Q&A with New EQMI Board Member Buzz Thomas

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

Former State Senator Buzz Thomas was added to Equality Michigan's board of directors in January to strengthen the work of the organization as the LGBT and allied communities of Michigan continue to build the path towards expanding statewide non-discrimination laws.

"The political fight for LGBT rights is more important than ever and I'm honored to join an organization that is leading that work in Michigan," said Thomas. "I look forward to using my experience at navigating the rough and tumble world of policy and politics to help make equality under the law a reality."

He started Thomas Group Consulting where he helps manage relationships for his clients, how they interact and relate to businesses, government leaders and the community in general in the city of Detroit. He is known for his vast network of government relationships. Thomas spent 14 years serving as Democratic Floor Leader in the Senate and as Democratic Leader in the House. He was co-chairman of the 2008 Michigan Presidential campaign of Barack Obama. In 2013, he founded and co-chaired Turnaround Detroit, the Super PAC (politcal action committee) credited with electing Mike Duggan Detroit's Mayor.

Thomas spoke briefly with BTL about his experience working in the Michigan legislature, what he hopes to accomplish on the EQMI board, and how the community can help.

Why did you choose to join Equality Michigan's board?

I had the opportunity to join a number of boards for non-profit organizations, which I really enjoy. Giving back means a great deal to me. I've been watching Equality Michigan kind of reassert itself and reengage in a process of advocacy. I was asked by Jim Murray to consider joining the board after talking with Steph White for a long time, and decided this is something that would be an exciting opportunity.

How do you know the organization's new board chair, Jim Murray?

Jim and I met while serving in the legislature. I've had a professional relationship with him for a long time and trust his political wisdom and wanted to be supportive of his leadership.

What was attractive to you about joining a board with multiple political perspectives?

I think it's important now given the tone of American politics - which can be very negative and everyone's looking to blame someone for something - it seemed easier for the LGBT community to be singled out and picked on. It seemed to me that now is the time to become active and be an activist. If not now, when? And now was the time.

Having served in the state legislature, maybe you can lend an ear to how frustrating it has been historically with a red majority in place to make things happen?

I remember introducing, in the early 2000s, the first anti-bullying bill based off of legislation called the Dignity for All Students Act, which kind of started on the West Coast and it was really designed to protect gay kids, even those kids that are perceived to be gay. Seeing it go nowhere for so many years - and it took ten years for what should be a simple layup piece of legislation to ever make it through the Michigan legislature - just kind of puts you on notice that you really do have to work intentionally and work hard, and understand there are plenty of people in society that will judge negatively simply because of one's sexual orientation. It's disgusting and wrong and it can be very frustrating. I do appreciate that Equality Michigan is really trying to understand that there are advocates and leaders and allies in both political parties and figuring out a way to make both political parties work together.

Given the heightened state of concern in our community - basic civil rights are being destroyed and there is a lot of fear - what tactics or strategies are you thinking about applying while on the board?

It's important for Equality Michigan to fundraise, to organize and to build a network of support across the state. Not just Detroit-based. Not just Lansing-based. We need to remind people that there are gay people in every community and as an organization we need to be very visible and continue to work that way. There have been some great successes with a number of local communities passing ordinances that support the LGBT community. We need to continue that work and be as active as possible, and when opportunities present themselves at the state level, we need to work tirelessly to ensure that the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act includes us.

What do you think the community can do to help?

The community needs to support Equality Michigan and Equality Michigan needs to do a better job of speaking to the community and leaders within the community - those that have been political and those that have never been political - need to engage whether it be grassroots organizing and the supporting of campaigns or promoting victims rights and advocacy that way. We all need to lock arms together and say that we will stand together and we will win together.


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