A few weeks into her new gig, Emme Zanotti, Equality Michigan’s new director of advocacy and civic engagement, says she’s still in the “humble and honored” phase, but a few minutes into our call, it’s clear she’s already off and running.
“It’s just the honor and privilege of a lifetime to be able to get to do this full time on behalf of the community,” she says. “I never envisioned being able to do something like this.”
Right now, Zanotti, a queer trans woman, seems to be living a pretty settled life. She’s a new homeowner in Royal Oak, where she lives with her rescue dog, Lina, a mixed breed she says is “basically just a wolf that lives in my house.” But as is so often the case, the road to get here has been winding. Her new Equality Michigan role comes a decade after she came out and transitioned — 10 truly transformative years that saw her considering the bright lights of New York City and the coastal scenery of California but which ultimately led this Bay City native back home to Michigan.
When it comes to her passion for the Great Lakes State, it’s clear there’s no lip service involved. Zanotti’s roots run deep, and her childhood experiences tell a story familiar to many a Michigander, including being raised by a dad who was a card-carrying United Auto Workers foundry worker.
“So, you’re ultimately a Michigan girl, then?” I ask.
“You got it, and I’m increasingly proud of Michigan,” she replies, citing the incredible political turnaround the state has witnessed over the past few years (“2016 Michigan is nothing like 2023 Michigan”), and then there’s the natural beauty of the Upper Peninsula and the hills of Ann Arbor. “Michigan is everything. The coasts. The lakes. The trees. All of it.”
She has much love for the state’s urban cores, too, including Detroit, which is no longer a “late-night punching bag,” Zanotti notes. “There’s been a real shift to valuing the humanity in that city.”
She rattles off several other places where she’s noticing a groundswell of positive energy — Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti, rural spots above and below the Mackinac Bridge… The Pure Michigan campaign should bottle what’s she’s selling — Zanotti's enthusiasm for the state is so earnest, it’s hard not to immediately start planning a road trip after we hang up.
The activist's pure-hearted love for her home state is rooted in something deeper than tourism, though — it’s the people, and in particular, it’s her deep and abiding love for the state’s queer community. That’s why she’s already spent a good portion of her young career volunteering for organizations like HRC Michigan, Stand with Trans and Equality Michigan (before taking on the director of advocacy position) and working in the trenches on political initiatives like the LGBTQ+ for Whitmer Leadership Council and the Michigan Democratic Party’s LGBT&A Caucus. She also headed up Oakland County Commissioner Charlie Cavell’s successful 2020 campaign. Getting in deep helps her understand the numerous, complex issues facing the community and to develop pragmatic strategies for solving them.
Cavell, who calls Zanotti a “tremendously amazing person who is thoughtful, understanding and above all, empathetic,” says he decided to work with her because he was looking for a partner who was truly seeking to transcend the way transactional politics often works, versus someone looking to simply pad their resume. “She’s the type of person whose aura simply emanates kind-hearted leadership and honesty,” he adds. “Emme was that person for us in 2020, and she is that person today for all of us in the movement for justice.
These early days of the newly flipped Michigan legislature are critical for furthering Equality Michigan’s many social justice-oriented goals. “We have a pro-equality trifecta, as we call it, in Lansing right now, with Governor Whitmer, Dana Nessel as the attorney general and now the legislature. We can pivot from defense and go full-on offense,” she says.
Already, the new legislature is making queer history by delivering on Democratic campaign promises to prioritize the recently passed Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) amendment, which will extend statewide discrimination protections to the LGBTQ+ community. Equality Michigan, and Zanotti specifically, played a key role in developing public hearings that centered on real people — a critical aspect of bridging the gap between vulnerable queer community members and the flavor of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric popular among today’s GOP leaders and many of the party’s supporters.
“So, we found faith leaders, police officers, families who will benefit from the amendment,” she says. “People willing to advocate and affirm the LGBTQ community, to be recorded and go on Senate television to share their narrative and defend their passion, and their love, and their empathy, for this community. It’s a story we’re going to continue to tell in Lansing and beyond. It’s a story that a majority of Michiganders support the LGBTQ community and believe it’s a community that deserves access to basic protections, including civil rights.”
With Elliott-Larsen all but a done deal (Whitmer is soon expected to sign the bill into law after its passage by both the state House and Senate), Zanotti lists a host of issues she and Equality Michigan will spearhead in the coming months, including banning conversion therapy and codifying into law many of the executive orders Gov. Whitmer enacted during her last term when the legislature was led by a Republican majority. Those issues include things like state ID gender markers and rules around legal name changes.
“But it’s also about instances where nothing is being done,” Zanotti adds. One such instance is the state of healthcare among LGBTQ+ community members. “We need to secure better access to gender-affirming healthcare for the trans and nonbinary community by looking at what we can do to strip away some of these blanket exclusions that exist in the insurance sector, for example.” Zanotti also plans to take aim at “archaic pieces of legislation” still on the books, including the criminalization of HIV transmission.
One issue that stands out among Zanotti’s targets is the hot button topic of public school curricula. “Over 20% or so of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ,” she says, “Yet the conversation has been ‘Let’s remove any semblance of LGBTQ people from our educational institutions, and our books, and academia.’ Is it really OK that one fifth of the population sees zero representation of themselves in their curriculum?”
“It’s my job to engage the community in that discussion and to engage the community in helping to keep a pro-equality legislature and pro-equality executive leaders in office in Michigan. We have to flex the power of our voting bloc,” she says, noting that the LGBTQ+ voting bloc is projected to be a fifth of the nation’s voting base by 2040.
“Michigan’s a leader for our country and for the world, for that matter,” Zanotti notes. “Whether you’re talking about industry or you’re talking about techno or Motown. Now we have opportunities to be a leader on LGBTQ rights. Michigan can serve as a glimmer of hope for people around the country.”