In some ways, Michigan serves as an example to other states on how to advocate for and protect trans individuals. After all, the state Supreme Court ruled just last month that Michigan’s civil rights act does, in fact, protect LGBTQ+ community members. Our Pride festivals are loud, proud and trans-inclusive, even in more conservative corners of the Great Lakes State.
Dig a little deeper, though, and a larger story emerges. Yes, some Michigan trans advocates say some things are better. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that it can still be a dangerous, exclusionary experience to be trans in Michigan.
“Right now, we stand on the edge of a great precipice,” said Dina Walters, who will retire this year from serving as vice president of Transgender (TG) Detroit. “No one wants to give back one millimeter of our advances and acceptance. But some would argue differently. Some people want us killed, just for being who and what we are. Even some in the LGBTQ+ community act as if the T should be silent.”
It was only a few weeks ago that Pride Source reported that Naomi Skinner, a Black transgender woman, was found murdered in Highland Park. Her boyfriend has been charged in her homicide. Earlier this year, a transgender man, Ray Muscat, was murdered in Oakland County, police say, by his girlfriend. And just last month, on July 25, Hayden Davis, a 28-year-old Black trans woman, was shot and killed in Detroit.
These are just the latest, news-making events that reveal that Michigan, and the country as a whole, is not always safe for transgender people, especially Black and Latina transgender women. Nationwide, at least 57 transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans were killed in 2021, mostly transgender women of color.
In other words, Michigan and the country at large can be a scary place to be transgender. Organizations like TG Detroit are working to shift the narrative — not only working to protect the community, but to lift it up.
Increased visibility making a positive difference
As attacks against the trans community increase, the only answer is increased visibility, said Michelle Fox-Phillips, founder of Gender-identity Network Alliance, former head of TG Detroit and a leader in metro Detroit’s trans community for nearly 25 years. “I always advocated for our community to be more visible, from day one,” Fox-Phillips said. “I’ve always known that, just like in the gay community, the more of us that are out, the more accepted we will eventually be.”
At TG Detroit’s TransFusion conference, which took place July 7-10 at the Dearborn Inn, the four-day event was all about growing visibility of the transgender community — and growing confidence in trans women to come out and be a part of society.
Samantha Rogers, who founded TG Detroit eight years ago, said it was her goal “to create something that’s kind of the transgender USO. We give you a three-day pass in Paris to come here and have a great time and recharge your batteries before you go back out there.”
Walters said more than 120 transgender individuals attended TransFusion, working on “feeling completely comfortable in your own skin,” she said. Participants travel together to busy, public places and make it a point to interact with people, many of whom may not have much experience interacting with the trans community.
“When we walk into a venue,” she said, “every head in the place turns to see this sea of visible and confident transwomen. We are normally the ones who are first on the dance floor and set the tone for how the evening plays out.”
Walters said the group dances and socializes with everyone at the venues. “And then the next time something comes up about transpersons in the mainstream media, they can say, ‘I met a bunch of them recently, and they are quite wonderful people.’”
Rogers said she set out to create the type of event she’d want to go to. She didn’t just want to hang around a hotel. “I wanted the girls to socialize,” she said. “But I wanted to put them in mainstream places where, first off, when you’ve got that many girls, they’re safe and they’re confident and they’re empowered.”
If trans visibility is increasing, Walters said the next generation should claim a lot of the credit. Both Rogers and Walters are retiring from their leadership positions in TG Detroit this year.
But Walters said she feels the group is in good hands. “We’re handing the baton [to the next generation],” she said. “The new generation has given us language. You can be demisexual, pansexual, you can be non-binary as they say they are. You know, you hear boomers with a stick up their ass saying, ‘Don’t call me this or that.’ Technically, I’m a boomer. But I’m embarrassed because they’re so stuck in their ways.”
Walters said that as a person in her 60s, it’s a gift that younger community members have developed language that is more precise and accurate. The next generation, Walters said, is “gonna be great. They are authentic. … They are reverent. They get it. We made sacrifices for them to be visible.”
Sarah Campbell came to TransFusion from Toronto, where she leads a trans support group. “We rock the boat in so many ways that people can’t fathom why we do what we do,” she said of being trans. “We can’t even explain it to ourselves sometimes. So, it’s difficult for us to tell people how it is.” But like Walters, Campbell said she has seen great progress in the last decade. "When we have support groups now, people come in and it's ‘My grandchild announced they’re non-binary. What do I do?’”
At the TransFusion Gala, awards were given out to three legends in the trans community. Grace Bacon founded CrossRoads, the state’s first trans support group, in 1977. Jaye Marie Carolan of Adam’s Apple was one of the first club owners to welcome TG Detroit. And Janet Law opened Janet’s Closet, a store that specializes in apparel and accessories for trans women, in Wyandotte over 20 years ago.
Law first operated Janet’s Closet out of the garage of her Grosse Ile home in 1999, but by 2005 had moved the thriving business next to her machine shop on Fort Street in Wyandotte. Since first opening the store, Law said she has seen “a huge change in the transgender community as far as acceptance from the public. It has exploded.” Law said her business is “lucrative and continues to grow” and that nowadays, “people feel more comfortable coming here because they don’t feel like it’s so taboo. It’s out in the open. It’s talked about all the time.”
Even the bad talk — the transphobia — helps in the end. “There’s so much talk about it where there wasn’t before,” she said. “Even if you’re somehow exposed, you’re not so criticized as you used to be."
