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It may have been Friday the 13th, but the Equality Michigan Fall Reception was not the least bit unlucky for EQMI that night. With 400 in attendance, the event was record-breaking in terms of fundraising for the annual gala. There was much to celebrate, with the electoral wins of 2018 that ushered in a wave of pro-equality officeholders, many of whom were in the room, not to mention that the organization is fully funded through 2019 and 2020.
The evening’s emcee, WDIV reporter Hank Winchester, introduced himself as “a proud Michigander, a proud gay man” who was there with his husband. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer warmly welcomed the crowd, and immediately shined the spotlight upon those she felt most deserving that evening.
“People who are elected to office often get the accolades, and yet it’s the ones who are on the ground, making a difference every single day who really deserve our gratitude and our acknowledgment.” Whitmer said.
In reference to displaying Pride flags in Lansing last June, Whitmer said she lamented to a leader in the LGBTQ community that it was merely a symbolic gesture. He corrected her, saying that flying the Pride flag signals that we have leadership that see us, values us and will fight to protect us.
“I see you,” Whitmer told the crowd. “I see your tenacity and your beauty and your hope and your strength. And you inspire me.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow commented on the need to carry some of the excitement and new opportunities in Lansing to Washington, D.C., because while the Equality Act passed in the House of Representatives, it won’t be voted on this term in the Senate, and it was promised a veto by the president regardless.
Stabenow also recalled Jeffrey Montgomery, leader of the Triangle Foundation, Equality Michigan’s predecessor organization.
“The one thing that I remember … is that he spent his entire life fighting for the LGBTQ community and endured more than his fair share of losses but he never gave up,” she said. “He kept pushing forward and that is exactly what we need right now with this administration, who’s trying to roll back progress in every direction.”
Remarks and spoken word poetry by Denise Miller, OutFront Executive Director and anti-racism facilitator, followed. Miller introduced their poem, titled “Drop in the Bucket,” by saying that it was “in celebration of what Equality Michigan and what so many of us here in this room have already achieved on behalf of the LGBTQ community, and in deep anticipation for the setbacks and victories ahead.”
“Don’t ever say that it can’t be done.”
Equality Michigan board chair Michael Rowady commented, “We have made great strides … as LGBTQ citizens but we are still under threat. And we are now under threat from above. So we as an organization, think of us as the vanguards. We are the cops on the beat.”
He then introduced Attorney General Dana Nessel, the night’s keynote speaker, calling her a pioneer in the movement.
“I can’t believe the difference between last year and tonight.” Nessel began, noting the gains made in terms of pro-equality representation. Nessel’s journey to the attorney general’s office began in 2016, on a day she described as the single worst thing ever to happen to the United States in her lifetime: the election of the current president.
During times of hopelessness Nessel said she would reread her Facebook post written the day after the marriage equality ruling in 2015. In the post, Nessel realizes she’s crying on what should be a happy day because she’s thinking back to a much earlier and unhappy time in her life.
“Being gay was not something to shout from the rooftops or to post on a billboard,” Nessel read. “It was a dark secret you tried your very best to hide deep within yourself. So deeply, it felt suffocating. And more than once, I contemplated suicide. And I know now I was not alone in having these thoughts.”
She continued, saying that she honestly believed “it was not possible in my lifetime for gays to be tolerated much less legally legitimized.”
Shortly thereafter, however, “We have fallen pretty far, pretty fast,” Nessel said, and read an exhaustive list of the current administration’s attempts to harm the LGBTQ community. Numbering well over 30 items, Nessel concluded, “Donald Trump is a monster.”
“I saw that Democratic state attorneys general around the nation were filing suits against the Trump administration in record numbers,” Nessel said, as she considered how to fight back. She ran and won, reversed course on many of former A.G. Bill Schuette’s cases and, as she stated, has sued Trump “a lot.”
In conclusion, Nessel stressed how it important it is that all civil rights organizations and LGBTQ groups work together toward a greater purpose.
“Be engaged. Be active. Continue to resist,” Nessel said, directing those in attendance to become politically involved. “I truly believe the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, as MLK would say. Now it’s our job to take that arc and to turn it into a rainbow.”
When a trans woman was shot in Detroit last year, Judge William McConico agreed with prosecutors that because gender was an issue, the case could be classified as ethnic intimidation based on gender. As it stands, LGBTQ people are not protected under Michigan’s hate crimes statutes.
“Everything happens at the right time, and it happens to people for a reason,” said McConico, recipient of the Catalyst Award, referring to being assigned that case. “The courts have long been a place for people to get civil rights. … We were not going to wait for anyone in Lansing to give someone rights. We were going to do it in my courtroom.”
The Activist Award went to Laura Goos and Greg Fulmer, Whirlpool employees in St. Joseph, who were instrumental in the passage of a non-discrimination ordinance in their Southwest Michigan city.
Goos credited Fulmer with the idea originally and described bringing OutCenter of Southwest Michigan Executive Director Mary Jo Schnell to talk to the commissioners.
“Do you remember the first time that you met an LGBTQ+ person?” Schnell asked them. “And the commissioners kind of said, ‘Sure,’” Goos recalled. “And she said, “That wasn’t the first time.”
It was an emotional moment. And when they realized the implications, “all of a sudden our community became that much bigger,” Goos said.
“Sharing this with my wife of 25 years truly is magical,” said Susan Horowitz, recipient, along with Jan Stevenson, of the Community Builder Award. The two have dedicated their lives to building a strong LGBTQ community in Michigan and are the publishers of Between The Lines newspaper and Pride Source Media Group. Horowitz thanked the community for sharing their stories with BTL.
“These stories have created the foundation that is the real power of our community and all that it brings,” Horowitz said. “Without it we would not have the strength and the gift of hope to press on.”
Stevenson shared what she hoped would be future headlines, including “Jon Hoadley Elected First Openly LGBT Congressman from Michigan.”
The program concluded with remarks from EQMI Executive Director Erin Knott, who said the organization would continue its focus on policy and electoral work and plans to increase investments in programming to build active, civically engaged LGBTQ people and allies.
“We need to do four things,” Knott said. “We need to change the minds of decision-makers, we need to change who’s making the decisions, we need to continue to change the hearts and minds of the public — but I think that we’re almost there — and we need to empower marginalized LGBTQ people all over Michigan.”