Interview, Michigan — June 6, 2013 at 7:20 am

INTERVIEW: Equality Michigan’s Emily Dievendorf on LGBT advocacy, repealing Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban & much more


A well-planned, strategic vision for Michigan’s only statewide LGBT advocacy group

Over the past month, there has been a plethora of great news for the LGBT community both nationally and here in Michigan. Recent polling by PPP shows that a full 70% of Michiganders believe that gay couples should either be allowed to marry or form civil unions. This echoes a recent poll by the Glengariff Group showing that over half of our citizens want Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage repealed. President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to an open lesbian, astronaut Sally Ride, and last week in his announcement of June as National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Month said, “My Administration is a proud partner in the journey toward LGBT equality.”

It’s one of the most rapid shifts in public attitudes on any issue we’ve ever seen.

I sat down with Emily Dievendorf, the new Managing Director of Equality Michigan, to talk about these changes and the work her group is doing.


So, tell me a bit about Equality Michigan.

Equality Michigan is Michigan’s only statewide LGBT advocacy organization. It’s the result of a merger between the Triangle Foundation, which many people know from its decades of work on gay rights in Michigan, and Michigan Equality which was more of a political organization. So, as it is now, we are now doing statewide work that covers the political, so it’s basically the LGBT lobbying resource in Michigan and any public policy issue that affects our community and also HIV-positive individuals, we weigh in on and certainly try to develop and/or stop, in today’s climate, as the case may be.

We also have a victim’s services department which is pretty rare for an LGBT advocacy organization. We’re responsible for identifying or helping to identify possible hate crimes and working with the FBI and federal prosecutors to see that something is done.

How often does something like that come up?

All too often. Hate crimes are on the rise for our community.

They’re on the rise? That’s interesting. That surprises me, actually.

Yeah. We’re not surprised by that because any time you get close to a really big change, the resistance gets stronger.

Sort of the “cornered dog syndrome”, I suppose.

Right. So, unfortunately that’s not unusual and cases of discrimination, as well.

Where do you see that kind of thing? Is it rural areas? Is it urban areas? All over the place?

It’s really both. We do see a lot of violent crime in the southeast Michigan area and in Detroit. That’s part of why our headquarters are in Detroit so that we can be where we are best able to access and serve the community that needs us most. Of course, with urban areas, how dense the population is really determines how often we see these things and how likely they are.

I was just wondering if, because rural communities tend to be a little bit less progressive, I guess, or less up–to-date with things that they’d be worse there. But it sounds like that’s not the case.

Well, we see it all over the state. So, I don’t want to generalize about any particular area too much.

That’s the reality, that it’s everywhere.

Mmm hmm. And overall discrimination has been quite the challenge. We’re not seeing a lot of dip in that as consciousness is being raised, really, because we still don’t have legal protection. Just in March we had 41 people that came to Equality Michigan for help with possible discrimination claims and that’s just one month of the year.

Were you involved at all with the woman who was working for the Boy Scouts, Lauren Jasenak?

Yes, yes we were.

That seemed like a huge headline, if nothing else. It was just so blatantly discriminatory…

Yeah, in that case the Boy Scouts just announced that they didn’t have an issue with her job performance and they just really had an issue with the fact that she identified as a lesbian.

It sort of crystallized the whole thing, really, because they were so blatant about it. They were unashamed of it.

Yeah, exactly. But the Boy Scouts are really hurting themselves. If you look at organizations like the Girl Scouts which a tradition of inclusion and acceptance and they are just growing and the base of their support is broadening just about everyday while the Boy Scouts are struggling and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I was actually a Cub Scout Pack Leader for several years which is sort of the boss of the Den Leaders and did a good enough job that I go their top volunteer award, the Award of Merit. And I’ve been thinking lately that, as a bisexual guy, I should just throw that in an envelope and send it back to them and let them know that I don’t want it.

That’s what a lot of people are doing. And, if that happens again, we may still do it depending on what kind of response we see to that case, I want to ask people to just send us their badges and medals and I will turn it into a quilt!

If you do that, stay in touch with me because the Award of Merit is the biggest honor that they give volunteers in their organization. I’m like, really, screw you guys, I don’t accept this thing from you. Because if you had known that I was a bisexual man, you wouldn’t have given it to me. You wouldn’t have even allowed me to lead those kids and that organization and turn that Pack around that was in deficit and stuff.


