Zoe Russick Steinfield: Hard conversations
There’s only one problem giving Zoe Russick Steinfield an Inclusion Award, according to Emily Dievendorf, former director of Equality Michigan.
“She’s too humble and she plays her accomplishments down,” Dievendorf said. Dievendorf nominated Steinfield for the award.
Steinfield, 29, is a clinical social worker at the nonprofit Child and Family Charities and a therapist for adolescents and adults struggling with substance abuse disorders.
When a tragedy involving an LGBT student struck a local school, Steinfield arrived on the scene to lead a quick response, volunteering her time to counsel students and staff. She juggled her therapy work to establish a daily drop-in therapy hour for anybody who needed it.
“It’s so typical of her,” Dievendorf said. “She puts herself out there, vulnerable and available, to take on the students’ hurt. And that wasn’t the only time; only the most recent.”
As a therapist, Steinfield helps all kinds of people, but as a trans woman, she informally mentors and advises trans people in the community, especially younger people, who are finding their way in life.
That kind of mentoring is more nuanced than a simple “if I can do this, so can you.”
“When I’m offering a listening ear, or guidance, I have to do it from a place of humility, because a lot of people are facing a lot more barriers than I did,” she said.
Steinfield had a mostly supportive family. Many trans people don’t.
“The basic idea of coming to accept who you are and rejecting what society has planned for you is pretty hard,” she said.
Fortunately, self-acceptance is not just a worthy goal in itself. Steinfield turns it into a potent force multiplier.
“It helps you offer that acceptance to others, and they can pass on that gift to the next people,” she said. “It’s exponential.”
Two issues come up most frequently as Steinfield counsels trans and queer people: finding transition-related health care and helping people find community.
“They’ve lost relationships with their family of origin, so finding a chosen family, a family of belonging, is a huge thing,” Steinfield said.
Fortunately, resources are getting easier to find. “What it feels like being trans here in the Lansing area is so different than a decade ago,” she said. “It’s so much easier to meet other trans people, to talk about being trans.”
If somebody in the community reaches out for help, or if there is organizing happening, Steinfield will gladly dig into her personal time. “But my official role — I have to leave it at work,” she said. “I have to carve out time to engage in the parts of life that give me joy beyond service. I try to maintain a very strict separation between work and home life, which is not as easy as it sounds.”
Fortunately, lots of things give her joy, such as learning guitar and violin, swing dancing, and role-playing games. She has also traveled to some fantastic places, including Madagascar and Kenya.
“I have more hobbies than I have time for,” she said.
Sister Misty Meanor: Drag with a purpose
The first Sunday of every month, at the Hayloft in Detroit, a crowd of regulars basks in the loving abuse of a large, brassy nun named Sister Misty Meanor.
Sister Misty’s alter ego, Shawn Finnerty, described Bad Habits Bingo as “three hours of bingo nonsense and shenanigans,” called by Sister Misty in a “mouthy” manner.
The bingo is campy fun, but Sister Misty is part of an exalted order of missionaries and prefers the term “sister” to “drag queen.”
The “sistory” of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Inc. goes back to San Francisco in 1979. The order uses drag and religious trappings to call out, and satirize, bigotry and intolerance.
The order started as “a little bit of a joke,” Finnerty said, but as the AIDS epidemic ravaged the gay community in the 1990s, the fun got serious, generating chapters in several nations around the world and 47 cities over the United States, including Detroit’s Motor City Sisters, of which Finnerty is a member.
Finnerty, 42, did drag for a while when he was younger but he got bored with it.
“It wasn’t doing anything for me anymore,” he said. He met a few Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence while living in Portland, Oregon.
“I love everything the organization stands for,” he said. The sisters’ mission statement is to “promulgate omniversal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”
They fulfill that magniloquent vow through charity, education, safer sex outreach, anything they can do to help their brothers and sisters and other marginalized people in the community.
“It’s drag with a purpose,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I have an eyelash out of place because it’s not about me, it’s about the community we’re helping.”
At recent demonstrations in support of Drag Queen Story Hour in suburban Detroit, the sisters faced some serious abuse and heckling.
“It can get pretty heavy, but I know what I got myself into and I got myself into it for a reason.”
Soaking up abuse, almost in the tradition of medieval martyrs, comes with the territory. It’s a serious — dare we say holy? — business, despite the wisecracks, and meshes perfectly with Finnerty’s journey to sobriety.
“Sister Misty and the other sisters are a huge part of why I got sober,” he said. “I can’t do my ministry as a sister if I’m wasted and incoherent. I’ve never been wasted as Sister Misty.”
Sister Misty also helps Patrick express the lunar “far side” of his personality.
“I’m not very much into going out, especially since I became sober,” he said. “Sister Misty, on the other hand, is a firecracker. She makes friends with everybody.”
At the order’s 40th anniversary celebration in San Francisco, Finnerty got to meet sisters from all over the world. To his surprise, he found that many of them had been following social media posts on his journey into sobriety and embraced him as a friend.
“It’s a good thing I shellacked my face on, because otherwise I would cry it all off,” he said.
