Gov. Whitmer Talks to Pride Source: Michigan's Most Powerful LGBTQ+ Ally on Drag Queens and Why She Cried Signing the Elliott-Larsen Bill (Exclusive)

An amendment could've passed sooner, she told Pride Source, but without protections for trans people

Following the signing of Senate Bill 4, which amended the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for the LGBTQ+ community, Pride Source was granted a one-on-one interview with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

But even before she put her powerful pen to the ELCRA bill on March 16, queer Michiganders knew they had a friend in Whitmer. One of her first actions when she assumed office in 2019 was to issue an executive directive aimed at strengthening nondiscrimination protections, including those relating to sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in state employment and services. That year, she also became the first Michigan governor to fly the Pride flag on a government building. Furthermore, in 2021, Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist signed a proclamation declaring June as Pride Month for the first time in Michigan history. Also in 2021, Whitmer authorized an executive directive prohibiting the use of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services funds for the practice of conversion therapy on minors.

The day after she signed the ELCRA amendment, the steadfast ally candidly discussed subjects ranging from how she felt at the ceremony to the reasons behind her unwavering commitment to Michigan’s trans community. We also chatted about her Twitter account, where an array of pop-culture-oriented memes and GIFs live, including one from March 16, which featured actress Kristen Bell in a rainbow t-shirt and the words “Come on in,” with Whitmer writing, “Michigan has a place for you” as she addressed those in states that aren’t welcoming to LGBTQ+ people.

Could you describe how it felt signing this landmark legislation with original ELCRA co-sponsor Mel Larsen right beside you?

I was just so proud and pleased to be able to bring Michigan into the right side of history to make Michigan a place that is truly one where every person has full civil rights protections. And as an ally, this is something we've been fighting for my whole career. As the mom of a gay woman, it took on an even more impactful, powerful emotion as well. I had tears in my eyes as I thought about what this means for people all across our state and future residents of the state.

What was it like having your daughter Sherry right there with you?

It was spectacular. I asked her if she wanted to come from school. She goes to school in Ann Arbor, and she was so excited. And so it meant a lot to be there with incredible leaders from Mel Larsen to [State Sen.] Jeremy Moss to [State Reps] Jason Hoskins and Emily Dievendorf to having my own child who is an outspoken, thoughtful leader in her own right and a future leader in the state, I hope. [Laughs.]

Let's look at Michigan in comparison to states like Florida or Tennessee. Do you think our state could become a national leader in LGBTQ+ rights?

I do. I think that states that are living these values are going to be setting themselves up for long-term economic success. I think we're creating paths to prosperity for people in all of this historic investment that we're growing into Michigan. And it's really important for people to see, getting the state on the right side of this issue is gonna be good for business as well as being the right thing to do. And I think other states are gonna want to emulate what we are doing here.

As we celebrate the ELCRA amendment to protect LGBTQ+ Michiganders, at the same time we still have threats to our local community, like the recent protest at a Drag Queen Story Time and the efforts to ban library books with LGBTQ+ content. Could you weigh in on those issues? 

Absolutely. The sad thing is that with every progress, there is often a backlash. It's unacceptable, especially when it's violence or it is hurtful and hateful rhetoric. And so we will not let anyone scare us from doing what we know the right thing to do is. But to community members who have felt that or feel unseen or attacked, it's important for them to know that they are loved exactly as they are, and I'll respect them and protect them, for one, and I will use my platform and my signing pen to make sure that we do more to support members of the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2014, you were in the state legislature and amending ELCRA looked like it might be a possibility, but some were proposing leaving out the transgender community. You've always been a steadfast ally in particular to the trans community. Could you talk about your commitment to trans Michiganders? 

Absolutely. When I was in the state Senate, we thought we really had the opportunity and the votes to include the whole LGBTQ+ community in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. And the Senate Majority Leader [Randy Richardville] at the time came up to me, and I was the minority leader then, and he said, “Listen, we don't have the votes for the whole thing, but if we drop the trans community…” He didn't use that language — he was not as conversant in these issues as I — but essentially he said, "If we drop the trans community, we can get this done." And I said, "You know, I don't think that's gonna fly. I'm not a member of the community. I'm not the spokesperson for the community, but I'm gonna talk to the folks that I'm working with, and I'll get back to you."

And of course, they were like, "Absolutely not, this is the most vulnerable part of our community. We stand together, we support one another, and we're gonna amend this act together, whether it's now or sometime in the future." And I think that was a powerful moment in terms of keeping me really focused on why it’s important to ensure that we're providing these protections for the trans community. And I've had the opportunity to befriend so many trans Michiganders and learn from young people who are going through the transition. And I think that as I look at what a future in Michigan is for people, I'm always gonna fight for those who are most vulnerable. And that's why it is so important that I use my platform to support the trans community and the LGBTQ+ community en masse.

You've always been an ally to the LGBTQ+ community and one reason is that it affects you personally today, but would you say that it's always been in your DNA or could you point to a person or experience that made the difference? 

Like so many people, I've got some family members who are LGBTQ, and I think I learned early on from my parents that every person's important. Every person has a birthright to live who they are as they are. I think this is something that was ingrained in me, but certainly as someone who's got relatives who have educated me over the years, it's all informed who I am and how I conduct myself and things that I fight for. So I'm proud to be a longtime ally and even prouder to be a mom.

So what's next? Are you ready to sign a bill to ban conversion therapy? 

Well, you know, I signed an executive order across state government two years ago on that subject. And I'm eager to continue working with the legislature to expand rights and protect fundamental rights for the LGBTQ community. And it would include that as well as a lot of other potential subjects that I know Senator Moss is eager to start pursuing as law.

And what do you think about establishing an LGBTQ+ Commission as one of our state boards and commissions? 

Well, you know what, that's a great idea. I wanna make sure that we work closely with the [Michigan] Department of Civil Rights. I know that there are a number of ways that we have empowered LGBTQ voices, whether it is appointments to commissions and agencies, to the bench. We've made a big difference in the last four years and I expect this next four years, we're gonna take it a lot further. And so I'm excited about that. And if a commission is something that ultimately makes sense, I'm absolutely open and interested in doing that.

And my final question — the editorial director of Pride Source would like to know who curates the memes you share on Twitter. But I'm more interested in who designs your fabulous jackets. Could you comment on either? 

Well, the first one, there's a woman named Julia Pickett, who is a gay woman, whose wedding I performed last year, who does all of my social media on top of a lot of other things in my operation. And then with the jackets, most of them are bought pre-owned — [laughs] I'm trying to be a good steward of the environment.

I'm so glad you made the time for us, I really appreciate that. Anytime you're available to talk to Pride Source, we want to hear from you. And on the bill signing, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Thank you. And thank you for the work that you're doing, too. It's really important and it was such a big part of how we educated the public and got to this point in Michigan and made history together.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.