‘A new day’ for Michigan LGBTQ+ officials preparing for leadership roles in the new Legislature

By: - December 1, 2022 5:15 am

Michigan Pride | Angela Demas


That’s how state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) termed the results of the Nov. 8 election, a campaign cycle he called “one of the most rabidly anti-LGBTQ campaign cycles.” Yet that agenda was roundly rejected by Michigan voters.

“It just felt like maybe Republicans were onto something,” Moss, the first openly gay senator in the state, told Michigan Advance. “They were so forceful against the LGBTQ community, they really made this the centerpiece of their campaign, specifically attacking the trans community and drag queens

Sen. Jeremy Moss at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, Sept. 22, 2019 | Andrew Roth

“And it just felt like, ‘Are they really going to get political liftoff from this? Are we really going to regress? Are we going to be rejected at the ballot box?’ And the validation came with the people having had enough of this group. And I hope this is the last campaign cycle, once and for all, that you just cannot win by pummeling the LGBTQ community.”

Instead, by most metrics, it was Michigan Republicans who were pummeled on Nov. 8. 

Democrats, who steadfastly supported the LGBTQ+ community throughout the GOP assault, saw their political fortunes defy pundits’ predictions as they grabbed the reins of power in Lansing for the first time in nearly 40 years, winning majorities to control the executive, legislative and judicial branches, as well as the state boards of education.

All three of the Republican candidates at the top of the ticket; gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno and secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo, made anti- LGBTQ+ issues a key part of their campaigns. 

All three were soundly defeated — by Democrats Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, respectively — with at least some of the credit belonging to a statewide coalition of LGBTQ+ organizations that conducted one of the largest get out the vote (GOTV) efforts in the nation.

#HateWontWin, Michigan’s coalition of LGBTQ+ organizations and allies, says it conducted a statewide canvas that knocked on more than 110,000 doors, made over 115,000 phone calls, texted more than 58,000 people and collected over 46,000 pledges from voters to cast ballots for candidates supportive of equal rights. 

Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, told the Advance that the coalition accomplished four main goals on Nov. 8.

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

“We put equality as a top of mind issue for hundreds of thousands of voters, especially in key geographic areas,” she said. “We protected pro-equality leaders at the top of the ticket. We helped flip the Michigan State House and the Michigan Senate to a pro-equality majority, and we set a brand new record for LGBTQ+-identified elected officials in the state of Michigan, particularly in the Legislature.”

On that last point, the results speak for themselves, as the Legislature’s LGBTQ+ caucus, all Democrats, more than doubled from three members to seven.

Even with the term-limited departure of Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton), current members Moss and Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) will be joined by Reps.-elect Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield), Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing), Mike McFall (D-Hazel Park), Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield) and Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor).

Both Moss and Pohutsky will make history by serving in key leadership roles. Pohutsky will be speaker pro tempore in the House and Moss will be the Senate’s president pro tempore.

“We know that representation matters and that only goes to benefit our community, because we’re going to have folks within the legislature and in leadership positions championing policy that directly impacts members of our community in our daily lives,” said Knott.

However, Knott says despite those gains, they are still seeing an increase in hateful rhetoric, particularly around transgender issues, with an emphasis aimed at youth. 

“So while we’re all taking a victory lap right now and celebrating the wins that we have coming out of the state of Michigan, that has not tamped down the amount of violence and rhetoric and bullying that we’re seeing in communities across the state,” she said. “There’s a community in the Upper Peninsula where the superintendent and the school board president dared to say LGBTQ youth wouldn’t be bullied if they just went back in the closet, so we have a tremendous amount of work to be done between now and going into 2024, when folks have another bite at the apple.”

One aspect of that work to be done is using the newly earned electoral muscle to enact changes advocates say are long overdue.

While we're all taking a victory lap right now and celebrating the wins that we have coming out of the state of Michigan, that has not tamped down the amount of violence and rhetoric and bullying that we're seeing in communities across the state.

– Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan

Moss says at the top of Democrats’ agenda for the upcoming session is amending the language of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to codify protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. 

While the Michigan Supreme Court recently ruled the law provides those protections, LGBTQ+ advocates say it needs to become permanent.

