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From an early age, Washtenaw County Board Commissioner Jason Morgan was instilled with the idea that openly gay candidates could never successfully run for public office, let alone for a second term as he’s now doing unopposed.
“When I was growing up I cared a lot about politics, and I was told directly I’d never be able to run for office being openly gay,” he told BTL. “I didn’t think I would run because it wasn’t a thing that, if you were gay, you would do.”
Morgan nevertheless pursued a political career in the face of such comments. After taking a position on Capitol Hill following graduation from Northern Michigan University, Morgan moved back to Ann Arbor where he’s involved himself in efforts around community engagement and LGBTQ-inclusive policymaking.
Morgan is now seeking re-election on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, a seat he’s held since 2016. His first two years on the board were focused heavily around advocating for minority groups in the community, he recalls.
“We got a lot of challenges from the city government and the federal government that really threaten our community in terms of immigrants, the LGBT community, seniors, and low-income residents,” Morgan said. “A lot of work over the last couple years has focused on advocacy and making sure state and federal government is doing a good job in protecting citizens.”
Before running for the Board of Commissioners, Morgan served as a board member and the chair of public policy for the Jim Toy Community Center. “A part of our work was to reach out to officials and commissioners to ensure we’re advancing LGBT policies, and making sure our community is represented in policy-making procedures,” he said.
It was around 2015 when Morgan realized his skill set would be of more use running for those same leadership positions he was attempting to reach out to. “I decided it’d more useful to be a policymaker and work with fellow policymakers rather than advocating to them,” he said. “I felt we didn’t have a voice on the city council or the Board of Commissioners.”
One of Morgan’s most notable projects over the past two years in terms of LGBTQ policies was promoting Trans Day of Visibility in the Washtenaw County. Celebrated on March 31, Trans Day of Visibility is an annual event that aims to empower and lift up transgender individuals.
“I’ve sponsored a resolution each year to fly the Transgender Pride Flag in front of County buildings because our transgender residents face significant challenges, and it’s important that we as a unit of government show our support for the diversity of individuals in our community,” he said.
“This is especially important at a time when our state and federal government keep trying to make it harder to be who you are by rolling back protections for LGBT individuals to serve in the military, or work without fear of being fired for being LGBT.”
Morgan understands that while he represents a segment of the LGBTQ community, that doesn’t mean he necessarily speaks for everyone under the umbrella. That’s why he plans to work even harder over the next two years on creative methods to engage the public in the policymaking decision process.
“Ideally you’d spend all your time reaching out to people and see what they’re thinking,” he said. “Usually the voices we need at table in terms of better health treatment, housing programs and food assistance are those people who don’t have the time to get to downtown Ann Arbor, go to board meeting and pay attention because they’re working their tail off.”
Morgan and fellow board members are now in the process of studying what other communities are doing in terms of public engagement to create a model that works for Washtenaw County. Tools of engagement like town halls, electronic newsletters and coffee hours are just a few ideas he’s hoping to expand upon.
“I want to look at how we can reach people in a way that works for them to get their thoughts and feedback,” he said. “Those who don’t have the opportunity to speak out need their voices heard even more.”
He adds that one of the most important things he can do for the LGBTQ community is to stay visible. “There’s a lot to be said about being visible and being proud as an openly gay elected official,” he said. “My hope is to encourage other LGBT people to serve on boards and committees and to get involved, and make those voices heard. We need more out, gay elected officials.”