Dr. Peter Gulick: New day, new chapter
Dr. Peter Gulick likes to tell the tale of the “stupid orthopedist” (or S.O.) to dramatize the attitudes he faced in the 1990s, treating patients living with HIV and AIDS. Over 20 years ago, an orthopedist in Gulick’s office came into the break room and scarfed down a piece of coffee cake.
“This is great, who made it?” the S.O. asked.
“One of my patients,” Gulick replied.
The S.O. blanched, rushed to the men’s room and spat the cake out. “What’s going to happen to me?” he pleaded on his return.
“Better be careful. We’re going to have to test you for six months,” Gulick said with a straight face. “In the meantime, no sex with your wife.”
“Oh, I was brutal,” Gulick recalled with a grin.
“What can I say? Some people are just stupid.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. With most people, brutality isn’t Gulick’s style. He sees about 1,000 patients living with HIV at clinics in Lansing, Saginaw and Harrison, the only rural HIV clinic in the state. He’s been on the HIV beat since the 1980s.
“When I started out, it was a bedside deathwatch,” he said. “We’d make the rounds of the HIV patients and residents would say, ‘we’re going to rotate on the morgue.’”
In 1995, newly discovered protease inhibitors were added to a cocktail of treatments, ushering in the “Lazarus period” in HIV. The cocktail has since been refined into a single pill with fewer side effects. Today a person with AIDS can expect to live for 40 years on average; a person with HIV can be expected to live a normal life span.
“It’s incredible how much advancement we’ve learned about the immune system, how viruses interact with human cells,” Gulick said. People with HIV now “can live normal, productive lives. They can have families, they can have children. Babies are born without HIV to an HIV-infected mother as long as she takes the medicine.”
Medicine is advancing toward a “functional cure,” where even dormant reservoirs of HIV virus are located, awakened and wiped out so they can never come out of hiding and ambush the immune system.
But the same health pressures that are crushing the population at large exert a double whammy on patients with HIV. Mental health and substance abuse are the two main stumbling blocks. Gulick makes sure his nurse practitioners and assistants get patients access to anti-depressants or other treatment they need and he’s working on opening an opioid abuse clinic.
At 69, he has no plans to retire.
“No other area, even oncology, gave me the satisfaction I get from working here,” he said. Daily pills will soon evolve into monthly, then quarterly, injections. Gulick doesn’t want to miss whatever comes next.
“Each time it’s a new chapter in a book,” he said. “I go to a meeting and it’s exciting because they talk about the cure now. You never want to put the book down because there’s always some new thing you want to read.”
Ligia Romero Balcarel: Never routine
Ligia Romero Balcarel loves her job and her colleagues at the Lansing Area AIDS Network, where she’s been a medical case manager for 19 years.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
“I’ve gotten in trouble for not following protocol, but that comes with the territory,” she said.
We’re not talking about your usual frolic and detour. She once tracked down a homeless and sick client in the dead of winter to a cluster of tents in the woods near Kalamazoo Street.
Her director reminded her that there were safety concerns about making such a solo sally. He gave her a light reprimand and they returned to the homeless camp together.
Romero Balcarel, 60, came to the U.S. as a child, a political refugee from Guatemala. Her parents were strong on family.
“As a little girl, I was told that you don’t leave anybody behind,” she said.
Her father was the private chauffeur for American ambassador John Gordon Mein. Her mother was a nurse in Guatemala City.
“She was a huge advocate for the poor,” she said.
In 1968, Guatemalan rebels ambushed and killed Mein. Romero Balcarel’s family went into hiding because her father had witnessed the killing. The U.S. government quietly put them on a redeye flight to Miami.
The family ended up in Lansing at the invitation of her uncle, who worked in the auto industry.
In Lansing, Romero Balcarel worked at Cristo Rey Community Center as a substance abuse administrator and counselor. She applied to LAAN after a close friend got HIV and died.
Early in her career at LAAN, 10 of her clients died in one year.
“I checked out,” she said. “I was angry and bitter.”
She credits her directors’ compassion for pulling her through.
“Brenda Stoneburner and Audrey Matisoff took me aside and encouraged me to find peace,” she said. “They gave me the space and I had to surrender and say, ‘OK, I can’t do everything.’”
Nearly 20 years is a long tour of duty, but her zeal for the job hasn’t waned.
“It’s never routine,” she said. “There’s never a day that’s the same or an hour that’s the same and I love that.”
The medical prognosis for people living with HIV has improved dramatically, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
“We deal with a lot of people who have multiple issues — mental health, substance abuse and on top of that they have their HIV,” she said.
Mental health and substance abuse damage is bad enough on its own, but for people living with HIV, it’s a deadly double jeopardy that blurs crucial focus on health, whether it’s going to medical appointments or taking live-saving medications.
No matter how invested she is in the well-being of her clients, she knows there will be setbacks and bad outcomes.
“There are days when a case has impacted me so much,” she said. “Their lives are just never very stable. It’s OK. I’ve learned that it’s OK for me to go home and cry.”
