Between Ourselves: Rebekah Warren

BY Crystal A. Proxmire

Rebekah Warren is the Michigan State Senator for the 18th District. As an ally, she has pushed for amending the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBT people, as well as equality in adoption laws. Prior to working as a lawmaker she served as executive director of MARAL Pro-Choice Michigan for seven years, where she urged the board of directors to join the Coalition for a Fair Michigan, which organized field efforts and educated voters to oppose the 2004 ballot proposal to ban same-sex marriage.

Since then, she has received the Millie Award from the National Women's Political Caucus, the Legislator of the Year Award from the Michigan Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) as well as Progress Michigan's Progressive State Representative Cherry Award. She has also been active in the national non-profit Women in Government (WIG), and served as the Michigan state director for the Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL).

1. Why have you been such a passionate supporter of equality?

I believe in LGBT equality for the same reasons I believe in gender equality and racial equality - we are all people and we deserve the same respect and the same rights afforded to others. It's really that simple for me.

Beyond the ethical considerations though, I also think that Michigan is losing out economically with our regressive LGBT policies. We are creating a state that is unattractive to young people, to diverse families, and to employers who want to properly provide for their workers. As more and more states continue to pass equality legislation, we are falling behind, and it seriously impacts all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity.

2. Do you remember who was the first LGBT person to have an impact on your thinking and worldview?

I have lived in Ann Arbor for 23 years, but grew up in Owosso, Michigan, about 40 minutes northeast of Lansing. In high school, I had a friend who struggled with being gay in a small town and the challenges she confronted really made an impression on me. Up to that point, I had not seen the burden that comes with feeling you have to hide a part of yourself, or the fear of rejection by family and friends that can be associated with coming out. Her experience is another reason I am such a passionate supporter of equality.

3. What made you decide to go into politics?

When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to play percussion in the marching band; I had played piano since I was young and decided the drums would be a good new challenge for me. I asked the band director and he flippantly replied, "Girls don't play the drums." I went home and told my mother the story and she promptly went up to the school to speak to the director. Long story short, I was the first woman to play percussion in the Owosso High School marching band.

That experience illustrated to me that we didn't have to accept things as they were; we could push for change, however seemingly small, and make a difference in people's everyday lives. Those are the goals I work to meet as a legislator.

4. What bills have you introduced that specifically affect the LGBT community, and can you explain them briefly?

In both the House and Senate, I have sponsored legislation to add sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, assuring that no one is denied housing or employment based on whom they love. I have also worked closely with the Coalition for Adoption Rights Equality to introduce a bill to provide for second parent adoption rights, so that all parents may be legally recognized under the law.

For the last three sessions, I have also sponsored and co-sponsored Matt's Safe School Law, which required our public schools to implement policies that prohibit harassment and keep all of our children safe. Recognizing that LGBT children and teens are particularly vulnerable to the alarming increase in school bullying, my version of the bill specifically prohibited harassment based on a pupil's actual or perceived religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, height, weight, gender identity, socioeconomic status, or any other distinguishing characteristic.

5. Having been in Lansing, have you gained any insight into why some politicians are so fervently opposed to LGBT equality?

I think what we see in Lansing, and in Washington, is that unfortunately the establishment is sometimes slow to catch up to the people. Recent polls have shown that support for same-sex marriage has grown at a phenomenal rate, but I feel there is still a perception amongst some of my colleagues that there will be political repercussions if they vote for equality legislation. I am always hopeful with each new session that attitudes will have changed and there will be a resolve in Lansing to move forward, but the current political landscape makes me think this may be one of those instances where the people will have to lead the leaders.

6. What advice do you have for BTL readers who are frustrated with the fighting in Lansing or the slowness of the political process?

My advice is not to let that frustration stop you from engaging in the political process and communicating with our public officials. It may not feel like it all of the time, but I believe the 2012 election showed that we are indeed making progress.

Here in Michigan, Democrats not only secured strong victories for President Barack Obama and Senator Debbie Stabenow, but we picked up five seats in the State House of Representatives. Nationally, three states - Maine, Maryland, and Washington - all approved same-sex marriage by popular vote for the first time in history. Minnesota also became the second state to reject a statewide constitutional ban on same-sex marriage at the ballot box.

These victories confirm what all of the polls have been telling us - that peoples' attitudes are truly evolving, and when we work to educate them and share our personal stories, we make great gains. While we may be frustrated at times, we must continue to make our voices heard, both in Lansing and in our everyday lives.

To learn more about State Senator Warren, visit her website at http://www.rebekahwarren.com.
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