With basic LGBTQ+ rights on the line, Michigan coalition works to get out the vote

By: - October 29, 2022 3:36 am

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As a cacophony of overt anti-gay and trans bigotry serving as a hallmark for this year’s midterm elections, a statewide coalition of LGBTQ+ organizations is carrying out what they believe to be one of the largest efforts in the nation to get voters to cast ballots for the Nov. 8 election.

“Equality Michigan and our partner organizations had been monitoring anti-LGBTQ policy that was being talked about or introduced here in the state of Michigan as well as across the country, and recognized that equality was going to be on the ballot this year,” Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, told the Michigan Advance. “We know that when equality voters get off the sidelines, that we can make a difference.”

Equality Michigan, the state’s top LGBTQ+ rights organization, has teamed up with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Affirmations, the ACLU of Michigan and more than a dozen other partner organizations, to launch the #HateWontWin coalition which is designed to “maximize the opportunity to use our voices and to turn OUT and vote on the issues that affect our lives.”

State Sen. Lana Theis attends a Republican gubernatorial in Howell on May 13, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

Signs that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric would be weaponized for political purposes in 2022 took shape early when state Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) gave an invocation on the Senate floor in April, praying against teachings and books that reference LGBTQ+ issues and America’s history of white supremacy. 

Theis then doubled down on her rhetoric with a fundraising email targeting Democrats like state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), who is straight and supports LGBTQ+ rights. After McMorrow publicly objected to the invocation, Theis falsely referred to her as being among “trolls” and “groomers” who “sexualize” children, deploying an age-old slander against the LGBTQ+ community while also echoing the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. 

That episode was followed just a day later when the Republican-led Legislature rejected former state Rep. Jon Hoadley, who is gay, to an appointment on the Western Michigan University (WMU) Board of Trustees. 

While GOP leaders said it was to avoid a conflict of interest as Hoadley was a WMU graduate student, that wasn’t in line with a standing opinion and was characterized by the university’s faculty union as only adding “to a growing wave of noxious anti-LGBTQ backlash that threatens to take our country backward.”

In the wake of those incidents, there was the GOP’s rejection of a Pride Month resolution in June and their resolution in September that mischaracterized teacher training videos from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) as instructing school employees how to facilitate the sexual transition of children.

There’s also been a flurry of legislation, including Theis’ bill introduced last year that would ban trans athletes in school sports. GOP nominee Tudor Dixon has said she’ll sign a ban if she defeats Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8. Dixon also endorsed a Florida-style “Don’t Say Gay” bill barring teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues and wants to ban books in schools she labels as “porn,” although she has repeatedly refused to release any titles.

Republican nominee for governor Tudor Dixon speaks to reporters following the second and final gubernatorial debate at Oakland University on Oct. 25, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Earlier this month, Republicans also sponsored legislation seeking to lock up parents who provide gender-affirming care to transgender children and their doctors. They could get life in prison for helping their children.

With this backdrop, Knott says the #HateWontWin coalition made a decision to work on a coordinated, grassroots campaign to talk to “equality voters” about what’s at stake and to ensure that the LGBTQ+ community and its allies cast their ballots in both the August primary election and the November general election.

“Our message was quite simple: Love trumps hate,” said Knott. “But in order for love to beat out hate, you have to get off the sidelines and vote.”

She says that is being accomplished on the ground and online in key areas  across Michigan.

“Our program started with knocking on doors in Southeast Michigan, in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties,” said Knott. “We then pivoted to the Tri-Cities of Midland, Bay City and Saginaw. And what’s layered onto that canvas program is a digital strategy whereby we are talking to a universe of voters. I think to date we have over 7 million impressions.”

Helping to coordinate the campaign has been HRC Michigan Director Amritha Venkataraman, who has served in that role since 2018.

“Our strategy was pretty straightforward,” she told the Advance. “We had at the time 40,000 members and supporters in the state, folks who have a relationship with HRC. They had either given us $5 in the past and become an FEC-level [Federal Election Commission] member, signed a petition or taken an action with us. The idea was that we would engage those folks where they lived to get involved in local issues, local races; anywhere from lower levels of government through the presidential race, state house races, state senate races and really move those folks to action.”

Venkataraman says they saw that their members and supporters were condensed in certain key geographies, which was centered on Oakland and Wayne counties in Southeast Michigan, but also in Grand Rapids and in Kalamazoo. 