Eventually, Walters wants to see Michigan as a whole become as welcoming as prominently LGBTQ+ cities and neighborhoods. “A member of our transgender community should be free to walk in a downtown street of any city as freely as they can walk down Nine Mile in Ferndale or North Halstead in Chicago,” she said.
Michigan’s challenging, evolving LGBTQ+ legal landscape
Clear, steadfast progress is being made on trans acceptance and visibility throughout Michigan, but from a legal standpoint, trans advocates face an increasing number of hurdles. Over the past several years, the state’s Republican-majority legislature has passed or introduced several legislative measures that put trans rights in jeopardy, with some legislation targeted directly at trans youth.
“We have politicians whose main card in the game is to pick a group and focus hatred on them so that it mobilizes their base,” said Rogers, who went on to add that after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2016, the focus more heavily came down on the trans community. “Suddenly it became no longer fair game to pick on gay people. So, they went looking for the next group, the next villain.”
Rogers said bathroom usage issues in schools was an early attempt to target the trans community and, most egregiously, trans children. “It actually said more about them, you know, than it did about us. They said ‘If I wanted to spy on women, I just put on a dress and go in the bathroom.’” More popular than the bathroom issue, Rogers said, is now protecting cis women in sports. “The bathroom issue didn’t fly. So they went back to their think tanks and this is what they came up with.”
Across the country, state legislators have proposed more than 240 bills involving LGBTQ+ rights, according to the ACLU. That figure includes more than 100 focused on trans youth. Students throughout the nation are at risk of losing access to gender-affirming healthcare, sports participation and bathrooms that match their identities. Michigan is no exception.
Last year, State Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) introduced a bill that would require Michigan districts to limit gender-specific school sports competitions to only students of the same biological gender, a move that would directly impact the nearly 4,000 transgender students in Michigan (a figure estimated by the Williams Institute in 2020). That bill was passed on to the Education and Career Readiness Committee, which has, so far, not chosen to pursue it.
Recently, state legistors introduced resolutions mirroring Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law (the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which went into effect July 1). If passed, Michigan public educators would be barred from presenting any instructional material related to sexual orientation or gender identity before fourth grade.
The fact that these bills and laws are cropping up three decades after the conservative right railed against the picture book, “Heather Has Two Mommies,” is alarming, but the way forward, Walters said, is through connection and community. “The trans community is its own unique and, honestly, special demographic,” she said. “Yet, we unite with other like members because the need is there for us to fight for the acceptance of all persons, not just ourselves.”
New hope after state Supreme Court decision
It’s not all bleak news. Powerful state officials like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have proven to be outspoken advocates for the LGBTQ+ community, using their positions and power to drive several important initiatives.
Nessel, a lesbian herself, argued before the state supreme court in March that the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act includes LGBTQ+ protections that should be applied in the discrimination case “Rouch World vs. Michigan Department of Civil Rights,” which she had requested be sent up to the Michigan Supreme Court, bypassing the appeals court.
In the underlying case, the owners of Rouch World, a wedding venue, had turned away a same-sex couple based on the owner’s religious beliefs. Uprooted Electrolysis, a second party to the case, denied hair-removal services to a transgender woman.
In July, the court issued a decision affirming Nessel’s argument, ruling that Elliott-Larsen does protect against discrimination over sexual orientation. The decision will no doubt play into the outcomes for pending discrimination cases and in how Michigan businesses operate.
The ruling, Nessel said in a press conference after it was announced, means “no longer having your state government be permitted to view you as a second-class citizen... It means respect, it means equal dignity under the law.”
While the GOP seems intent on pushing the narrative that LGBTQ+ individuals — especially transgender people — are “groomers” and “pedophiles,” in the world outside politics, Walters sees many positive signs.
One clear indicator that times have changed in some places is the fact that TransFusion was held in historically socially conservative Dearborn. Walters said “pockets of emergence” are popping up all over Michigan these days. “Most universities have LGBTQ+ groups, and the trans members are highly vocal and visual,” she said. “And in the workplace, so many major employers have LGBTQ+ employee resource groups.”
One example is Pontiac’s UWM, which makes it a point to publicize their popular employee resource groups, including an active LGBTQ+ group that includes multiple outspoken trans team members. UWM employee and Jamaican transgender man Anthony Dunkley told Pride Source in June that the way the company embraces and celebrates diversity allows him to be himself and contributes to success. “My team lead once told me that when you invest more into people, success will follow,” he said.
Signs of a positive evolution happening in Michigan on the social front include the newly founded woman-centered Fern Fest, which is held where the Michigan Womyn’s Festival was held for more than 40 years. The new festival explicitly welcomes transwomen, a direct contrast to the Womyn’s Festival, which was the target of backlash when the festival’s producer, Lisa Vogel, said in 2014, “We have said that this space, for this week, is intended to be for womyn who were born female, raised as girls and who continue to identify as womyn.”
Events like TransFusion are “vitally important” to fostering trans acceptance, Bacon said, noting that much has changed since she started the first group for what were then referred to as “crossdressers” over four decades ago. Back then, she had to worry about the group’s safety and worried about “what I could do and what I couldn’t do.”
Today, despite various legal challenges and ever-present danger, the trans community is growing and, in many ways, thriving. The evolution happening in the Michigan trans community is fueled, in part, by a younger generation of outspoken, articulate advocates fortunate to be starting from a foundation people like Walters, Bacon and Rogers have been building for decades.
Ultimately, the message is simple. In Walters’ own words: “We are human beings. We are worthy of love, acceptance and opportunities just because we exist.”
“Let love always reign.”