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In Michigan, more gay politicians are serving despite dearth of LGBT legislative victories

Though Michigan continues to lack many legislative victories that are seen as important by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, the state is also seeing the rise of more openly gay elected officials on the local levels.

In 2008, Detroit saw the election of Charles Pugh as Detroit City Council president, making him the first openly gay black man to hold such a post in the country. Ferndale resident Craig Covey became the state’s first openly gay mayor and has since moved to the Oakland County Commission. In Lansing, City Clerk Chris Swope was elected to the Ingham County Commission, then moved into the clerkship.

But this year, the noise on openly gay candidates is reaching new levels. The Advocate, a national LGBT magazine, released a story highlighting five of the country’s up and coming gay politicos. On that list is Rory Neuner, a candidate for a Lansing City Council at-large seat. Neuner’s star is rising fast, and in the capitol city she has created a campaign message around attracting and keeping the high school and college graduates in the area.

There are at least two other openly gay candidates running in Lansing City Council races, and Denis Dison, spokesperson for The Victory Fund, a D.C. based political organization that works with out gay candidates seeking offices across the country, says this is a new trend.

“Last year the Victory Fund endorsed 164 openly LGBT candidates for public office — our largest slate ever. That’s one indication that, indeed, more and more out community leaders are beginning to see public service as a viable career path,” says Dison. “You see that long track record of service and community involvement in a candidate like Rory Neuner, who’s now running for the Lansing City Council. I think in many places LGBT people no longer feel limited to non-elected public service. So we’re beginning to see a lot more who are interested in taking that next step.”

Emily Dievendorf, policy director for Equality Michigan a statewide LGBT political organization, echoes Dison.

“It is wonderful to see more out gay candidates running for local office in Michigan. This is as much a reflection of the commitment of the candidates to community driven change as it is a compliment to the candidates’ communities that the candidate feels safe and supported enough to put themselves in the public eye,” says Dievendorf. “Michigan has never had a shortage of gay public servants and even elected officials, but the biased and hateful public scrutiny often directed at gays, and the devastating affect it can have on the life of a candidate and their family, has provided ample motivation for staying closeted. Fortunately, in recent years we are seeing gay candidates risk a certain amount of alienation in order to ensure that, by being an openly gay candidate, they can clearly demonstrate the integral role gay and transgender individuals play in moving our communities forward. While this is likely a national trend it is all the more remarkable that openly gay candidates are less and less an anomaly in Michigan.”

Rory Neuner says there are many reasons for the rise in openly gay candidates.

“Well, for one, because there’s still serious work to be done — we’re still fighting for equality on a number of levels,” she said. “Second, I think our society is more open and welcoming every day, which is giving openly gay candidates the confidence to get in the game. Third, I think it speaks to the strength of equality organizations across the country that have been working for decades to have a voice in the process.”

Dievendorf agrees that there is much work to be done, pointing to legislation in the state that bars public employers from offering partner benefits, the lack of a statewide law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression and other legislative drawbacks as a reason Michigan has been slow to join the national increase in out gay candidates. But, she says, openly gay candidates are necessary for equality. She points to the recent decision by the Holland City Council, voting 5-4 to reject a comprehensive human rights ordinance.

“Holland is a great example of the impact out candidates could make on every level of government,” she says. “Fair minded Michiganders need to be fighting for basic equal rights at the local and state level simultaneously. Michigan lacks almost any protections for the gay community. We need to ensure that every member of our communities are provided equal access to resources and opportunity as soon as it is achievable. To accomplish this necessary shift in priorities, communities need to know that there is a strong contingent of gay residents in their communities who are paying taxes, running the local small business, patronizing the mom and pop diner, supporting their own families, and working toward the betterment of the community at large.”

Dison concurs.

“The single most important predictor of any individual’s support for LGBT equality under law is whether they have a personal relationship with a coworker, friend or family member who is openly LGBT. That idea is really at the heart of the Victory Fund’s mission. When out officials serve alongside their straight colleagues, they more often than not change opinions about our community and gain allies,” says Dison. “We’ve seen numerous examples of pro-equality legislation passing because lawmakers said they couldn’t vote against their gay or lesbian colleague. Our community is gaining allies because we’re being honest about who we are–to our families, our friends and our employers. It only stands to reason that we will be more successful at changing discriminatory policies and laws if we are also out and serving in the legislative bodies that can make that happen.”

Neuner, however, says that her sexual orientation has not been much of an issue in her race for the Lansing City Council. “Lansing is a diverse city,” she said, “and I am finding that people are more interested in my ideas and enthusiasm than they are anything else.”

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