History was made on the steps of the State Capitol in Lansing, MI on August 23rd. Though the official LGBT Pride Month is long since past, summers in Michigan aren’t complete for the queer community until they’ve met at steps of the State Capitol. In what has been a standing, cheering tradition for 25 years, queer folks from all over Michigan marched their way through the city streets of Lansing on Saturday afternoon, and loudly rallied for the rights and protections they deserve. The silver anniversary of such an important event would be enough reason to call Saturday historic, but this momentous day went much further when Mark Schauer and Lisa Brown took to the podium. You see, Schauer is the Democrat running for governor here, and Brown is his running mate. This marks the first time that candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor have stood next to leaders of Michigan’s LGBT Community and joined in their calls to action.
The march and rally began in 1989, created by the Michigan Organization on Human Rights (which would later become Michigan Pride) to mark the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and the beginning of the gay rights movement. In the last quarter-century, it has become the largest annual rallies for queer rights in the state. After years of of disappointing set-backs, it’s been a rather historic year for gay rights in Michigan. On March 21st, a federal judge struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional in DeBoer v Snyder, and over 300 queer couples were able to marry before the appeals court stayed that ruling. Dana Nessel, the lead attorney in that case, spoke at the rally, and the first same sex couple to marry in the state, Marsha Caspar and Glenna DeJong were the Grand Marshals of the march to the capitol steps.
Part show of strength, part parade, the march was a colorful and noisy affair as thousands marched up Michigan Avenue while hundreds more looked on.
As the march wrapped up, a small army of rainbow-clad folks gathered at the foot of the Capitol under the baking August sun, waving flags and cheering, undaunted by the heat and utter lack of shade.
But, before the political, rabble-rousing part of the rally got started, there was a celebration of love and an act of defiance. Despite the political and legal limbo of gay marriage in Michigan, dozens of queer couples (the largest portion of them queer women) stood hand-in-hand before a crowd of thousands ready to commit their lives to one another.
Rev. Nicolette L. Siragusa officiated the brief, but touching ceremony, which will hopefully be the last time it does not carry legal weight in the state. She spoke of love and sacrifice, of shared joys and shared struggles, as these beautiful couples gazed fondly at each other.
As she pronounced the couples committed, the hands of the crowd rose to give blessing and luck to the happy couples, and few dry eyes remained.
Of course, it all ended with a kiss, and a cheer from the crowd to congratulate them.
After the rally began, Michigan Pride Chair Emily Horvath introduced Democratic Lieutenant Gubernatorial candidate Lisa Brown. Brown is the current Oakland County Clerk, and opened her office on March 22nd (a Saturday) to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She personally officiated 82 weddings that day.
Brown described her feelings about being a part of historic day for Michigan’s queer community:
“I owe so much gratitude to those couples for allowing me to be a part of that special day. I was proud to be standing before them that day. And, it always be one of the best days of my life.”
She went to call out the still-legal discrimination of the queer community in the state, and to call for LGBT protections to ensure that Michigan does not continue to lose its best and brightest to other states, to attract new residents to the state, and to “ensure that Michigan doesn’t get left behind on the wrong side of history.” She was also not at all shy about sharing her opinion of current Republican Governor Rick Snyder, stating “If there’s one thing our current Governor is, it’s wrong.” Lisa then introduced Gubernatorial candidate Schauer, who took the podium to thunderous applause from the rainbow-toting crowd below.
Schauer greeted the crowd, “You look like our Michigan, our best Michigan!” He recounted the events of March 21st and 22nd and thanked the four County Clerks (including Brown) who opened their offices that Saturday morning. He also got right to the meat of his criticisms with Governor Snyder, at least when it comes to LGBT issues. Taking a firm swipe at Snyder’s well-known and much-maligned “One Tough Nerd” campaign slogan, Schauer said:
“Snyder claims to be a “tough nerd.” There’s nothing tough about taking away benefits from committed same-sex couples. There’s nothing tough about denying equal rights to the LGBT community. And there’s nothing tough about defending a discriminatory ban on marriage equality. That’s not tough; that’s wrong.”
He echoed running mate Lisa Brown, stating that it’s time for Michigan to get on the “right side of history”, and that his pro-LGBT agenda is about fairness and doing what’s right. He speaks boldly, as though he’s already won the expensive and very tight race, when discussing updating Michigan’s 1976 civil tights law, known as the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act:
“When I am governor, discrimination will have no place in my administration. We will amend the Eliot Larson Civil Rights Act. We will ban LGBT discrimination once and for all. We will do that together.”
