A profile of Buzz Thomas should include the narrative of how the former state senator was, in his words, “that kid” who grew up surrounded by politics and whose career path always led in that direction. It should also talk about Thomas’ role as the recently elected board chair of Equality Michigan and his wide-ranging goals for that organization. And it wouldn’t be complete without the tale of the time Thomas was absent from the state Capitol because he was celebrating World Pride in Paris, when only a few colleagues in the Legislature knew he was gay.
However, it begins with Thomas’ remarks about what’s most important to him today, a family member who was not originally an intended subject of this interview, but about whom Thomas frequently spoke. That person is Thomas’ longtime partner and husband of five years, Daniel.
“He’s probably the bigger, stronger activist within our family,” Thomas confessed, in reference to his husband, Daniel Vander Ley. “He grew up in a very unwelcoming Christian household in west Michigan that was very anti-everything that he is, and it had a profound impact on him. I see how he fights, and I see what he struggles with, and I see his motivation. And I just smile whenever I see that. And so, I’m very proud of him. He’s one of the people I admire most.”
These days, Thomas is very open about his sexuality. But it wasn’t always so. While in the state Legislature from 1997 to 2011 — six years in the House, including time as Democratic Leader and eight years in the Senate, including time as Democratic Floor Leader — Thomas was not out. Still, he supported LGBTQ+ causes, most notably combatting school bullying. The reason that issue spoke to him is not what one might guess. Thomas hadn’t been affected by bullying personally; it was someone else’s story that inspired him to take action.
“Honestly, I became incredibly passionate about [bullying] when I heard the story of Nathan Triplett, who is straight but was savagely beaten in high school for being perceived as being gay,” Thomas explained.
Triplett went on to become the current board chair of the ACLU of Michigan and Democratic Legal Counsel for the state House of Representatives.
“Everything about bullying that related to sexual orientation just offended me,” Thomas said.
Thomas first introduced his anti-bullying bill in 2001 and he would do so repeatedly throughout his years in office, without success. Thomas was candid about what those years in Lansing were like, well before Chris Kolb became the first openly LGBTQ+ state representative in 2005. Beginning with his first run for office, Thomas hadn’t yet come out to himself.
“And so I kind of came to my own personal decisions and comfort in my own skin when I was already an elected official,” he said. “I went back and forth on it, and it was very difficult. And folks that hear it now probably don’t understand what it was like then. I was gay, I was African American, I was an elected official already and I didn’t know how to proceed.”
Thomas took the counsel of some of his straight friends who suggested that since they weren’t required to hold a press conference announcing their sexuality, Thomas shouldn’t have to either.
“Now, I continue to marvel at the other openly gay elected officials,” Thomas said. “It’s ironic. There have been others — we know who they are. Everyone kind of needs to make their own decision for them, and I think it’s a very personal one. And so I appreciate that people let me come out on my terms, at my pace.”
Thomas said he was determined that later in life, when out of elected office, he would devote his time, energy and talents to the activism he was unable to effect while part of the political process. Impressed with their work on LGBTQ+ rights, Thomas joined the board of the ACLU of Michigan. Later, he would join the board of Equality Michigan in 2017.
After leaving Lansing behind, Thomas co-founded Thomas Group Consulting, whose work is “about connection and helping people find ways to engage into other people’s ecosystems,” Thomas said.
An example of the kind of work they do goes back to Detroit’s bankruptcy period, when Thomas’ business grew very successful working with organizations that wanted to help the city.
“Detroit really became a place that everyone wanted to come plant a flag and be a part of the solution that fixed Detroit,” Thomas recalled. “From around the country, folks were coming here with that goal. And they would get here and say, ‘Now what?’ We often found that … their intentions didn’t necessarily meet the aspirations of the local community in which they were trying to impact that change. And so, we’ve fixed our role as we help people find the ‘Now what.’ We help them find that meaningful connection to a community that aligns aspirations amongst various partners.”
Finding balance and building bonds
Just as he enjoys making meaningful connections at work, that’s also key to Thomas’ personal life. It’s the reason Thomas said he loves cooking and entertaining.
“I think there’s something very special about people being able to sit around a table and share a meal,” Thomas said. “And bringing in strangers to share meals with you and using food as a way to break the ice from a tense situation or to something new and exciting. And so that’s always been a big part of who I am, is entertaining and making sure that people come and feel welcome into my community, into my home.”
Likewise, finding connection as it relates to segments of the LGBTQ+ community is something Thomas said he’d like to see happen as chair of Equality Michigan.
“I have never understood why there is such fragmentation within our community in Metro Detroit, why there is such separation between gay men, lesbian women, the transgender community, the African American community and everyone kind of operates separately. And so, that fragmentation within the community, I think, requires all of the organizations to act proactively. And I think that Equality Michigan, if it’s not contributing to solving that problem, is a part of the problem.”
Thomas emphasized the need for what he called a “convening organization.” Naturally, he would like that to be Equality Michigan, but said they would be willing to play a supporting role. To begin with, conversations need to happen in order to collaborate, Thomas said.
Similarly, Thomas spoke of the need for a convening organization relating to the work being done by the various LGBTQ+ organizations in the area.
“I think [Equality Michigan] needs to do a better job of being a convener of the table of organizations that are doing work within our community across the state of Michigan. If we are a statewide advocacy organization, we should be more engaged in convening others into discussion so that we are making sure that all voices are heard as we debate issues.”
Again, Thomas said, he would like that organization to be Equality Michigan but it could be another, and he’s eager to see it happen.
Future goals for EQMI
Another goal that Thomas mentioned, since he thinks about strategy and engagement in his professional career, had to do with the board and the leadership of Equality Michigan.
“Making sure we have a long-term strategic plan that continues to promote excellence at the organization is important,” Thomas said.
Certainly, Thomas wants to ensure Equality Michigan’s financial security. He acknowledged the challenges of a couple years ago: “I really appreciate the leadership that Jim Murray played and especially that Mike Rowady played at stabilizing the organization. Trevor Thomas as well, from our (c)(4) board.”
Along with his colleague of the same name, Thomas has the future of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act on his mind, too.
“Continuing the work, amending Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act is important,” Thomas said. “If it means supporting Fair and Equal Michigan, then we support Fair and Equal Michigan. And if it means there’s a legislative solution, then we certainly need to take it.”
To that end, Thomas stressed the need to educate hearts and minds in order to show the wider community the LGBTQ+ community is no different.
“And I think it’s incredibly important,” Thomas said in closing, “particularly at this moment in time, that we stand up and we don’t let the trans community be targeted and separated. We are all part of the same community, and we need to work extra hard to ensure that they are not scapegoated or left behind in any way. Where we go one, we go all.”