Dana Nessel won’t quit fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community
The mother of a teenage girl beat and kicked her daughter while shouting anti-gay slurs after finding a love letter she had exchanged with another girl.
A man pulled a gun on a 23-year-old Detroit man while yelling homophobic insults and recorded the incident with his cell phone camera, which he later posted on his Twitter feed.
A 19-year-old man was shot twice while trying to escape from a meeting with an online predator, who shouted anti-gay invectives as he fired his gun at the fleeing victim.
These are but a few of the vicious crimes committed against people in the local LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community, a violent trend reflected across the country.
According to FBI statistics gathered in 2015, nearly a fifth of the 5,462 reported “single-bias hate crimes” were attributed to the sexual orientation of the target. The same study showed LGBTQ people are twice as likely as African-Americans to be victimized, and that hate crimes against this population have surpassed those committed against Jews.
When attorney and civil rights advocate Dana Nessel, 47, learned about the growing number of violent crimes committed against members of the LGBTQ community, she decided to turn her outrage into action.
A conversation with her former boss, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, about the rise in LGBTQ hate crimes confirmed Nessel’s determination to find a solution. The result was the Fair Michigan Justice Project (FMJP), a collaboration between Fair Michigan, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. The goal of this collaboration is to prosecute perpetrators of homicides and other capital offenses committed against members of the LGBTQ community.
So far, there have been five convictions, with five more pending, plus two criminal sexual conduct cases that include a serial rapist who had been targeting victims inside and outside the LGBTQ community.
“You stem the violence by successfully prosecuting [the perpetrators],” Nessel said. “It sends a message. I know this is a way to stem the violence, make the community safer.”
FMJP’s special prosecutor Jaimie Powell Horowitz, a former assistant prosecutor, and special investigator Vicki Yost, a former Inkster police chief and deputy chief for the Detroit Police Department, work in conjunction with Worthy and her staff to bring about justice by charging and convicting the perpetrators of these violent crimes, especially those cases where victims or witnesses were previously afraid to come forward.
“People who would never have called the police are coming to us,” said Nessel, who serves as president of the organization in addition to being a partner in the Downtown Detroit firm of Nessel & Kessel Law. “I give great credit to Kym Worthy. I don’t know anywhere else in the country with a task force for this.”
Start-up funds for the Fair Michigan Justice Project were provided by a generous donation from the Hertz Schram law firm, based in Detroit and Bloomfield Hills. Lisa Stern, family law attorney at the firm who has handled a number of same-sex custody cases, joined FMJP as a board member and enthusiastic volunteer.
Stern agrees that making the criminal justice system more accessible to LGBTQ victims is crucial to stopping the staggering number of hate crimes against this population.
“The real issue is the victims were not trusting the system,” she said. “They felt victimized by the people who were supposed to be protecting them. That’s why this program is so important. It’s an incredible organization.”
Special prosecutor Powell Horowitz calls the project a “mitzvah” for cash-strapped Wayne County, an innovative way to prosecute hate crimes that would not otherwise get reported or solved. When Nessel approached her with the idea, the former Wayne County prosecutor was eager to get involved.
“These are horrific, violent crimes; there was such a need for this,” she said. “Now they [the victims] can come to one person who handles their case from start to finish, so they have an advocate. I’m really thankful to be doing this.”
Educating and training law enforcement employees to create awareness and improve understanding of the LGBTQ community is an important component of the program. The connections forged by Yost, also former head of vice for the Detroit Police Department, have helped enhance the organization’s relationship with the law enforcement community, which has been receptive to the project.
“It is my hope and expectation that the support and success of the FMJP continues to prove that a private/public partnership of this type can forward the interest of justice while enhancing police/community relations and be the model for similar programs across the country,” Yost said.
Language is a big part of the training. “Language matters. The words you use when you speak to someone matter,” said Powell Horowitz, explaining that some officers want to help but simply did not know how to approach this population effectively.
“Through our relationships with the police, we’ve been able to facilitate the reporting of crimes and reach out to officers we know are diligent and will work with these people.”
Nessel is no stranger to advocating for the rights of LGBTQ individuals; she was one of the lead attorneys on the landmark case involving nurses April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, which was heard by Eastern District Judge Bernard Friedman and went on to become one of the cases resulting in the momentous U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Following that history-making announcement, while a rainbow light display illuminated the White House and celebrations were held throughout the country, Nessel realized it was no time to rest on her laurels.
She described her reaction on the Monday following the Supreme Court decision, when several same-sex couples who had previously been married in other states went to their workplaces to apply for benefits for their now-legal spouses.
“Many were fired on the spot,” she said. “I was horrified … This [the Supreme Court decision] was a great achievement, but we still had a long way to go and this fight is not over.”
Nessel explains the main issue is the absence of protection under Michigan state law for people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity; neither the Michigan constitution nor the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on these factors. While current civil rights laws include the categories of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight and marital status, the Michigan Constitution is even less inclusive, offering protections based only on religion, race, color and national origin. Without such protections, gay, lesbian or transgender individuals have no legal recourse against discrimination under Michigan law.
Nessel cited the example of two people who were evicted from their apartment when the landlord learned they were a same-sex couple. The pair had no choice but to leave their home and had no legal grounds for a discrimination lawsuit.
“It’s very frustrating,” Nessel said.
Nessel first sought to remedy the situation by initiating a ballot proposal to amend the Michigan constitution — namely Article I, Section 2, the equal protection clause, which forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, race, color or national origin.
When that didn’t happen, she decided to start Fair Michigan, an organization whose mission is “to secure equal protection under the law based on gender, gender identity, sex and sexual orientation,” language that is similar to the ballot proposal Nessel sought to introduce. The Fair Michigan Justice Project was an outgrowth of that organization.
“I decided to stop complaining about other organizations and start my own … to do what we could to assist these marginalized classes,” Nessel said. “There was real fear out there in the community.”
As a Jewish woman and a member of the LGBTQ community, Nessel says she feels a moral imperative to fight discrimination against marginalized minorities.
“I see a connection personally between my faith and civil rights work in general,” Nessel says. “I’ve seen a lot of parallels in terms of how Jews and LGBTQ people have been treated. It’s really incumbent upon us to help other minority groups who are being oppressed. It’s a responsibility we have; we lose our right to righteous indignation if we don’t help others.”
Nessel believes hate crimes are enabled by the lack of legal protection for certain minorities, and by political leaders who mock and degrade members of minority groups.
“We have an ethnic intimidation statute in Michigan, but what’s particularly egregious is that LGBTQ people are specifically excluded when they’re most likely to be victims of hate crimes,” she said.
Nessel likens the current myths about transgender people to the “blood libel” tales that circulated in European countries, where people believed Jews drank the blood of sacrificed gentile children.
“Flash forward to now, people are saying transgender people want to molest people in [public] bathrooms,” Nessel said. “There is not one documented case of this; not only are they [transgender individuals] not predators, they are victims.”
She believes Jewish people have always played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, proudly citing the three Jewish U. S. Supreme Court justices who agreed with the decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
“It makes me very proud to be Jewish,” she said.
The highlight of Nessel’s career was her appearance as a representative of the DeBoer case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.
“It was incredible, an amazing experience,” she said. “I don’t think people can really appreciate it, to see all nine of them appear before you … it was like meeting Oz behind the curtain. It was electrifying.”
The case was significant to Nessel on a personal as well as a professional level. During that trial she met her future wife, Alanna Maguire, who was working on the case as a project manager. The couple got engaged on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court and were married by Friedman in his Downtown federal courtroom.
At the b’nai mitzvot of their adopted twins, which took place at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, the sermon was about obtaining equal rights, with a focus on the importance of equal protection under the law.
“Not a day goes by in my life when I don’t feel the impact of Judge Friedman’s decision,” Nessel said. “I’m very, very grateful to Judge Friedman.”
While the main goal of the Fair Michigan Justice Project is to prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes, the organization also engages in advocacy, education, and outreach activities regarding LGBTQ and men’s and women’s civil rights throughout Michigan.
The group hopes to expand the law enforcement outreach program to include a training program on women’s and LGBTQ issues that can be used across the state with law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.
A faith outreach program is also in the works, designed to bring together leaders from various religious organizations to spread the message about LGBTQ rights, and the importance of fair and equal treatment for all human beings.
Another innovation was the announcement of a new Transgender Interaction Policy that requires employees in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office to treat transgender, intersex and gender-nonconforming individuals in a manner appropriate to the individual’s gender identity, even when that differs from the sex identified at birth or listed on official identification documents such as a driver’s license or birth certificate.
Other projects Nessel and her colleagues are excited about include assisting indigent petitioners seeking domestic PPOs (Personal Protection Orders).
“It’s hard for these people to navigate the system. We’re trying to come up with a program,” said Nessel, who also wants to help combat job discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. “They often don’t get past an initial job interview; we’re trying to find employers who will not discriminate.”
Nessel retains her long-term goal of amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act or initiating another ballot proposal to amend the Michigan constitution.
“We could put Band-Aids on other issues; we can try to help this community, but we’re limited by confines of law — there is no legal protection. I think it’s something our state ought to be very embarrassed about. Business leaders agree it’s bad for our economy. Young people don’t want to live here, corporations want the best and brightest. Some of the best and brightest happen to be LGBTQ.”
Ronelle Grier Contributing Writer
Photos by Brett Mountain