Making a gay difference as MSU’s deputy spokesperson


Dan Olsen’s phone started to blow up on the evening of Feb. 13 as a gunman was loose on the campus of Michigan State University. He rushed to the emergency operations center on campus, where he stayed for 24 hours. 

Olsen, MSU’s deputy spokesperson, said while his role — compared to that of law enforcement and other administration officials — was “‘very small,’ it still hit him hard. 

“Our careers are spent preparing for issues in crises,” he said. “You can prepare for these in various ways and know the process, right? For how to manage a crisis, how to communicate. But nothing prepares you for the emotional toll that something like this event has taken on not just me, but my colleagues, students, faculty, staff.”

As a graduate of MSU, and a current graduate student, Olsen, 30, said he never thought he would experience a shooting on campus from up close. 

The Flint-area native has followed an extraordinary trajectory since graduating from the university in 2014. He was recruited to work with public relations and communications legend Kelly Rossman-McKinney on the ill-fated Fair Michigan proposal to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in order to protect the LGBTQ+ community.  

The move was pushed by Dana Nessel, then a rising legal star after bucking traditional LGBTQ+ organizational advice and suing the state for marriage equality. She won her case after it was combined with others before the U.S. Supreme Court, legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country.

Nessel and others thought the next target should be a ballot initiative to amend the civil rights act after lawmakers had left numerous versions of the law languishing in committees without votes for decades. The law was finally amended this year after it was passed by the Democratically controlled House and Senate, then signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Olsen lives with his same-sex partner in a smaller community near Lansing. The couple raises pugs as a hobby. 

While that ballot initiative never materialized, Olsen took on communications responsibilities for the organization as it moved into working with Wayne County prosecutors to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. 

It seemed a good fit for him. He started acknowledging his own sexual orientation during his sophomore year at MSU.

“I think those things become heavier especially as you see headlines and stories around the state and country about different violent acts that happen against men who are members of the community,” he said. “On top of that, there’s what happens in the most extreme circumstances with family members and loved ones. I mean, there’s anxiety and fear around that process. But I wouldn’t change it.”

While he doesn’t hide his orientation, it’s also not a key part of the work he does. But it does help inform his advice as he is working with top university administrators in developing policies and communications strategies. 

He said having a member of the LGBTQ+ community at the table during decision-making conversations is important. It fills out the diversity of viewpoints. 

“It’s important to have people who don’t look like you and who don’t have the same experiences that you do when you’re making these decisions,” he said. 

During his work at Fair, then at the Michigan Attorney General’s Office under Nessel, Olsen had a front-row seat to the violence some in the community experienced. While there, Nessel and the Michigan Civil Rights Department were sued for floating the idea of monitoring hate incidents throughout the state. Behind the scenes, however, