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First LGBTQ statewide official in Mich. seeks re-election

Dana Nessel elected attorney general in 2018

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Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., during a Pride event on June 26, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Nessel's office)

In such a political swing state as Michigan has emerged to be in recent elections, the presence of an out LGBTQ statewide official for the last four years — a first in the state’s history — has been as much of a political anomaly for the region as it’s been a cultural one.

Running for re-election in November after becoming the state’s first LGBTQ candidate to be elected to statewide office, Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has sought to use her office and identity as an out, married lesbian to advocate for LGBTQ equality.

Prior to her run for office, she had been involved in LGBTQ legal advocacy efforts in the state, having served as co-counsel in the 2014 DeBoer v. Snyder case that briefly ruled Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in the leadup to the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.

For Nessel, an importance surrounding the representation she has provided to other members of Michigan’s LGBTQ community has remained throughout her first term in office.

“Especially for younger generations, it allows for people to see that you can be an openly gay person and be successful in public life,” Nessel told the Washington Blade. “I have never hid who I was, I made every effort to ensure that people sort of have a little insight into my background and also see my family — [I’m] as proud of my family as any person who’s in an opposite-sex marriage — and to see that you can succeed and you can win a statewide election even in a very purple state as long as you have the right policies and as long as you’re willing to put in the work.”

Defeating then-Michigan House of Representatives Speaker Tom Leonard, Nessel was elected in 2018 as part of a wave of Democratic ascensions to offices across the nation. She ran, in part, on her experience as a prosecutor and one of the state’s top civil rights lawyers on issues relating to LGBTQ equality.

Since then, she has worked with other top officeholders to advance causes involving statewide civil rights efforts and promises made during her initial campaign. Her partnership with officials including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has spanned issues ranging from abortion access to defending Michigan election systems in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and subsequent allegations of widespread voter fraud in the state.

Now entering the final months of her re-election campaign against Republican opponent and Kalamazoo attorney Matt DePerno, the attorney general has remained at the epicenter of efforts to establish additional protections for the state’s LGBTQ community. In a case currently pending in the Michigan Supreme Court, Nessel has argued for an interpretation of the language in the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to expand its prohibition on discrimination to include an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

Given the state’s history with regard to progress on LGBTQ rights, the importance of such litigation and the attorney general’s role, Nessel said, remains paramount.

“If you look at Michigan, every right that an LGBTQ person has in this state was won in a court battle because, legislatively, we’ve never passed anything that was helpful to the [LGBTQ] community, only laws that are harmful to the community,” Nessel said.

But following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn the nationwide right to abortion, Nessel says she is also prepared to stand against challenges to Michigan residents’ rights to privacy in other areas including sexual intimacy.

In the event of the Supreme Court ruling to overturn its 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas that established a nationwide right to same-sex intimacy and privacy regarding consensual sex acts, Nessel said that she would take multiple approaches to ensuring the right — which would affect both same- and opposite-sex couples’ ability to engage in certain private sex acts — remained.

“If Lawrence v. Texas were overturned, it’s not just that I would fight, whether testifying before the legislature or using the bully pulpit to talk about how egregious the thought is of being able to basically prosecute people for something that takes place in the privacy of their own bedroom with another consenting adult and how horrendous that is,” Nessel said. “But then, I myself would refuse to prosecute any sodomy cases.”

With the attorney general’s position as the state’s top law enforcement official, charged with bringing cases in the courts on behalf of the state, critics have characterized such moves as a neglect of duty.

Following the announcement in late June of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs, DePerno released a statement criticizing Nessel’s messaging that she would not prosecute abortion-related cases should the practice once again become criminalized in the state.

“It is deeply troubling that Dana Nessel pledged to not enforce the opinion of the Supreme Court even before their announcement this morning,” DePerno said. “We cannot have an attorney general who believes she is better than the Supreme Court and the law.”

Pointing to laws rarely tried by county or state prosecutors, such as Michigan’s ban on adultery, Nessel, however, argued that such is a matter of prioritizing her department’s resources to best serve and aid her constituents.