Schauer closed by acknowledging the road to November’s election wouldn’t be easy, but affirmed his commitment to working with the LGBT community. “It’s time to roll up our sleeves.” he said, “Let’s build a Michigan that works for everyone.”
Next to the podium was Grand Marshall Glenna Dejong, fresh off the first round of hearings in her federal court case with the ACLU pressing the State of Michigan to recognize her marriage to Marsha Caspar. Glenna shared that she and Marsha’s place of honor as Michigan’s first legally-married same-sex couple happened completely by accident:
“We didn’t plan, try or even think about being the first same sex couple to officially marry here. In fact, it happened quite by accident. I woke up early that morning and saw a tweet from Barb Byrum, the Ingham County Clerk. She had just announced that her office would be and issues marriage licenses that Saturday. We were out the door in sort order, on our way to be married. We found out later that couples in three other Michigan Counties were waiting in line for hours before. They knew the night before that the clerk’s offices in their county would be open. In many ways, this honor should belong to one of them. But, here we are, stumbling into the spotlight, proud to representing over 300 couples across the state that were married that historic day.”
Next, a string of Michigan LGBT leaders took the podium in turn, each rallying the crowd for their cause. HIV Activist Todd Heywood called on the community to support and encourage the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis(PreEP), an HIV prevention strategy that is 99% effective that has faced considerable controversy. He railed against disinformation being spread about the drug, refering to it as nothing but lies. Heywood closed: “With PrEP and treatment, we can end the AIDS epidemic today.”
Following Heywood was Rachel Crandall, Executive Director of Transgender Michigan. Crandall recounted the victories of the trans community this year, including Laverne Cox’s Time Magazine cover story, and Medicare dropping its trans-related care exclusions. She also laid out the significant and dangerous problems that still plague the transgender people — violence, economic instability, employment discrimination, and homelessness. She reminded the crowd that many homeless shelters, especially those run by religious groups, refuse to help trans people. She called on the LGB community to work harder to support transgender rights and protections, stating: “We all need to work together.”
Executive Director of Equality Michigan, Emily Dievendorf, took the stage to remind the crowd that the fight for LGBT rights is not just about marriage equality. She referred to the recent anti-trans violence in Detroit as a reason why we need to look beyond marriage, stating “We need safe spaces. We need Michigan to be a safe space for the entire LGBT community.”
Closing the gathering at the Capitol steps was Dana Nessel, the lead attorney in DeBoer v Snyder. She greeted the crowd by taking a selfie with them, and remarked on the historic nature of Schauer’s speech:
“If you would have told me 20 years ago that we’d have candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor espousing a pro-LGBT platform here at a gay pride rally, I would have asked you what you’d been smoking.”
Nessel had perhaps the most severe and entertaining criticism of the GOP politicians who had been setting policy in Michigan over the last four years. She criticized the case presented by the State to defend and preserve Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban as a “parade of crackpots” who had been “universally disavowed” and referred to their stances as “a fringe viewpoint, completely out of step with the rest of society.” She closed her speech with a final emphasis of the need for real action and effort, telling the crowd that change takes more than “just liking something on Facebook,” and imploring them to support the LGBT-positive candidates on election day. Her last thought closed the rally on a positive, optimistic note:
” When we come back here for this party next year, finally we will have same sex marriage and adoption for same-sex couples, as well as a panoply of other rights, and then we’ll really have something to celebrate. “
Much of the rally evoked the idea of history, from being on the right side or wrong side of it, to remember the rallies of years past and the Stonewall Riots which inspired the event. Pride Chair Emily Horvath reminded the the crowd after Schauer spoke that they were bearing witness to Michigan history in the making:
“Never in the history of Pride has the governor or gubernatorial candidate been on the Capitol steps for our rally.”
It may be that making a little history is exactly what Mark Schauer and Lisa Brown needed. A new poll released this week show the pair surged to a lead over the incumbent Snyder by two points, the first they’ve had in the race. The poll also showed that Schauer enjoys a commander 52-37 lead among women voters. While we can’t claim the surge was due solely to their appearance at Michigan Pride, it certainly proves that standing firmly with the LGBT community doesn’t make candidates unelectable in the Mitten State.