So you’re new to this position, right? You’ve been with Equality Michigan but this is a new job for you?

I’ve been with Equality Michigan for about three years as policy director so I’ve been doing their lobbying and I was in politics before that, I’m really excited to manage the organization in such a way as to really steer those political efforts and have an influence over the change in leadership and, at the very least, try to get our leaders to see how they can advocate for all of their constituencies.

So do you see a change of focus with you coming into this position?

I think a bit. I am a huge fan of strategic thinking that is three steps ahead. I like to set up the dominos and come at it from all directions and I think that’s a very political trait to get reeked out over that kind of thing.

You come from a legislative background, right?

Yeah, I have a policy background along with a lot of campaigns scattered throughout there.

Are you from Michigan originally?

Yes, I’m from Kalamazoo.

What are the issues that you guys are working on that are sort of “top of the pile”?

Top of the pile of us is always, and will be until we achieve this, amending the Elliott-Larsen Act because in Michigan you can still be fired for being gay or even being perceived to be gay or having your employer seeing your gender identity be an expression of something they don’t like. If you’re a man and you present yourself as too masculine for your employer’s taste, you can be fired. I tell straight people that they can be fired as well. Sexual orientation is really a pretty broad thing.

Aside from that, we always have second-parent adoption that we need to achieve and amending our state hate crimes act, the ethnic intimidation act in order to add protections for our community. And lately we are hearing a lot about marriage.

Right, there was a poll out this week that showed that over half of Michigan residents now support same-sex marriage and want the ban repealed. Nate Silver predicted that wouldn’t happen until 2016 and here we are in 2013 at over half. What do you attribute that to?

I think it’s because so many people know someone who is gay. They have friends, coworkers, relatives, maybe even children, who are gay and that makes it more personal. It’s hard to tell someone you love that they don’t deserve the same rights as you have.

One of the things that it’s important to point out is that this is also a socio-economic issue. It affects our economy and it affects families. It’s very much about people being able to take care of their families whether it’s their partner or their kids and I think that argument resonates with some people in ways that make them more likely to be accepting.

Finally, it’s become a very big issue nationally. Almost a quarter of the states now recognize same-sex marriage and it’s in the news all the time these days.

Just today President Obama awarded astronaut Sally Ride the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an openly gay lesbian and a national hero. Things like that have to help.

Right, exactly. That’s a big part of the reason that I encourage people, if they are in a safe environment to do so, to come out. Because the more people know people who are gay, the more supportive they are of their rights, including the right to marry the person they love.

So, is it time to put repealing Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage back on the ballot? It seems like Michigan voters are in support of overturning it.

Well, I want to see some more polling, more consistent polling. But, yeah, I think it’s time, probably in 2016. That will give us time to put all the pieces in place and make sure we do it right. It will be an election year which means a big turnout which is important. Again, I want to make sure we’re being strategic and getting the dominoes set up before we do it. We may not get this chance again for a long time so I want to be sure we do it right.

Does Equality Michigan work with other groups outside of the LGBT community?

We definitely do when that’s appropriate. Much of our work cuts across other issues like right to work and other workplace issues. So, we work, again – strategically – with other groups when our interests are aligned. But, the fact is, we should be reaching out to all sorts of groups, many of which we might least expect to support us. If you look at that poll and dig into it, you’ll find that we’re even getting support from young evangelicals. That’s where the biggest shift has been. We need to be open to who our new allies are.

What about students and young people? When I look at my kids, their generation doesn’t seem to care about your sexuality for the most part.

That’s absolutely right. There’s a huge cultural change happening.

I look at young people like Katy Butler from here in Ann Arbor and she seems to be doing as much or more than any three adults on this issue. Have you worked with her at all?

Yes! Katy is a “mentee” of mine and she’s amazing.

What’s she working on these days?

She is in New York City this summer and is literally working on three different internships. She’s frustrated when she doesn’t have a thousand things to work on. She’s basically steeping herself in policy work and, of course, continuing to promote the Bully Project. Next fall she’ll be attending George Washington University.

Finally, I know you’ve teamed up with Democracy for America through their YouPower project to help promote the repeal of Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and you have a petition for folks to sign so that they can stay informed on what is happening on that effort. How did that come about?

Well, this goes back to what we talked about a minute ago about working with other groups and allies. Democracy for America is one of those allies and they have tools we can use to help get people organized around this issue. It’s just all part of that “attack the issue from all sides” approach that I love so much!

[All photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]