“There are so many laws on the books that it’s your prosecutorial discretion as to whether or not you want to bring those cases,” Nessel said. “To me, my priority is protecting the health, the safety and the welfare of my constituents and prosecuting abortion cases — that’s going to jeopardize the lives of women and not assist them. Prosecuting sodomy cases — I don’t know who I’m benefiting if I were to engage in that.”

In the face of vast legal uncertainty that has now gripped the nation, coupled with a looming election day in November, she said that she intends to continue doing such.

“I expect my office to be very active in protecting LGBTQ rights which is what we’ve done since literally the minute I took office,” Nessel said.

The most recent WDIV/Detroit News polling conducted in early July currently places Nessel with a seven-point lead over DePerno, with almost 17 percent of voters undecided.

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Michigan

Mich. governor signs statewide LGBTQ rights law

‘Bigotry is bad for business’

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 16, 2023, signed an LGBTQ rights bill into law. (Photo courtesy of Whitmer's office)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act on Thursday, which expands basic protections for the LGBTQ community.

The measure, Senate Bill 4, was sponsored by openly gay state Sen. Jeremy Moss who less than a year previously had been shot down by the Republican majority as he attempted to have a non-binding resolution to recognize “Pride Month” adopted by the Senate.

In her signing remarks, Whitmer noted: “In the words of Detroit native Lizzo, it’s about damn time! Bigotry is bad for business. Come to Michigan, you will be respected and protected under the law.”

“As Equality Michigan celebrates this historic step forward, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Generations of activists have inspired us to fight for justice and equality for all LGBTQ+ Michiganders, and our community has been working to update our state’s civil rights law to explicitly include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in every single legislative session since Elliott-Larsen was first adopted,” Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said in a statement. “We applaud Gov. Whitmer for signing this bill into law, and are humbled by this pro-equality legislature that made amending ELCRA a top priority. Senator Jeremy Moss and Rep. Jason Hoskins introduced this legislation and championed it all the way through to the finish line.” 

“The victory we have today in Michigan is a great one, but it’s also one we don’t take lightly at this moment. Let it not be lost on us that this privilege, however hard-earned, is a unique one that exists amid a nationwide political assault on LGBTQ+ people, especially trans and non-binary youth, and their families,” added Knott. “There are over 400 anti-trans bills moving across state legislatures in the US, twice the amount introduced last year.”

“This bill being signed into law is a beacon of hope and sends a powerful message of acceptance to LGBTQ people across the nation. At the Trevor Project, we work every day to protect the lives of LGBTQ youth, and days like today prove that in generations to come, both their legal and lived equality will no longer be fodder for political debate,” said Troy Stevenson, director of state advocacy campaigns for the Trevor Project. “Our research shows that having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among LGBTQ young people by 40 percent. We applaud the elected leaders, advocates and Gov. Whitmer for making this a reality, and affirming the dignity and rights of LGBTQ Michiganders by codifying these protections into law.”

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Michigan

Mich. man arrested for threats against LGBTQ community, Biden

Federal authorities arrested Randall Robert Berka on March 9

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(Los Angeles Blade graphic)

A Michigan man was arrested and charged in a criminal complaint with illegally possessing firearms after having been committed to a mental institution and while being an unlawful user of a controlled substance.

The man came to the attention of the FBI after he made numerous threats over YouTube to kill FBI agents, members of the LGBTQ community, President Joe Biden and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.    

The arrest was announced U.S. Attorney Dawn N. Ison. who joined in the announcement by James A. Tarasca, special agent in charge of the FBI Detroit Field Office.

According to the criminal complaint, Randall Robert Berka II, 30, of Sebewaing, Mich., was illegally in possession of four firearms, three long guns and a pistol, after he had been committed to a mental institution and while he was a daily user of marijuana. Berka also was in possession of ammunition and body armor. 

The firearms were previously purchased for Berka by a relative who now feared that his mental health treatment was not working and was scared of Berka. The relative cooperated with FBI agents in securing the complaint.

The Detroit Free-Press reported:

“The case involves a 30-year-old Sebawaing resident named Randall Robert Berka II, whose mother bought him three long guns and a pistol over the last year despite his history of mental illness. He was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment in 2012 and declared legally incapacitated by the state of Michigan, which prohibited him from owning a gun, according to the criminal complaint.

The mother, however, eventually feared her son’s mental health treatment was not working and grew scared of him — so much so that she cooperated with the FBI in securing criminal charges against her son this week, authorities said.”

The complaint further provides that Berka came to the attention of the FBI after Google reported to the agency that Berka was posting various threats on YouTube. Among other statements, Berka posted the following: “I’m going to kill these Democrats. Biden deserves to die,” “I’m gonna kill LGBT freaks,” “You could be like me and get guns and threaten to kill politicians. I’m more than willing to kill Whitmer and I do live in Michigan,” “I’ll assault her … with my bullets” and “I buy guns though and plot to kill people.”

The FBI arrested Berka at his residence March 9. He will make his initial appearance in U.S. District Court today in Bay City, Mich. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will be asking the court to hold Berka in pretrial detention because of his danger to the community and the risk that he will flee.         

“We will take immediate action when we learn of individuals illegally possessing firearms and threatening to harm or kill others,” said Ison. “I applaud Google’s vigilance in this matter, and we hope members of the community will, likewise, pay attention and report such conduct to law enforcement.”

“This defendant’s actions were very alarming,” said Tarasca. “When free speech crosses a line and becomes a threat of violence against another — aggravated by the illegal possession of firearms — the full investigative resources of the FBI will be brought to bear. As always, we encourage the public to be vigilant and report concerning behavior to the FBI and local law enforcement.”

Berka faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. 

The case is being investigated by FBI special agents and is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Vance.

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Michigan

Mich. House passes landmark LGBTQ rights bill

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expected to sign measure

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(Bigstock photo)

The Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, Senate Bill 4, has passed in both the Michigan House Judiciary Committee and in the state’s House of Representatives on Wednesday. This bill would expand statewide nondiscrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill now heads to the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk, where it is expected to be signed into law, making it the first time in more than three years since any U.S. state has passed similar nondiscrimination protections. 

Once signed, Michigan will become the 22nd state to codify nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

In an email, Equality Michigan, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, lauded the action by lawmakers noting:

“For our community, today is a day of triumph and a day of relief. The Michigan Legislature is sending a loud and clear bipartisan message: LGBTQ+ people are entitled to the same dignity, rights and protections as all Michiganders.

Equality Michigan and its predecessors have fought for decades to bring the LGBTQ+ community under the protection of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Generations of courageous community leaders and grassroots organizing created the path forward, and we are proud that today, history has been made.”

“It is with great enthusiasm that I celebrate Michigan’s vital step toward equality and justice for all,” said Buzz Thomas, chair of Equality Michigan and former Senate Democratic Floor Leader.

“Today’s passing of the amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act will help ensure future generations of LGBTQ+ youth and their families, that they will have a fair opportunity to earn a living, feel safe in their communities, and have access to the necessities one needs to build a better life. This is something everyone in our state deserves.”

“Today is a big step for equality and sends a powerful message to LGBTQ+ Michiganders that discrimination has no home in our state. Michigan now joins alongside 21 other states who have sent this same message to their own LGBTQ communities and codified these protections into law,” said Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott. “Today’s victory would not have been possible without years of hard work from generations of courageous leaders. We are witnessing a sea change toward equality, bringing us closer to a future where everyone is treated equally under the law, no matter our gender, the color of our skin, how we worship, or who we love.”

“LGBTQ people — like all people — deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and to live life free from discrimination. By codifying nondiscrimination protections into state law, Michigan brings us one step closer to creating a society where LGBTQ young people never have to fear being turned away from a business or told they cannot participate in an activity or enter a public space just because of who they are or who they love,” said Trevor Project Advocacy Campaign Manager Gwen Stembridge. “We thank and honor the years of hard work of our fellow advocates, community leaders, and partners like Equality Michigan, who led the way to where we are today. Amid the ongoing legislative attacks on LGBTQ communities, especially trans youth, this proactive law is a beacon of hope and optimism.”

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