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Saturday, May 25, 2024
Gov & Politics

‘What they’re afraid of is our collective voice and power’ 

By any reckoning, 2023 was a landmark year for LGBTQ+ rights in Michigan, with passage of major legislation that had been bottlenecked for years, and even decades. 

Most notably, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation in March adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Later that year, she also approved a ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ youth.

With an eye toward what was accomplished, and what is on the agenda for 2024, Michigan Advance spoke last month with Erin Knott, executive director at Equality Michigan, a Kalamazoo-based nonprofit which works across the state to educate and advocate to change laws and address issues that disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ residents.  

In November, Whitmer also appointed Knott to the newly created Michigan LGBTQ+ Commission created to ensure representation for Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community at all levels of government.

“Early in the fall, I applied. I was hopeful that I would secure a spot. I am very excited about the opportunity, and ready to get to work with my fellow colleagues,” Knott told the Advance.

Knott also talked about local efforts for LGBTQ+ rights, legislation making the name change process easier for transgender Michiganders and the 2024 election.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: What is it that you hope will be achieved with the commission? 

Knott: So we haven’t met yet, but I think for me, my spot representing Equality Michigan, it’s my hope that we’re able to come together and kind of take a look at the landscape. Right now, I think that Michigan is faring far better than many of the other states across the country as it relates to advancing pro-LGBTQ+ policy. 

But if you take a look at what’s happening at the local level, particularly, in schools and what’s happening with our youth, we have a lot of work to do. So it would be my hope that we do some sort of landscape analysis of, ‘What are the gaps in the needs that we have?’ and then engage key stakeholders and movement makers so that we are lifting up to not only the governor, but the legislature, what we’re seeing and how we think that we could remedy some of the ongoing hate that continues to be targeting our community. 

Michigan Advance: Two thousand twenty-three was a momentous year for LGBTQ+ rights in Michigan. Of all the achievements, one would have to believe that expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) was the biggest. What’s your perspective? 

Knott: I mean, that was huge, finally getting that across the finish line. It had been 37 years, I think, of the bills being introduced and then reintroduced every legislative cycle. So that was a huge accomplishment for the new Legislature and the governor to sign that into the law within the first 100 days — exactly what we needed to have happen right out of the gate. 

And then, in June, we got ending conversion therapy, the barbaric practice against minors, also across the finish line. That was deeply personal for me. I’ve never been subjected to conversion therapy, but I’m sure you saw some of the testimony that I provided during the legislative process and the amount of people that took the time and initiative to seek me out and tell me exactly what they thought. It became a highly volatile and emotional experience for me. 

Michigan Advance: Despite all the accomplishments in 2023, there were a number of things that were left on the table — updating the ethnic intimidation statute, eliminating the LGBTQ panic defense and removing surrogacy barriers among them. What’s the priority for 2024? 

Knott: I think that all of those bills are essential for advancing LGBTQ+ rights and protections here in Michigan. But I think from our perspective internally, if we had to rank the No. 1 priority, it would be the transgender identity [document] name change bills, the four core pieces of legislation. 

Equality Michigan has been working with Rep. [Laurie] Pohutsky (D-Livonia) and others on the package, and as we think about what’s left to be done, at least from our priorities internally, we’re excited to get working on that package when the legislature comes back next year, because we know that they will directly change the lived experience of transgender and non-binary individuals here in Michigan. 

Michigan Advance: While we’ve talked about some of the big legislative wins at the state level, we’re still seeing issues at the local level in terms of bathroom accommodations and pronoun usage. For Equality Michigan, you’ve had success working at the state level and getting some of these bigger things done. But on the local level, what’s your role?

Knott: Our ACE [Advocates for Community Empowerment] team can go into communities and provide LGBTQ+ core competency training, whether it’s courts or school boards, hospital systems, you name it. So, that’s one part of the puzzle. The other part is, we’re monitoring a transgender fourth grader [in Vicksburg, near Kalamazoo] where there’s a secret parents group and hate speech about this [child] and her basic right to use the bathroom and to go to school and thrive and learn. It is just awful to see what’s been bubbling up in this small community as it relates to outing who this child is and her parents. It’s just been shocking. 

But we’re monitoring and we’re trying to cool the temperature, by organizing parental groups or allies in these districts. We’ve worked with parents and allies to prepare and to learn how to address these issues. As an example, the Vicksburg school board, we turned out 40 individuals that provided testimony a few weeks ago just to show support for this young girl and her family, so that the school board wasn’t just getting the Moms for Liberty canned talking points

So we do a lot of training, whether it’s the ACE team that goes in and does their core competencies training, or it’s [Equality Michigan Director of Advocacy & Civic Engagement] Emme [Zanotti] and the political team going in and just doing basic organizing and turning folks out so that, the Vicksburg school board again, in this example, sees, ‘Oh, it’s not just the folks that are spewing hate.’ 

And we all know where that hate’s coming from, it’s to score cheap political gains, right? [The 2024 election] is just around the corner. We’re going to be making sure that we are turning out folks that have our values. And it’s not just about turning out voters, but it’s also reminding the legislature that the other side is very loud and it’s a minority group of folks. They talk and act like they’re afraid of our sexualities and who we love. They’re afraid of our gender identities and how we express ourselves, but actually what they’re afraid of is our collective voice and power. 

Bills removing barriers for transgender people to change their names to be passed soon

So reminding lawmakers that care about our issues that LGBTQ+ issues are winning issues, trans issues are winning issues. You can look at elections all across the United States just this past November and see that trans issues were winning issues, and ensuring not only that lawmakers understand this, but that voters everywhere in Michigan understand that Michiganders care about equality and we’re going to vote like it.

Michigan Advance: You mentioned 2024 being right around the corner. The #HateWontWin campaign had such success in 2022 in terms of banding together and getting out the vote on these issues. Do you plan any changes ramping up for [2024]?

Knott: We didn’t know what was going to happen in 2022, if I’m being candid. We had an idea, and we got the buy-in of not only the Human Rights Campaign, but also community centers like Affirmations. I think that we were up to 15 total partners for 2022. We were kind of building the plane while we were flying it, right? 

We’ve been preparing and planning all of 2023 for 2024. So the budget will increase. Our core geographies are going to expand. We have our haters reeling, and we are not letting our foot off the gas. So in 2024 we’re going to beat them again. We’re going to out-[door]knock them, we’re going to out-call them, we’re going to out-vote them, and we’re going to do the same thing in 2025 and 2026. We’re going to keep doing this as long as they try to hurt our community members, our people, and our kids. 

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