Should Michiganders be free to love in 2021 without discrimination? Kalamazoo thinks so, and this leader is on the frontlines.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A southwest Michigan college town is in a fight for the rights and dignity of its LGBTQ residents. The latest round of that fight, led by City Commissioner Erin Knott, might change the lives of Michiganders across the state. 

In February, the business group Southwest Michigan First found itself up against a number of City of Kalamazoo groups. Southwest Michigan First, which seeks to promote business interests in the region, made a hiring decision that ran counter to the community’s values, Knott explained to The ‘Gander: They hired former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), the hire in question, campaigned on his opposition to LGBTQ Michiganders. 

He resisted expanding Michigan’s civil rights legislation to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. 

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Just days after Chatfield’s came on board, the City of Kalamazoo left Southwest Michigan First and took with it the $10,000 in annual funding. Chatfield resigned from the position to which he was just hired. 

But for Knott, Chatfield’s resignation didn’t end the story—it ignited a conversation she thinks Michiganders are ready to have about the civil rights of their LGBTQ neighbors. 

“The Southwest Michigan First situation only drummed up more energy, communication, people scratching their heads saying, ‘What, you mean you can be discriminated against here in Michigan in 2021 simply because of who you are and who you love?’ And the answer is, unfortunately, yes,” Knott told The ‘Gander. “So join the movement and help us change it once and for all.”

Why She Takes Pride in Kalamazoo

Representing Kalamazooians makes this fight a natural one for Knott. Kalamazoo has a long and proud history of standing up for its LGBTQ residents. Kalamazoo activists passed a local nondiscrimination ordinance over a decade ago, and even before then Knott said her community had been supportive. To exemplify this, Knott told a story about interacting with Kalamazoo’s Borgess Hospital in the 1990s. 

“I was in a relationship, I was a young professional, and my partner at the time had to undergo brain surgery,” Knott said. “I remember my mom talking to me about how scared she was not only for the surgery but my experience in the hospital system, the setting trying to support my partner and whether or not I’d be let in.”

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At the time, protections that would ensure the right of Knott to support her partner didn’t yet exist. But Knott’s experience was better than her mother feared and than she expected. 

“I didn’t have the scary experience, the worst of the worst experiences that all too often happen to LGBTQ families and partners when they go through the nightmare of a health crisis,” she explained. “That was one experience early, early on in my young professional life when I’d just seen Kalamazoo wrap its arms around the broader community.”

Now, Knott has owned her house for 15 years, lived in Kalamazoo since 1993, and planted deep roots in a community that supported and accepted her. And she wants to ensure that all Michiganders have access to the fairness and equality Kalamazoo has guaranteed it’s citizens for more than a decade. 

She’s Leading a Statewide Fight

Knott drew attention to attempts to reform the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to include protections for Michganders regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. There are a few ways to add those protections, said Knott. 

State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) is leading a legislative effort to protect LGBTQ Michiganders in the Legislature, alongside state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield). The idea already has bipartisan support. That would be the most straightforward way of expanding Elliott-Larsen.

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But there also is a proposal aiming to let Michiganders vote on extending those rights in 2022 sponsored by Fair and Equal Michigan. While it would take longer, the number of roads to the same goal makes Knott think it’s an inevitability. 

“We have the Moss-Pohutsky legislative pushes, and then you have the Fair and Equal petitions,” Knott explained. “Over 76% of Michiganders support amending ELCRA, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression.”