Interview with Julie Nemecek, a lobbyist with Michigan Equality (an LGBT Interest Group), was conducted on October 28 in the Burger King at 505 E Saginaw St, Lansing, MI.
Sean VanderWaal: Can you tell me about your background, such as educational and occupational?
Julie Nemecek: Yes, I have a master's in Divinity and a PhD in education. I've worked for twenty years as a minister before going into higher education. I'm a transsexual, and when I transitioned I lost my job in Spring Arbor University with my public display and did over a hundred media interviews in 2007. A lot of that pushed me into activism. I've been doing lobbying on my own but also at Michigan Equality where I've been employed for some time. I'm a registered lobbyist.. Q: Ok. Can I ask what your dissertation was?
A: My dissertation was on adult learners and degree completion programs and development related to that....It had a rather long title, but that's the best description for it [laughs].
Q: Can you take me through a typical day as a lobbyist?
As a lobbyist you can be anything from boring tracking of information like when you want to have a vote count on an issue concerned with you. Or it can be meeting with representatives...more typically you're meeting with staff members but that's ok because most of the time they'll get further. Sometimes you get calls from a legislature that say "I need to be brought up to speed on this subject. Can you meet with us?"
A: So that happens at the state level. I've done some lobbying in DC as well. There they're more up to speed in the issues and it's more trying to convince them to vote one way or the other. In fact, I have a real interest in tomorrow--President Obama will be signing the Hate Crimes bill, which is the first time sexual orientation and gender identity have been included in the bill
And I was in DC at the end of April. I was there in part to give an award to John Conyers for pushing this in the House for so many years and Michigan as well. I was there to do it and I ended up giving it to one of his staffers--his chief legal counselor, because he was involved in a caucus. And then I was lobbying the next day, meeting with Mark Schauer, the Representative from my district as well as meeting with both Senators Stabenow and Levin. We were focusing mostly on the House because that's where the vote was. And then, the very next day it was voted on and passed. So it was kind of fun to be there when it happened because that doesn't happen too often when you're lobbying. A lot of times you're lobbying and have no idea how the vote is going to go.
Q: I understand that there is a bill in the Michigan legislature about the same thing--an anti-hate crimes bill...
A: Yeah, it's not going to go anywhere. It'll get through the House maybe; it hasn't passed. Currently in the Senate there are a handful of people that are just homophobic and their positions allow them to prevent these issues from being brought to a vote. So the House will pass the bill and it will get to the Senate and just die. Which is unfortunate.
Q: What are some of your successes?
A: The Hate Crimes Bill was obviously one of them.
Q: ...I understand the Second Parent Adoption legislation was passed recently.
A: In the House. That one might have a better chance in the Senate because it's not as explicitly LGBT related because it has to do with single parents, live in friend, divorcee, widowed mom. It probably won't get a vote in the Senate, though I hope it does and I hope it passes. I have a number of friends who are gay and have adopted kids and there are so many kids that need adoption. There's loving homes needing to adopt them...why would you make it more difficult to adopt them?
I don't remember the name of the senator, I mean congressman, in the US House, but this congressman has proposed a bill that banned funding to states that prohibited second parent adoption. Which is kind of interesting, coming at it from a whole different perspective.
Q: What are some of your low points or failures?
A: The frustration with the political system in Michigan in the current time where Republicans won't even let things be discussed in the Senate. And having some bills repealed at the local level. We even do lobbying at the municipality and township level and we've had some real successes there. There are 17 cities now in Michigan that have human rights ordinance that protect transgendered people from discrimination. So really about 20% of LGBT Michigan is protected from discrimination. The real irony is that in February the Department of Corrections issued a new policy that prohibited discrimination amongst gay and lesbian inmates and transgendered inmates. So you get more protection inside prison than you do on the outside from discrimination. It seems so strange [laughs].
Q: What are some of the tactics you use?