Other issues Moss wants to see addressed are banning conversion therapy and eliminating the LGBTQ+ panic defense

Because Republicans have held the majority in the Senate for the last 40 years, they’ve had veto power on most LGBTQ+ measures that were put forward. However, Moss believes most of that opposition has come from GOP leadership and not necessarily the rank and file.

“I’ve been saying all along, and I believe the numbers would bear it out, that if some of these measures were put up to a vote today in a Republican majority, they would pass,” said Moss. “I can’t imagine it’s going to be a heavy lift with the Democratic majority, but I do believe we’re going to make bipartisan progress on all of these things that we’ve talked about for a while. At least now some Republicans will be able to join us, because their leadership isn’t holding it up.”

According to Moss, a younger and more diverse electorate will make it increasingly harder to use LGBTQ+ issues to manipulate voters, which in turn will make it harder for extremist elements to maintain control of the GOP.

“This anti-LGBTQ political game wasn’t going to last, because younger people don’t harbor these narrow points of view the way that an older generation does,” he said. “But I also am still a firm subscriber to the Harvey Milk philosophy of 45 years ago that coming out is the most political thing you can do to break down myths and destroy stereotypes.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks in East Lansing during the final rally of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s re-election campaign on Nov. 7, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who won her race over Matthew DePerno by a nearly 10-point margin, is Michigan’s first openly gay top elected official.

“I will say this specifically about the younger generations, I think were appalled and disgusted by those arguments because you have such a dramatic increase in the number of Gen Z and young Millennials who identify as being part of the community, and they all have friends that they grew up with who are members of the community,” she told the Advance. “And so because they turned out in such large numbers, I think that also contributed to the defeat of the Republicans up and down the ticket.”

However, from Nessel’s perspective, the Republican Party being out-of-sync with the public on LGBTQ+ issues, is not an isolated stance. 

A prime example of that, she says, is the GOP opposition to abortion. This month, Michigan voters approved Proposal 3, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to abortion, by a 13-point margin.

“If anything, we found out the vast majority of Michiganders, and of Americans, would like to see abortion remain safe and legal,” said Nessel. “And yet you had a party that defiantly opposed it and opposed it in a way that was so extreme that, of course, all of the major candidates had a no exceptions policy. That’s not a viewpoint that is subscribed to by the majority of people.”

Moving forward, Nessel sees the need for decisive action on the legislative front to strengthen protections for the LGBTQ+ community.

“Let’s face it,” she said. “All of the protections that exist right now are as a result of court cases, but the important thing to remember is that courts change, as we know, over time. And so whether or not the court decisions that allow for those things will remain in effect is in great doubt.”

Nessel is adamant that in addition to amending ELCRA and the state’s Ethnic Intimidation Act, when it comes to same-sex marriage, the constitutional amendment proihibting it in Michigan will need to be formally removed, despite the fact that 2015’s Obergfell decision by the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated it.

Joseph Fons holding a Pride Flag, stands in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building after the court ruled that LGBTQ people can not be disciplined or fired based on their sexual orientation June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Perhaps pass laws that specifically permit same sex marriage, and of course, interracial marriage as well,” said Nessel. “I can’t believe in 2022 we’re still talking about the need to protect interracial marriage, but let’s face it, Loving vs. Virginia and Obergefell vs. Hodges are really not that different in terms of the jurisprudence that upholds those opinions.”

Loving vs. Virginia was the 1967 decision that legalized interracial marriage. When SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion stated that the court “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents.” 

That reasoning then opened up Loving and Obergfell for potential reversal by the court’s right-wing majority.

“I think that honestly, anywhere where you have protections in the law for national origin and ethnicity and race and sex and gender, I think we need to add sexual orientation and gender identity, so that those classes are specifically included, so that at no time can any court of law say, ‘Well, those classes aren’t specifically included, the legislature did not intend to protect those classes,’ she said. “Because we’re always in danger of a court making a different interpretation later. Making that assessment, if those classes are specifically a part of all legislation that includes those other classes, then we won’t have to worry about that in the future.”

For Moss, with all of that on the line, anything less than action is not an option.

“It’s a new day. For so long, I think LGBTQ folks could not be what they could not see,” he said. “And I think it’s just hopefully a call to action for others to enter into this arena, because we are seen and the more LGBTQ people making public policy decisions, the better off we’re all for it.”


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King 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 2021 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, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.