Grosse Pointe Proud
When Michael Rowady recalled speaking before 3,000 people at Grosse Pointe Pride this June, the Equality Michigan board chair and managing partner of Canner, Canner & Rowady described the experience as one of the highlights of his life.
“I came full circle,” Rowady explained. “It was in the place that it was the hardest to come out to. I’m speaking at one of the schools I went to, feeling completely supported by people in the community that I love. … I’ve always wanted to be the guy up on stage and at the end of a speech, people go, ‘Wow, that moved me to do something.’ Or [if] there’s a kid sitting there, pondering something terrible, somehow I can affect him.”
Rowady added that some of those words from that speech — which were largely impromptu, after abandoning his prepared remarks at the last minute — would likely be used in his address at Equality Michigan’s 2019 Fall Reception happening on Friday, Sept. 13.
“We’re very excited,” Rowady said of the upcoming gala. “I think it’s the key civil rights event of the year for the LGBTQ community. One of the reasons is that it’s coming at a time where we’re really in the thick of everything from the white nationalist threat to the recent murders [of LGBTQ people locally] … that’s one of the reasons why we’re raising money: to enable us to expand the organization and move forward.”
Twist of Fate
As confident as he is in his identity today, it wasn’t always like this for Rowady. Growing up with four brothers, a busy mother and a father who worked in the auto industry, he said he never thought he was gay and it didn’t come to his mind. It was only in college when he began meeting many LGBTQ people that he became curious.
“At the end of my time [at the University of] Michigan I had a girlfriend, and right as I started law school at the University of Detroit-Mercy we broke up. And I knew in my head it was ready for me to … be part of this community, because it was not something I was going to be able to suppress forever,” Rowady said. “So, instead of holding it in and getting married, I decided that I felt I knew I was gay and to proceed that way.”
Upon graduating, Rowady started work as a legal clerk in the law office of Geoffrey Fieger. However, he was closeted in his professional life.
One of Fieger’s cases that gained tremendous notoriety involved “The Jenny Jones Show.” It began as a familiar setup: on the show an individual was told he had a secret admirer and would meet that person before a live audience. The twist, however, was that it was a same-sex crush. The “reveal” that happened was awkward and embarrassing, and shortly thereafter the “admirer,” Scott Amedure, was murdered by his crush. Eventually, the killer went to prison for 22 years.
During the wrongful death lawsuit, Rowady was tasked with writing the complaint against Warner Bros., the parent company of “The Jenny Jones Show.” By strange coincidence, Rowady’s boyfriend happened to be in the jury pool.
Though the jury selection process occurred while Rowady was out of the country, Rowady explained what occurred when Fieger questioned his boyfriend.
“He was asked about whether or not he knew of any gay attorneys, things like that. Through the circumstances, my name came up. And the courtroom, which I would say a good chunk of them knew who I was, was kind of like, ‘Wow, Mike’s gay.’ So that’s how I was outed. In a very public format like that,” Rowady said.
At that point, Rowady had already had a bad experience coming out to his parents, and that dynamic took some time to resolve. In his professional life, he said people felt bad for him. At that time there weren’t many out gay attorneys in the area either, so he decided to move to “get out of Michigan and experience different things.”
He met a man and in 2000 moved to San Francisco. But after four years, Rowady said he realized his career prospects were limited, he missed his family and he felt perhaps he’d had enough of the party scene. After a phone call with his father, Rowady was sure Michigan was where he belonged.
Asked about his role as an Equality Michigan board member over the last five years, Rowady was clear about his active part in the organization: “I don’t join organizations and sit quietly.”
He was also upfront that despite his lifelong passion for politics, he wasn’t an activist when he joined the board. He said the more he learned, the more he wanted to help change laws in the state.
EQMI Chair since January, Rowady said he considers himself a leader who is suited to the position.
“Sometimes you need … a catalyst,“ Rowady said. “I believe I have a unique ability to kind of push people, motivate people, get people fired up.”
Yet he also recognizes that he needn’t be the smartest person in the room: collaboration benefits everyone. Rowady also acknowledged that during the past several years his organization has seen its fair share of staff turnover, board member resignations and has struggled to remain sustainable. He addressed that directly.
“We remain sustainable by being a more nimble organization,” Rowady said. “It’s difficult in that it’s a statewide organization. Our reach is bigger than a lot of the other [LGBTQ] organizations in the area. But I think the most important thing is that we’ve reached out. I have meetings with the chairs of all of the major [LGBTQ] organizations. We’re all in this together. We have to work together.
“The other organizations are rooting for us,” he continued. “This community … doesn’t do well without an advocacy organization or a victim services organization. So, we are very much needed. It is my goal, it is my challenge and my charge to maintain this organization into the future the best I can while I am chairman. I cannot predict what will happen after me, and I cannot fix what occurred before me. What I can do is where I am now.”
Sustainability requires having staff focused on their greatest community impact, Rowady explained. That means a smaller organization overall, but he’d like to see an expanded victim services program with morecounselors.
Rowady expressed congratulations for the staff and called Executive Director Erin Knott a gem. He added that he never wants to raise his profile or the board’s above those who work for Equality Michigan.
“They’re all stars in their own right,” Rowady said. “These really are incredible workers. The fact is that they’re the ones doing the work. We’re just making sure they’re able to do it.”
Outside of his work with Equality Michigan, Rowady maintains an active interest in politics. He said he’s considered running for office someday, but right now he loves being an attorney. Frequently a host of fundraisers for political candidates, he held one at SoHo in Ferndale for Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence’s reelection campaign last year. Rowady’s parents attended.
“The things that were discussed there, all of the things about the gay community, my parents probably wouldn’t have listened to years and years ago,” Rowady said. “I was proud. They were proud. We came full circle. And it was a very good moment.”
Find out more online at equalitymi.org/missionequality/.