A: It varies. We really don't have a lot of leverage with Congress other than information. Once they know they have a significant number of people interested in something, then those votes are important to them too. And helping them understand that the LGBT population is about 10% of the voting population in Michigan, and they do vote for candidates that support their issues. It helps make more people sensitive to the issue. At the municipal level, the tactics are having to fight public referendums or the municipal council is taking action on the voter referendum to undo those actions. Kalamazoo has now a measure on the ballot for next Tuesday that would undo a city council ordinance that passed. It's probably going to be defeated, but it's involved a lot of campaigning, a lot of money in television and radio. Similar to what's happening in Maine, where they're having a referendum that would undo a state legislators [inaudible]. Very often once it gets to that level, it becomes an advertisement war as much as anything. But we'll also use phone banks, trying to get people to support issues or candidates. For the general election, we'll be using the phone banks to call out people to vote for a certain candidate and issue out lists of likely voters who may support our issues. Michigan Equality in the past has donated money to candidates who are supportive of our issues. We have both a 501 C 3 organization, which is an educational organization, and a 501 C 4 organization, which is a PAC. They can go and pick candidates.
Q: Do you also go and talk to community leaders?
A: We do, I've been directly involved in the efforts in Jackson, I live not too far from there, and met with the Human Relations Commission there and drafted a very good ordinance that was defeated 5-2. They thought they had the support 4-3 but on the night of the vote there were people lined up against it, mostly on the religious perspective. The mayor even went so far as to say he was going to vote against it because it was against the church he goes to.
Q: Is that one of your biggest roadblocks? Half the state is very religious, and do you run up against the religious argument against all LGBT issues?
A: Most all of the political action against LGBT issues originates with religious organizations. American Family Association in Michigan is really a front for a religious organization. And in Kalamazoo, almost all of the opposition is religious based. Which is unfortunate, because as an ordained minister, I fail to see where the Christian religion or the Jewish religion or Islam support hate as a virtue. All the world religions talk about inclusion and love. Sometimes it's sad that practice does not follow it.
Q: And when you tell that to people, it just falls on deaf ears?
A: Sometimes, sometimes you get through. Some of what I've done is speaking at churches. Two Sundays ago I spoke at First Congregational Church in Jackson. And I challenged them to become open and affirming church. They are an inclusive church, but they are not explicitly an open and affirming church, one that is welcoming of LGBT people. That's needed because a lot of LGBT people would all come but then realize they aren't accepted. LGBT people are people of faith; a recent P.T. Barnum poll showed that 60 % of [LGBT] people said their faith was very important to them but only 28%, said they are part of any church [or religious organizations]. In part from the difficulty in finding a church, in part from being wounded too many times by people of religion. Even people in the western part of the state, things are starting to change. Major denominations are starting to change; most recently an Evangelical church, the Lutheran Church of America took the position that local churches could have an ordained minister marry a gay couple. The Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches will be there soon. They get closer every year on the vote. There's a huge shift taking place and some of it has to do with age demographics. For LGBT issues, if you're over 65, its 80% opposed 20% in favor. If you're under 25, it 80% in favor and 20% opposed.
But you know, you're seeing more and more states pass legislation that's inclusive, and here in Michigan we're doing it at the municipalities. Kalamazoo is seen as a conservative area and Grand Rapids has a civil rights ordinance that is inclusive of LGBT people. And that's the heart of conservative Michigan.
Q: Wow, that's where I'm from, so that's definitely surprising.
A: We used to live in Kentwood and I have a son that lives in Grandville.
Q: Yeah, I lived in the northern part of Grand Rapids. Are there any other challenges to the LGBT movement other than religion?
A: Well, I think part of it is understanding. Ten, fifteen years ago very few people understood gays and lesbians, in part because they didn't know any gay or lesbian people. Now when I speak at universities, I'll ask the audience "How many of you know someone who is gay or lesbian?" and almost everybody will raise their hand. And once you know someone, it's a lot easier to let that hate go. And where transgendered are now is where gays were ten years ago, in terms of not realizing the medical nature of it--its something you're born with, it's not a choice. I think it's that education, the information, that will shift people's hearts and minds. So a lot of what we're doing is information sharing, in terms of helping people understand. So I speak at a lot of colleges and universities, campuses, different classes, different functions. I often talk about transitions and help people understand it.
Q: This next question almost seems like a no-brainer, but who are your typical opponents?