Lorenzo Lopez: Step out
Lorenzo Lopez deserves more than a story in the newspaper. You need the whole newspaper — preferably a Sunday Times — to do him justice. In the arts section, you would read about his lifelong passion for the music and dance forms of Latin America, especially Mexican dance. In the food section, readers could drool over his skill at making enchiladas, tortilla chips and other traditional Mexican foods.
In the news section, where politics take center stage, Lopez’s tireless activism on behalf of the Latinx and LGBTQ communities in Lansing.
This year, Lopez became the first Latino chair of Suits and the City, a Lansing-based LGBTQ networking organization.
“There are still so many Latino guys who are afraid to come out, to be who they are,” Lopez said. “That’s sad to me, because you’re never going to be who you are until you step out.”
Lopez is a highly visible role model and mentor. His house is well known in the Latino community as a safe house for gay men who have been rejected from their homes or suffered other traumas.
“I give them meals, they can shower, shave, refresh, relax, for a day or two until I can find the resource they need,” he said. “I can make them good enchilada, rice and beans, whatever.”
Lopez grew up in Lansing, but he moved to Mexico City for several years to study Mexican and Spanish dance more intensively.
“It gave me a whole new perspective on being gay,” he said. “A city that large and cosmopolitan, you see all this stuff and meet all these people. It enriched my belief in who I am as an American.”
This summer, Lopez is leading a three-weekend class in Cumbia, the Columbian dance form avidly absorbed by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
“I’m not a little gay man just sitting in the corner,” he said. “I’m out there.” From the steps of the Capitol to community centers and classrooms, Lopez goes to meetings, leads rallies, advocates, organizes, defends, assists.
“My life is a whirlwind of activity, politics, culture, music, dance, food,” he said.
Hard as it may be to imagine, Lopez is sometimes lonely. He speculates that he comes on so strong people are intimidated.
“There are guys I would have loved talk to me but they didn’t, or won’t,” he said.
Last week, Lopez noticed a couple of men, probably out-of-towners, he had never seen at the Esquire Bar. Contrary to frequent gay bar behavior patterns, Lopez went right up to them and introduced himself.
“My name is Lorenzo,” he said. “I don’t know you, but I want to welcome you here and want you to know you can feel safe here. In our gay world, a lot of men are clique-y and afraid to talk to each other and I’m not. I want you to have a good time.”
Thus, Lopez chalked up two more friends. In the past few days, he has seen the men twice more at the Esquire. He still doesn’t know where they are from.
Michigan Civil Rights Commission: Breaking new ground
On May 21, 2018, Michigan’s six-member Civil Rights Commission voted, by a margin of 5-0 with 1 abstention, to expand its interpretation of the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification.
It was a major breakthrough in LGBTQ rights, on a par with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage.
From that day forward, all those who would deny LGBTQ people equal rights in employment, housing, education, public accommodations and public service were on notice: no longer could they do so under the cover of law.
The next morning, the commission began to accept sex discrimination complaints from members of the LGBTQ community.
It would be hard to find a more persistent advocate for the commission’s historic “interpretive statement” than Nathan Triplett, former policy and political director of Equality Michigan. Through decades of frustration, near-misses and can-kicking inaction, Triplett and a coalition of over 30 LGBT advocacy groups beat the drum relentlessly to convince the Commission the resolution was essential to the well-being of Michigan’s LGBTQ community — and legally sound.
Federal agencies have broadened existing civil rights protections to include LGBTQ people, but the Michigan vote was the first time in the country that such an interpretive action was made at the state level.
“They were really breaking new ground,” Triplett said. Since then, Pennsylvania and Missouri have followed suit, the former by an interpretive ruling from the state’s equivalent of the Civil Rights Commission; the latter, via court ruling.
It’s a substantive step, insofar as the Commission is already fielding discrimination complaints from LGBTQ citizens, but it’s not time to “pack up and go home,” Triplett said.
To avoid reversal of the interpretive statement from future administrations, Triplett wants the Elliott-Larsen protections to be cemented in place by legislative action. Support for such a measure is growing, both in the general public and among legislators.
The bravery of the commission is all the more remarkable, in Triplett’s estimation, because it was made in a “hostile political environment.”
In response, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion that the commission lacked the authority to do what it did. (The commission declared Schuette’s opinion “non-binding” and went on processing discrimination complaints.)
There’s a little known reason the commission took so long to take this step, and Triplett said he doesn’t want it to be “lost to history.”
While the commission was mulling over the statement, assistant attorney general Ron Robinson advised them that they didn’t have the authority to issue it, and if they did, they would waive government immunity and expose themselves to personal legal liability in any future lawsuit over the matter.
Nobody likes to face financial ruin for doing their job. Triplett and a phalanx of lawyers had to work overtime to convince the commissioners, most of whom aren’t attorneys, that Robinson’s threat had no legal basis.
“They had this authority and the duty to exercise it,” Triplett said. “In the end, they got where they needed to go.”
For a full profile of the seventh honoree Michigan Attorney Dana Nessel, click here.