“So our strategy is making sure those folks understand the connection between LGBTQ issues and voting and why there’s vested interest for the issues that they really care about and moving them to be really engaged in the voting process, and then turning them into volunteer leaders who help organize their community,” she said.

That strategy then translated into grassroots enthusiasm that organizers say had homeowners asking for additional materials to share with friends and family. 

Also at play in generating voter momentum has been the ability to take what are often abstract attacks by the GOP and put a face to them, making clear that actual people will be demonstrably harmed by efforts to criminalize their lives.

Taking an up front role in helping to accomplish that are Kent and Diego, who married in 2007 and now have two children. They agreed to appear in a 30-second ad for GLAAD, an LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization.

Titled “Marriage Threat,” the ad focuses on the threat that the midterm elections pose to marriage equality, and urges LGBTQ+ people and allies to vote.

While the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in June in a concurring opinion to the Dobbs case overturning the right to abortion that the court should reconsider its previous marriage equality and contraception decisions.

“When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, we both looked at each other and said: I think our family could be at risk,” says Diego in the ad. “When we fought for marriage equality, we never thought we would be at risk of having it taken away,” said Kent. 

In agreeing to speak with Michigan Advance, Kent and Diego asked that their last names and hometown not be used out of concern for their children’s well-being.

Kent said the U.S Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe vs. Wade was a wake-up call for them.

“Justice Thomas’ opinion suggesting that they revisit some of the other cases including marriage equality,” Kent said. “I mean, that was the first I had ever even heard wind of that in the discussion about Roe vs. Wade being overturned. And, and that certainly was a major red flag for us to start paying attention to our rights being at risk.”

Diego said that while their decision to work toward voter outreach was motivated by the Roe decision, they recognize that their focus can’t be on any single issue.

“I think Ken and I and those of us in our community are really trying to bring attention to the fact that we need to make it how we look at our candidates,” he said. “And if they are not supporting us, they don’t deserve our vote here in Michigan.”

Kent added that while they don’t want to take attention off Proposal 3, which seeks to place reproductive rights in the Michigan Constitution, marriage equality is definitely connected. 

“It’s all in that same pot that’s being stirred up,” he said.

“Proposal 3, that’s the real thing on the ballot right now for midterms, but we also understand that if we don’t get out the more progressive vote, then again, the cascading impact of what that means, not only for Roe vs. Wade and Proposal 3. It opens a scary door.”

Making sure that door stays closed, Diego said, is very much about sounding the alarm now.

“I think that’s why it’s really important that this campaign really lets people know that they can see a family like ours, who’s not so different than them, who have … a lot at risk,” he said. “And they ought to have some sense of urgency.” 

Someone who’s been getting his face in front of voters is Noah Arbit, the West Bloomfield founder of the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus and the Democratic nominee for the newly drawn 20th House District, which includes West Bloomfield, eastern Commerce Township, Orchard Lake, Keego Harbor and Sylvan Lake. 

That area is currently represented by state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.), the author of the legislation seeking to criminalize providing gender-affirming care to minors.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had Pride flags hoisted on the Romney Building for the first time in 2019, June 16, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Arbit, who is gay and facing Republican Albert Mansour in the Nov. 8 election, told the Advance that his candidacy is a perfect example of how engaged progressive voters can make a tangible difference if they turn out and cast ballots.

“This extremism is not something that our community is pining for or represents,” said Arbit. 

Arbit says people need to recognize that midterm elections are just as important as those in presidential years.

“They have to vote,” he said. “We simply don’t have the luxury of being silent and as a force, as a block, they won’t be able to ignore us.”

That was amply demonstrated in 2016, when Democrat Hillary Clinton lost Michigan to Donald Trump by just over 10,000 votes. Yet some estimates indicated that there were more than 87,000 unregistered LGBTQ+ voters in the state.

After four years of Trump administration policies directed against the LGBTQ+ community, polling indicated that LGBTQ+ voters nationwide played a major role in helping to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.

With that in mind, the #HateWontWin campaign has knocked on over 70,000 doors heading into the midterm election, according to Venkataraman.

“Face-to-face is the most effective way,” she said. “The next most effective way is having a friend or a family member remind you, someone in your network. We also make phone calls, we do texting. We’re really trying every tactic that we can.”


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King is the Senior Reporter for the Michigan Advance and has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2022 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell.