Greg McNeilly, political advisor to Betsy DeVos and a prominent gay Republican, spoke Friday of the incoming education secretary saying she stood up for him at a time when his sexual orientation wasn’t widely known.
“When we have those positive affirming experiences it emboldens us,” he said. “Betsy did that for me at that time.”
McNeilly’s remarks came as he shared his personal story during an Equality Michigan fall reception at DTE Energy’s headquarters in Detroit. He was there to receive the Change Maker award from the organization.
Last month, President-elect Donald Trump named DeVos to lead the Education Department. Her selection has prompted concern from some human rights groups over how she would handle issues involving LGBT students. LGBT groups have criticized the DeVos family’s past contributions toward fighting efforts to legalize gay marriage.
McNeilly, who formerly served as executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, on Friday recalled backlash he received in 2003 after being quoted in a Detroit News editorial about the gay marriage amendment and how it would hamper lawmakers from addressing real problems in Michigan.
McNeilly, at the time, said constitutional amendments “are not good places to make bumper sticker statements.”
The marriage amendment, introduced in October 2003 by Sen. Alan Cropsey of DeWitt, sought to limit marriage to couples made up of one man and one woman and insulate Michigan from recognizing gay unions licensed by other states.
At the time DeVos, who was Republican Party’s chairwoman and policy makers of the party, decided to oppose adding the marriage amendment to the ballot.
One senator, who McNeilly did not name, took issue with his comments in the news article and came to his office unannounced, he said.
“'Are you using the Republican Party and your office here to stop this ballot initiative because you’re gay?'” McNeilly recalled the senator asking.
He said he denied the assertion and told the senator that his position reflected the policy holders. But then admitted he was, in fact, gay. McNeilly said the senator’s jaw dropped, he started to shake and threatened to expose him.
“We will get you. We will expose you. This is not over,” he said the senator told him.
McNeilly called DeVos, confided what happened and shared with her the options on how to handle the situation — one of them being his resignation — to avoid distracting from the party’s mission, he said during his Friday speech.
“Before I could barely get the sentences out of my mouth Betsy interrupted me,” he said. “I can’t repeat exactly what she said...”
DeVos, he said, asked for the home number of the senator. After that, McNeilly never heard from the senator about the topic again.
“I don't know what was said, but it was effective,” he added.
McNeilly and his partner Doug Meeks, were among the first gay couples married after Judge Bernard Friedman’s ruling in March 2014 to overturn the state’s gay-marriage ban.
Others honored at the Equality Michigan event Friday were Aiden Ramirez Tatum, recipient of the Henry Messer Youth Award, Detroit Police Officer Dani Woods, recipient of the Heather McAllister Activist Award and Congressman Dan Kildee, recipient of the Catalyst Award.