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I Witnessed Gov. Whitmer Sign Off on LGBTQ+ Protections in Lansing and, Yes, Of Course There Was Crying

The emotional thrill of experiencing queer Michigan history in the making

Full disclosure: I have at least a dozen photos of myself standing next to Governor Whitmer since she was Candidate Whitmer in 2018. The first was taken at a meet-and-greet in June of that year, at the Alley Cat Café in Pontiac.

I was sporting my “I am an Equality Voter/HRC 2018 Volunteer” T-shirt, ready with questions about amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Whitmer assured that under her administration, we would get it done, if not by the action of the legislature, then by taking it to the people in the form of a ballot initiative.

At the risk of sounding unprofessional, I’m a longtime fan.

Ron Owens, Whitmer’s deputy political director at the time, was on hand at that first meet-and-greet for photos, among many other things. As it turned out, I would meet him again at Michigan Pride in Lansing that summer and discover he was gay.

I had an idea. Would Pride Source be interested in a profile of Owens?

My pitch was approved. But it almost didn’t happen.

Shortly before our interview, Ron called. Could we postpone the interview? He had planned to come out to his family in Saginaw that weekend, but it just didn’t happen. What was my deadline?

“Oh Ron,” I said, “your personal life is so much more important than any deadline. Take your time. Get back to me when you can.”

I didn’t know if he would, but he did. We published the feature, and all was good. With that piece, some were learning for the first time that Ron was gay. It was a moment when I felt my work truly mattered.

As time went on, there would be more photo opportunities and a very important election in 2022. That brings us to the signing of Senate Bill 4.

The fact that the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act would finally be amended to include LGBTQ+ people after several decades of advocacy and activism felt surreal. I got a ride to Lansing with a friend who had an earlier meeting, so I waited at a Biggby and ate a toasted day-old bagel smeared with Country Crock. No stars for taste, but the high-carb snack calmed me.

At Pride Source, we communicate largely by email. So to hear from editorial director Chris Azzopardi several times that day by phone was unusual, but not unexpected. I had my marching orders. Note any distinguished witnesses to the event. Text quotes from the governor ASAP. And, “This may sound weird, but could you notice if anyone is crying?” Not at all weird, I assured Chris. I had my own personal stash of Kleenex.

The signing was held at Urban Beat, a bar in Lansing. The room was packed. I was squeezed in at a small table, standing with my backpack on a chair, sandwiched between news crews with their cameras on tripods. Just like Sen. Jeremy Moss told me regarding the floor vote days earlier at the state house, I felt the weight of the moment. Garnet Lewis gave me a hug. It was Garn’s unfortunately unsuccessful run for state senate in 2018 that would be the first of my many candidate profiles for Pride Source. Before the speakers began, she introduced me to Mel Larsen — the “Larsen” in “Elliott-Larsen."

After the signing ceremony, when Whitmer’s gay daughter, Sherry, came up to stand by her mother for photos, I got misty.

It was time for a toast. Several of the Hate Won’t Win coalition activists and some others gathered at a restaurant across the street for Champagne.

What can I say? It was a grand day to be a queer Michigander. As Buzz Thomas told me in an earlier interview, “I’m feeling pretty equal.” But the adventure wasn’t over. I still had to interview the governor.

Now, anyone who has worked for or with Chris Azzopardi knows he is a persistent person. (Ask him about the time he scored an interview with Martha Stewart.) From the beginning, under his leadership, Pride Source had been trying to schedule a sit-down with Whitmer. There had been some back and forth but it never came to be. So when her deputy press secretary contacted him with the offer of a one-on-one interview, we were elated. And I got the assignment.

How to prepare for an interview with the leader of the state of Michigan? Well, don’t waste time with questions she’s answered already. I didn’t know how much time I would have, so I ordered my questions carefully. Most importantly, make sure the equipment is working. With the help of a friend, I retested my phone recording app’s ability to record incoming calls because sometimes it’s glitchy. I was set. Or so I thought.

The appointed time on Friday was 2 p.m. At 1:57 p.m., I got a text from Whitmer’s communications director. Could we make it 2:30 p.m.? Of course. That gave me more time to fret about technical difficulties.

In fact, when the call was patched through to the governor, technology failed me. The calls wouldn’t merge. Neither my app nor my backup were functioning properly. This was nearly an epic disaster. Instead, I thought fast and figured my laptop had a voice recorder. Lucky for me, it wasn’t hard to find.

Failure was not an option. I conducted the interview with my phone on speaker while talking at my laptop computer.

Just call me MacGyver.

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