, I want to talk about things 100 percent renewable energy future. You know I’m not taking money from corporations who don’t want to see those things done. And so it’s clear that we have the most progressive platform in this race and I’ve done the work on the ground, especially on the municipal level, to be able to demonstrate my commitment to these issues. Now, I think all of us can talk about the importance of making sure that Michigan is a state that embraces equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. Then the question you have to ask is, “Who has actually done the work in the past?” And, “Who is running a campaign in a way that allows them to be beholden to people, instead of those who are beholden to the corporations who have called the shots in Michigan for far too long?”
What are your thoughts on some of the more controversial issues surrounding the LGBTQ community like the criminalization of HIV or bathroom bills?
You can’t criminalize a disease. As a doctor I’ll tell you that’s the first, most important thing. And right now, we have laws on the books that do exactly that. I would immediately want to start working with our Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, who I hope comes through in November, so that we are not enforcing those laws on the books and really making sure that we can as a state take the practical matter of criminalizing HIV down. And then we have to start attacking legislation that repeals those kinds of policies.
It does harm, it drives stigma and it leads to less safe and less helpful behaviors over the long term. So, I think we have a responsibility against the stigma of HIV and trying to criminalize a disease. And then to empower and engage folks in the conversation of best practices to reduce HIV spread. It’s only when we partner with people that we get the best outcomes, rather than alienate them. The LGBTQIA+ community has been marginalized, neglected and blamed rather than provided for. And in the works that I’ve done, working with both patients of HIV as a medical student and also the administration of the Ryan White grants, I’ve come to deeply appreciate how that stigma has affected peoples’ lives. I think the clear importance is that we have to start moving our policies so that they are consistent with science and with civil rights.
In your campaign literature, you speak about amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. This is also a controversial issue. Why do you think it’s important for all Michiganders to stand behind this change?
I will tell you this: politics doesn’t end with elections. My hope is that we get Democrats elected up and down the ballot and so that we can start moving this issue forward. But also, we’ve got to keep up the advocacy. The LGBTQIA+ community has been so good at advocating, but often times, unfortunately, the fact of progress is that it’s slow and halting and we have to keep the pressure rolling on these issues.
Every day someone from the community gets told they can’t have a job or gets fired because of who they love or loses an opportunity in their career because they are transitioning. And that is a Michigander who has been put behind. The advocacy cannot stop with just electing great representatives … hold us accountable to keep pushing the envelope because when we push the legislators who are not on the same page and we force our issues, (it’s then) that they actually get done. It’s a team effort. I know that if I’m in office it’s going to be something I’m going to be looking to do immediately. I’ll tell you on day one we are going to make sure that in state policies the rights of LGBTQIA+ Michiganders are enumerated when it comes to civil service employment. And that we follow our own path in terms of the 50,000 employees that work for the state of Michigan and then we work outward from there to press on these issues like full-blown discrimination in housing, or in health care, or employment or in any other matter with regard to the community.
Do you feel that your work in medicine has given you an edge against your competition in this race?
The work of medicine is about listening to somebody who is in pain, empathizing with their pain, understanding where that pain comes from. Both on a surgical level and on an emotional level, acknowledging and listening to that pain and then thinking about what we can do together to solve it. That’s the same as the work of politics: you are listening to people to understand what’s happening in their lives, the challenges that they face, formulating a plan together and then executing on that plan together. I think that work, coming to it from a place of empathy, a place of respect, a place of human dignity gives me a clear edge.
Thinking about how I approach political and governmental work. I’m also the only other person who has ever lead an executive in the bureaucracy at all. That role gives me an understanding of what needs to be accomplished in that 50,000-person bureaucracy that is the Michigan state government. Working with partners on the ground to actually get things done, and having worked on the municipal level, I used to spend a lot of my afternoons going into the community and just talking people about their experience with the health department. I intend to do the same thing as governor, because if it’s not working on the ground for people, if their experience of government is not good, then that means the government is no good. We’ve got a responsibility to make sure we’re delivering for people at core. Practicing empathy, compassion, humility, is what really gives me an edge over anybody in this race.
If elected how will you ensure that women can continue to get the services offered by organizations like Planned Parenthood?
Look, when I was in medical school I got to spend a morning in a Planned Parenthood clinic and got to sit with a woman who was exactly my age at the time. (She was) making a hard decision about whether she wanted to undergo an abortion. That experience solidified to me that it’s never an easy decision but it’s always an individual’s decision. Beyond that, 78 percent of the dollars spent at Planned Parenthood are about preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place. And we’re serious about addressing access to women’s health services, and even for conservatives who want to reduce the amount of abortions.
Look, the best single way to prevent an abortion is to prevent an unwanted pregnancy in the first place. It’s ridiculous to me that folks want to shut down an institution like Planned Parenthood whose primary goal is to prevent unwanted pregnancies and ultimately prevent an outcome like an abortion which is not something that anybody ever celebrates, but it is necessary in so many circumstances. So, to me, the necessity is to protect institutions like Planned Parenthood, protect all the work they do around preventing unwanted pregnancies and also providing access to a pregnancy termination to an individual if they want to pursue that. And making sure that a woman has her best choice at every step of the continuum from conception all the way out. So, to me, I think Planned Parenthood is really, really important. It’s an important institution and it has to be protected. I intend to protect it. And then, beyond that, look, if Brett Kavanaugh gets a seat on the Supreme Court we are in a position where they could go after Roe V. Wade. And Michigan has an anti-abortion law on the books as a holdover from the pre-Roe era and we’re going to have to do everything we can to repeal that law, because it could do a lot of damage to preventing women to having access to abortion services. We all know it’s not that abortions don’t happen when women don’t have access to a legal abortion, it’s that they happen in far more dangerous circumstances and we cannot allow that to happen because it puts women’s lives at risk. I’m not willing to watch that happen in my state.
You’re a dad. Do you feel that that has influenced the way in which you do politics? And if so, do you think this influence will change you will govern if elected?
Yeah, certainly. Becoming a father eight months ago has fundamentally changed my life. My work has always been about kids and providing them access to a healthy, dignified life, but having your own fundamentally changes your experience of that and understanding of that. Having my daughter has changed my life so much. I’m raising what I hope will be a capable, empowered woman and I take that really, really seriously. When I ask myself what my responsibilities are as governor, they center around making sure every kid has access to the things they need to be able to do that. And that every parent has access to the things that we need so that they can have their best possible, most dignified, empowered life. And that’s everything from making sure that our school are comprehensive, that every child has access to early childhood education, that we have a debt-free, tuition-free college education for families earning less than $150,000 a year.
Making sure that every family has access to universal health care because we shouldn’t have to worry about what happens if we lose our jobs to get something as basic as health care. And it means making sure we are standing up for women’s rights because, you know, my little girl is going to grow up to be an individual who, as a function of the body parts she was born with, under current law could be discriminated against. We have to make sure that if something were to happen that she has access to her doctor and the government is not going to get in the way. The point I make by that is to say that it is about being able to build out the kind of state that empowers access, that is not discriminatory, that empowers people. So, I’m just deeply thankful for the things that my daughter has taught me and led me to see as a parent and as a public servant.