A: [laughs] The far right, which I believe is far wrong. Its where most of the activism comes from. Occasionally you'll get someone who says something along the lines of "I'm in favor of that, but not now" and usually when that happens ill remind them of what Martin Luther King talked of the "fierce urgency of now" in his 'I have a dream' speech and was said in one of his letters from Birmingham Jail. He also talked of the tranquilizing drug of gradualism, and we can't go there. So I'll push people and say if not now, when? Equality is not something people should have to wait for. It should be an inalienable right as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence says.
That's where most of the opposition comes from. There are some conservative democrats, or democrats from conservative faith positions, but in general it follows party lines quite a bit. Not exclusively, but quite a bit.
Q: How far does the analogy of LGBT movement of today is like the Civil Rights movement of the '60s?
A: I think it's a fair analogy. I think a lot of arguments that are being used against LGBT people are the same as the arguments against abolition, against women's right to vote, and against civil rights for blacks, even the arguments against people with disabilities. People believe that God intended for it to be that way and no one should change it. During the Civil War there were people on both sides using the bible to support their position. One of our former presidents called Susan B. Anthony a 'tool of the devil' for her advocacy. So that kind of hate language has been with us a long time. I think the analogy is a good one. Civil rights are civil rights, and the tactics that are used to delay or deny civil rights have been with us for a couple hundred years.
The one thing I would say further is that more and more African Americans are accepting that understanding. For a while there was a disconnect between people of color and LGBT issues. There was some anger at appropriating some of their language and some of their terms, but I think that has passed for the most part.
Q: A few weeks ago there was a massive LGBT rally on the Mall of Washington D.C. on a Saturday and I noticed that the following week there was very little media coverage the event.
A: It was covered very briefly; estimates I've seen vary between 150,000-250,000. That's a ton of people. But you know, the same will happen here, we'll have a rally at the steps of the capital, and we'll have several thousand people and it gets hardly any press coverage at all.
I don't think there's a media bias but I do think that the media is sensitive, or perhaps oversensitive, to those who complain that these issues are getting too much coverage, so they bend over backward to avoid that.
Q: Do you think that the equality movement has been too distracted by the need for the gay marriage clause?
A: I think that gay the marriage effort is part of the civil rights movement. I do think that in some situations it can be a distraction; even in Kalamazoo with the equal employment and housing clause, the opponents try to use the argument that this is the path to gay marriage, which is totally not in the bill in any way, shape, or form. I think it's easier for the opponents of civil rights to use that against civil rights people, but yes, I think it can have a negative impact. I think if pushed, most people would say discrimination in employment, hate crimes, shouldn't happen. Marriage is a whole different issue. Which is why to a certain extent you see the passage of the hate crimes bill in the senate. And it's probably going to be closer and probably wouldn't have a chance at passing at all if they tried to undo the defense of marriage act in the current makeup of the senate. So it is an issue that is more divisive than civil rights or hate crimes. So yeah, it can get in the way. But those in the civil rights movement can't walk away from it either. Supreme Court decision if you haven't read that you should it's about 63 pages. It shoots down every argument that the opponents of gay marriage put up and even raised one of its own about religion. They hadn't used religion as reason, but the Supreme Court raised it and said there are people of equal fervor and faith on both sides of the issue. Our job as a supreme court is to allow equal access to all of our citizens and the privileges that belong to everyone. It was a unanimous decision. It was very well written, and what it did was remind us that marriage is a civil right.
The one place where there is the most egregious violation of the separation of church and state is in marriage because there a minister or a rabbi acts as an agent of the state to perform a civil union. It takes place in a church and then you get your marriage license from town hall. So that so called separation between church and state doesn't exist in marriage.
Q: In 2004, there was a petition that was passed that banned gay marriage. Do you think that there's any way that MI will overturn it?
A: I think it'll happen as early as 2012. I don't think it will be brought forward before then, I think if it is repealed, it will be as a voter initiative, a voter referendum and not by act of legislature. What gives me reason to believe that is the trend line all across the country, actual polling data in Michigan that shows significant movement in support of that, and the demographics that I talked about earlier. Younger voters are very much more engaged. If you younger voters get excited about it and participate in the voting process, then yeah, I think it could get overturned as early as 2012. Whether it happens in 2012 or not, I don't know, but it could happen.