By Michelle Talsma Everson, January 2020 issue.
“I love our LGBTQ community, and we should have access to everything that everyone else does,” says Michael Soto, the executive director of Equality Arizona (EQAZ). “We [the LGBTQ community] deserve the same promise of life, liberty, and freedom. It’s an honor and privilege to do what I do every day.”
What Soto does day in and day out is lead Equality Arizona, Echo’s 2019 Leader of the Year. Yes, an organization was chosen for this honor because, as an organization, Equality Arizona is moving the local and statewide LGBTQ community into the future, one initiative at a time.
Soto explains that EQAZ actually includes two nonprofit branches. The first, Equality Arizona, has a mission to “build a strong and resilient LGBTQ social movement and culture in Arizona by increasing access to safety, well-being, and inclusion in society,” according to the organization. The second branch, Equality Arizona Action, aims to “build the political power of the Arizona LGBTQ community for our full inclusion in the social, economic, and civil mechanisms of our society.” Both of these missions merge to fulfill their vision of “An Arizona where LGBTQ people are included in and lead the social, economic, and civic systems of our state, counties, cities, and communities.”
“Equality Arizona has been around since 1992 and has always worked for policy and political inclusion of the LGBTQ community,” Soto says.
Soto was first involved in Equality Arizona, and activism in general, as a student at Arizona State University in the early 2000’s. He was on the EQAZ board for three years before taking the helm as executive director a year and a half ago. He explains that, this year, EQAZ has many initiatives in place that are worth paying attention to and getting involved with.
“The 2020 election, both national and local, is our top priority this year,” Soto shares. “It’s vital that the LGBTQ community is part of the process. Our goal is to show the community how powerful and influential we are if we all get out and vote.”
EQAZ is working tirelessly to interview candidates across party lines in both local and national elections to vote on who to endorse. Their criteria includes how supportive the candidates are of LGBTQ causes and initiatives, and new this year is that EQAZ members (and not just the board) will vote on the candidates that the organization will officially endorse.
In addition to endorsing LGBTQ-friendly candidates, another top priority for EQAZ is voter registration. “We’re working on getting our voter registration into high gear,” Soto says. “We also ask that voters pledge to vote for LGBTQ supportive candidates.”
Those interested in becoming EQAZ members can easily sign up on the organization’s website at equalityarizona.org/membership. “Members are obviously mostly members of the LGBTQ community but they are also friends, family, and allies,” Soto says. “Members can be anyone that wants to help build a safer and healthier community for LGBTQ Arizonans.”
Some other initiatives that EQAZ has on their full plate, according to Soto, include:
Passing comprehensive nondiscrimination policies on a local level, including working with the Arizona legislature.
Banning gay conversion therapy on a local and national level.
Passing inclusive sex education in local school districts. The organization is currently working on a model with Tucson school districts that provides policies and resources for educators and parents. “LGBTQ students need to see themselves in sex education or they’re at a severe disadvantage when they are making those types of decisions,” Soto explains.
The organization is doing a lot of storytelling work exploring what it “means to be an LGBTQ Arizonan.” The interviews and stories touch on all facets of LGBTQ experiences—workplaces, schools, therapy, police brutality, and more.
Multiple health care initiatives. For example, the organization is working with first responders and those who work in emergency rooms on how to serve LGBTQ community members better in emergency situations.
Working with the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS on legal document workshops for transgender individuals who are transitioning.
And many more!
In 2019, EQAZ had success on many levels, including being a part of the movement to get the “no promo homo” law repealed that banned AIDS and HIV education, citing that it “promoted a homosexual lifestyle.”
Soto and EQAZ note that the law had a negative impact on Arizona students for decades. “Every student deserves medically accurate and age appropriate sex education. Every student deserves a safe and inclusive educational experience and we won’t stop until that is unequivocally true,” Soto wrote in a blog post. “Every law, that creates an unequal civil society for LGBTQ people of every gender, race, socio-economic class, ability, and legal status, is a barrier to justice and equality. Equality Arizona is here for that fight. Arizona schools are still not safe for LGBTQ students – we beat one harmful law, but now it’s time to work with the department of education and school boards to implement positive and affirming policy and to support them in building inclusive cultures for LGBTQ equality.”
So how does Equality Arizona make all of this happen with a small staff and nonprofit budget? They depend on their members and supporters, Soto explains. The organization hosts regular social events and monthly meetings across the state. Events are sometimes political or organizational in nature (for example, membership meetings), but at other times, they’re mainly for connecting likeminded community (like queer poetry potlucks).
“Our goal is to build up LGBTQ leadership and provide them support, but it’s always encouraged to be local decisions and topics. After all, they’re the community we are honored to serve,” Soto shares.
To keep updated on Equality Arizona’s events and news, follow them on Facebook at facebook.com/EqualityAZ or visit equalityarizona.org.
Meet Echo’s leaders
(formerly men and women)
of the years past:
1994: Bill MacDonald & Dianne Post
1995: Barb Jones & Mark Colledge
1996: Beth Verity & Ken Cheuvront
1997: Linda Hoffman & Neil Giuliano
1998: Kim Charrier & Steve May
1999: Amy Ettinger & Steve May
2000: Richard Stevens & Marti McElroy
2001: Kathie Gummere & Doug Klinge
2002: Don Hamill & Jeannie Metzler
2003: Kirk Baxter & Madeline Adelman
2004: Brad Wishon & Cathy Busha
2005: David Fiss & Kyrsten Sinema
2006: Bill Lewis & Brandi Sokolosky
2007: Tom Simplot & Regina Gazelle
2008: Gary Guerin & Annie Loyd
2009: Micheal Weakley & Tambra Williams
2010: Meg Sneed & Jimmy Gruender
2011: Caleb Laieski & Kado Stewart
2012: Greg Stanton & Nicole Stanton
2013: Julian Melson & Trudie Jackson
2014: Kit Kloeckl & Angela Hughey
2015: Katy June & Stacy Louis
2016: Sen. Katie Hobbs and Nate Rhoton
2017: Bob Parsons and Renee Parsons
2018: Eion Cashman, Jason Jones, and JayyVon Monroe