Pro-LGBTQ officials running Michigan is a sea change

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Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a Democratic election-night party on November 6, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. | Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Michigan was one of just four states that took its same-sex marriage fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 — and lost.

That was the handiwork of GOP then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, who also opposed non-discrimination measures for LGBTQ people.

Rick Snyder | Michigan Municipal League, Flickr

But then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a fellow Republican with a moderate reputation, had his own history of fighting LGBTQ rights, from initially saying the first same-sex marriages performed in 2014 weren’t legal to signing GOP legislation allowing adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples.

“It was very frustrating,” recalls state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), who’s sponsored LGBTQ anti-discrimination legislation. “We had this assurance that, you know, the [former] governor was tepidly supportive, and it was signaled to us in many different ways. And then he signed on to the adoption discrimination bills, and that was a real letdown for people who had assumed that somehow he was this moderate on social issues.

“… We were wondering, ‘Why can’t this guy who’s supposedly a moderate actually push for the issues that we were told that he cared about?’ So we never really had an ally in Rick Snyder, and he really wanted to straddle this line. And I’m sure, you know, when his memoir comes out and he talks about this, he’s going to hail himself as a champion, you know, for this, because he once mentioned it — sort of — in a [2014] State of the State address. But, no. We never had an ally in Rick Snyder.”

Sen. Jeremy Moss and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Affirmations in Ferndale, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

But with Democrats sweeping every top statewide office in 2018, it was quite the sea change — especially for LGBTQ rights.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been a strong ally, backing LGBTQs to be added to Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and becoming the first governor to declare June Pride Month. Moss says she’s “fighting for this as if she’s a member of our community.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson also support LGBTQ rights, with the former slated to speak at Michigan Pride in Lansing Saturday and the former attending Motor City Pride last weekend.   

And by now, many people well beyond Michigan know that Attorney General Dana Nessel is the state’s first openly top gay officeholder (there was even a writeup in the Jerusalem Post).

Attorney General Dana Nessel at the NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

Nessel told the Advance she first came out in her mid-20s while she was a Wayne County assistant prosecutor in the 1990s. She said that part of it was that she’s “a very, very bad liar … it was hard to continually try to keep your lies straight about who you’re spending time with.” And the Plymouth Democrat said there also was “a little bit of outing, too,” noting she was the only openly gay person in the office at the time.

Jayne Rowse (L) and her partner April DeBoer hold hands at a rally in favor of same-sex marriage, October 16, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In 2013, Nessel first became nationally known for representing a Hazel Park couple, Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, against Schuette in one of the same-sex marriage suits that was fused into the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges.

Nessel, the mother of twin boys, then started the LGBTQ advocacy group Fair Michigan, which is now headed by her wife, Alanna Maguire, before successfully running for attorney general in 2018.

The Advance talked with Nessel during Pride Month about the difference having pro-LGBTQ state officials has made, the latest Elliott-Larsen expansion push, and how her sexual identity has been covered in the media, particularly by conservative outlets.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: There’s been a real sea change in Michigan this Pride month that we have statewide elected officials who support LGBTQ rights. And the last time we had a Democratic governor [Jennifer Granholm] was a much different time where she, at the time, didn’t even support same-sex marriage. And obviously you are about a 180-degree turn from Bill Schuette, who held your job before. Is that palpable in any way as you’re having conversations with people about LGBTQ rights that there’s been such a change, not just with you, but with other Democrats in office?

Dana Nessel (left) and Gretchen Whitmer (right) on the 2018 campaign trail | Facebook

Nessel: Oh, absolutely. The excitement and the relief that people express to have the likes of Gretchen Whitmer as our governor. And the thing that I find so amazing about Gretchen Whitmer and that I always have, is she is pretty unabashed about her support. There’s just no hesitation. There’s no equivocation in terms of her support for the LGBTQ community. Not in the slightest.

And what we’re seeing is that’s true now for frankly most Democrats that are in office. And, actually, if you do seem to equivocate on those issues, I think you lose support, not just among Democrats, but really independents as well, and even some Republicans.

… When I look at the events of the last few days in terms of the support for the new proposal to amend Elliott-Larsen, I think that it’s really unwise at this point for most electeds to oppose that.

Poll: 74% back proposed LGBTQ anti-discrimination law, including most Republicans

And now does that mean that we’re going to get a vote on it? Well, no, not if our majority leader, [Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake)], and our speaker, [Lee Chatfield (R-Levering)], don’t want it to be voted on. But even for Republicans, I think that is becoming more of a non-issue.

And I think especially because the business community at large understands how important the notion of equal rights for the LGBTQ community really is for the economy of our state. And that’s where you get young people who don’t want to stay in our state because they think we’re backwards, or we have problems recruiting young people who are very talented and skilled and would be a great fit for all kinds of important jobs in our state. They don’t want to come here because of that.

Business leaders in our state and corporate America [recognize] that. And so it just, again, I think our electeds understand that it just makes good sense, both from a business model perspective and also, of course, on a humanitarian level.

Whitmer, LGBTQ caucus make big push to win GOP support for Elliott-Larsen bill

But going back to what you said earlier, yeah, there’s so much excitement out there about people like Gov. Whitmer and their new and fresh perspective on equal rights for the community.

Michigan Advance: Given the fact that support for LGBTQ rights is a mainstream Democratic Party position, do you ever feel like in media coverage of you that mentions your sexual identity is unnecessary? Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports the same rights as you do, but her sexuality is never mentioned.

Nessel: Right. Well that’s a good point. Boy, it does come up a lot, it seems. And let’s face it, the vast majority of the news items that involve my work as attorney general don’t involve LGBTQ rights. A portion, of course, of the work that we do involves that community, but the vast majority does not.

Attorney General Dana Nessel
Dana Nessel at the MDP Convention, Feb. 2, 2019 | Ken Coleman

And it seems suspect and strange to me that you would mention the gender of the person I’m married to in discussing my views on Line 5 [the Enbridge oil pipeline] or consumer protection issues or anything else.

Yeah, I think that there’s good and bad in that. One is, I think that for some of the media who mention it, they do it intentionally because in their mind they are disparaging me in some way. And there’s still that mindset there.

But the positive part about it, though, is for people to get used to somebody who’s in this position of authority in this state, who’s the top lawyer for a state of 10 million people. And to understand that my sexual orientation or the gender of the person I’m married to just has absolutely nothing to do with my day-to-day job and the work that I do on behalf of residents in this state.

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And I think that’s a good message to send, frankly, to the children of our state who are growing up and who may identify as gay or bisexual or transgender, or what have you, and want to feel as though they can have a real future and they can be whatever they want when they grow up. And to see that it doesn’t have to be a hindrance to them pursuing their goals. So maybe it’s not bad from that perspective. It’s just that sometimes, depending on who the author is of the article that I’m reading, sometimes I question their motivation.

Michigan Advance: Which media do you feel use it to disparage you?

Nessel: Well, I would say that some of the more conservative media outlets seem to mention it a lot.

Michigan Advance: Perhaps the Detroit News editorial page?

Nessel: That’s one of them. Yes. I’m always suspect whenever I see myself labeled as ‘Lesbian Michigan Attorney General.’ I guess if I’m the grand marshal at a Pride parade, then maybe it makes sense. But when I’m talking about a data breach where people’s identities have been stolen from a Fortune 500 company, I don’t see how that’s relevant. And, of course, when it’s attached to my title, it’s just suspicious to me.

Advance reporter Derek Robertson contributed to this story.

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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