By Tom Reardon, September 2019 Issue.
If nothing else, Equality Arizona represents an opportunity.
Its two parallel entities — Equality Arizona (501c3) and Equality Arizona Action (501c4) — are poised to provide Arizonans with education, advocacy, and new insights into political policy.
Since 1992, Equality Arizona has strived to help LGBTQ community members understand the political process from Tucson to Flagstaff, Phoenix to Sierra Vista, and everywhere else within our borders.
This work is not easy, but Executive Director Michael Soto is no stranger to tackling difficult situations head-on. As the first out trans person at ASU in the late 1990s, Soto brought his trademark energy and tenacity to his university and helped change policy during a time in many people’s lives when they are more focused on hitting the bars, meeting new people, and getting wild. Empathy, as well as a strong (understatement) knowledge of Arizona politics, oozes from Soto and it is truly a pleasure to listen to and learn from him as he shares his passion for his job.
Soto was kind enough to generously share his time on a Tuesday afternoon at the non-profit organization’s Phoenix office. Here is what he had to say:
Thank you for taking some time with me today. So today, are you optimistic about what’s happening in our country politically?
Having Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell in leadership positions where they not only don’t affirm LGBTQ people but actively work to harm us is bad for LGBTQ folks but also bad for cisgender and straight folks, especially the kids, because they’re getting these messages that it’s okay to discriminate against us.
It’s happening in front of our eyes.
It was clear from the beginning that Trump was targeting immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women, right?
That was a hard thing for a lot of people to reconcile. He very clearly went after these groups (and several others) in his campaign. Lots of people made excuses and said, “No, no, he doesn’t mean it or he doesn’t really believe that he’s just trying to be elected.” I have people in my family that voted for him and were just like, “Well, it won’t harm you at all. Nothing has happened to you.”
I was like, “Right. Give it two days. It will happen. He promised it would.” And you know, today it’s a very different conversation with those folks. So, let’s talk about accountability. Right? This is a big thing for me. It’s one thing for someone in my family, a cousin, an aunt, and uncle, someone to vote for Trump and then say, “I still love you and I love and care about you.”
And then today it’s my responsibility as an LGBTQ person to go and have a conversation with that person and say, “It is hard for me to believe that you love and care about me when you constantly vote for people that don’t believe I deserve human dignity and respect. That isn’t love.
These are the same people who consistently love to offer thoughts and prayers?
Exactly. Instead of thoughts and prayers, we represent policy and change.
How do you educate people who are new to the community or just coming out to be part of this movement?
We know that to activate people politically, we also have to activate them in the community as a whole. For people to feel, to have a political LGBTQ identity, they also have to have just a community identity and feel like they’re a part of something, a community and a movement that’s bigger than them. We do a lot of work around that.
As a 501(c) (3) organization, the mission is all about building the culture for our community, so that there can be a sense of community — a cohesion — and focus on safety, wellness, and inclusion. Those are the top issues. When I first started as executive director, I did a listening tour around Arizona and I asked LGBTQ people, “What are your top concerns? What keeps you up at night?” (Writer’s note: The organization’s 501(c) (4) status allows them to lobby politically.)
Safety across the board was number one, there was no other issue that was as prominent as being safe in their homes, their workplaces, in their communities.
Number two was feeling alone, isolated, and not a part of something. We took both of those on. We’re like, okay, so that’s going to be our C3. Our mission here is to build a sense of community throughout Arizona for LGBTQ people and allies that are like deeply invested in this movement.
How are you doing that with this very important election on the horizon in 2020?
For us, that is an immediate goal, but it’s just the beginning of very long-term planning for building the political power of LGBTQ people in Arizona. So, for us, it only takes a small percentage of people to sway an election and to change an electorate. Arizona’s already changing, right? This was a solidly red state when you and I were growing up. Our congressional delegation is the majority Democrat. That’s huge. We’re two seats away from tying the house.
The state Senate and House are within a reasonable reach of tying them or evening them and not being a super red majority anymore so we’re shifting politically already. We have to be better at planning long term. Part of our strategy is working with LGBTQ people and allied people that are deeply committed to LGBTQ equality, and getting those people activated. Sometimes it’s the low-hanging fruit first like voter registration and then getting people to come to the monthly meetings of Equality Arizona.
This system of government is not supposed to be something we are divorced from. We are actually supposed to be the people in control of it. And that means not just through voting, but active participation in other ways like running for office. You know, we want to see people, LGBTQ people, running for every level of office and then governing for our community. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s about whether or not you’re going to govern in a way that makes life better and improves the safety, well-being, and inclusion of LGBTQ people in Arizona.
What type of help and support do you need?
We need LGBTQ people to get involved. I feel very proud and honored to be in this job. For me, this job is about service and community. This organization only works if LGBTQ and our allies get involved. We have events like town halls and forums. We have events like our electoral campaigns called “Post to the Polls.” So, we use ballroom culture to create political moments of community-building opportunity, but also cultural building. We also have our membership. We’re asking LGBTQ Arizonans to join. It’s very affordable to join Equality Arizona. The lowest amount is a $15 annual fee. You get lots of benefits of being involved, including access to this amazing work that we’re doing together as a community. We are trying to build a sense of belonging, a sense of community and celebrate being LGBTQ together.