Michigan

ACLU dinner honors LGBT project milestone

Honorees raise visibility, dollars for equality

By Kate Opalewski

Change can only occur if people speak out and encourage others to do the same.

People like Allan Gilmour and Eric Jirgens, Stacey Cassis and Dr. Arianna Morales, Howard Israel and Henry Grix have used every opportunity presented them to speak out, take a stand and make a difference.

That's why the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan will honor these couples for their leadership as they commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project during its 2011 Annual Dinner on Nov 5.

The milestone event, held at The Henry Ford Museum, 20900 Oakwood Blvd. in Dearborn, will also honor law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, for their long-standing commitment to pro bono work. The keynote speaker is professor, pundit and author Melissa Harris-Perry, a frequent contributor to MSNBC and guest host of The Rachel Maddow Show.

"Each of the people who we are recognizing has contributed in a very unique and special way. The common factor is that they have supported the program from the outset and valued the ACLU's commitment to LGBT rights and the unique role that it plays in securing rights. We love that these honorees represent an incredible array of professions - university president, interior designer, financial manager, engineer, lawyer, and activist," says Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director.

This recognition is appreciated by activist Israel and his partner, Grix, an estate planning and probate attorney at Dickinson Wright PLLC.

"One teaches by leading and people learn by watching other people. There are a lot of people doing incredible work in the LGBT community who are not being recognized. It's easy for us to write a check, but so many deserve the spotlight and we accept this honor on behalf of all the brave and courageous people rolling up their sleeves to do the hard work that we can't do," said Israel.

For almost 30 years, Israel has helped to raise visibility and funds for a variety of local and national LGBT organizations including Affirmations Gay and Lesbian Community Center, the HOPE Fund and its Racial Equity Initiative, Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund and the Michigan Jewish AIDS Coalition, to name a few.

"We are proud and feel very strongly about the project," Israel said. "Kary is an asset with foresight and fortitude. She has devoted so much time and energy to aid the LGBT community. The ACLU is so steadfastly on our side and the fact that she's keeping this going is what motivates our involvement across the board in all of the LGBT community organizations."

They agree the community has come a long way from 1966 when the ACLU of Michigan formed its first committee to fight for the rights of lesbians and gay men. The mission of the committee was to combat undercover sex sting operations, raids on downtown Detroit gay bars and rampant employment discrimination. Even after the committee dissolved, the ACLU of Michigan continued to fight for full civil rights and equality for LGBT people in the state.

When Moss joined the ACLU of Michigan in 1998, the climate for the LGBT community was strikingly similar to when the first committee formed 32 years prior. No legal protections existed to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, police stings were routine, second parent adoptions are at risk and Proposal 2, Michigan's anti-marriage amendment, looms on the horizon. Hearing the call from community members and allied organizations, the ACLU of Michigan launched its LGBT Project in 2001 with ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project staff attorney Jay Kaplan at the helm.

"I am most grateful to be able to work for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project," said Kaplan. "Over a period of 10 years, I believe that the LGBT community recognizes our program as the legal arm for Michigan's LGBT community - to challenge discriminatory practices and policies that deny LGBT people their fundamental constitutional rights, to educate our leaders and the public regarding the inequalities that LGBT people face, and to work in coalition with other organizations to change policies and practices."

This is one of the many reasons Cassis, assistant vice-president, senior financial advisor, The Spickler Group, Merrill Lynch, and her partner, Dr. Morales, staff research scientist at General Motors R&D Center, commit themselves to the work of the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project.

"We are fortunate to count our fellow nominees among our friends. Working together with them to advance LGBT rights has been a privilege and the foundation for many thought provoking conversations. Being recognized by an organization we value and respect for work we love to do is icing on the cake," Cassis said.

Being recognized is something Gilmour is accustomed to.

"As a university president, you get all sorts of honors, in part because it's a highly visible position," Gilmour told BTL, who was unanimously elected by the Board of Governors in January 2011 to serve as Wayne State University's 11th President. "You learn that you're being honored not just for yourself, but for a big group of people. Though I haven't done anything unusual with the ACLU, it feels good to be honored by an organization that does good things and does good things well."

A retired auto executive, Gilmour was the highest ranking corporate leader in America to come out publicly in 1996. Since then, he has become a leader and major funder of Michigan's LGBT community. Gilmour was a founder and major benefactor to the HOPE Fund at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and his personal foundation, the Gilmour Fund makes grants to local and national LGBT groups.

He and his partner Jirgens, owner of Eric Charles Design in Birmingham, are well-known for their $1 million dollar donation for the new Affirmation's Gay and Lesbian Community Center that was named in their honor in 2007.

Jirgens maintains an active and successful civic life in Michigan as well. This includes his role as the Capital & Endowment Campaign Committee Co-Chair for Affirmations Gay and Lesbian Community Center, Grants Committee Member at the Michigan AIDS Fund, and Advisory Board Member of ACLU Fund of Michigan.

The ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project continues to challenge discrimination in the courts and legislatures, case by case and law by law, to change anti-gay policies. Currently, the ACLU of Michigan is the only organization defending the rights of Michigan's LGBT residents in the courts and one of a handful of organizations with a full-time staff lobbyist in Lansing to promote pro-LGBT legislation. As the ACLU of Michigan litigates and lobbies for change, they also use targeted media and outreach campaigns to change public attitudes while providing advocacy tools to help people take action in their own communities.

Cassis and Dr. Morales plan to continue to help the ACLU of Michigan engage new and more volunteers and donors.

"This work is more than a thought. It requires people's time and people's money to make things happen. The steps to success may seem long and slow. Consistency is the key. The drumbeat of our message needs to be heard frequently by all types of people so they realize someone they know and care about is missing out on some of the freedoms they themselves enjoy because of who they love," says Cassis.

Kaplan added that "tremendous progress has been made nationally in the past 10 years - the right of same-sex couples to marry in five states plus the District of Columbia, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the passage of an LGBT-inclusive federal hate crimes law, the increase in the number of states with LGBT-inclusive civil rights laws and policies, more LGBT couples having and raising children."

Ultimately, the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project plans to eliminate the constitutional amendment that currently bans same-sex marriage or similar unions in Michigan. In the interim, they strive to work to amend Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protection against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression; push for the enactment of anti-bullying legislation that protects LGBT youth; advocate for the full legal rights of same-sex couples to parent; protect state laws that provide confidentiality of HIV status; and support policies to respect the relationships of LGBT seniors.

"While polling demonstrates that a majority of Michiganders are in favor of laws and policies that treat LGBT people fairly, we continue to elect leaders and policy makers who do not share this opinion," says Kaplan. "We need to educate both the public and our leaders about current discriminatory policies and continue to make the case for equality. Every conversation, every encounter is an opportunity to try to change hearts and minds," Kaplan said.

Save the Date

The ACLU annual dinner will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a reception, followed by the program at 7:30 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.aclumich.org.

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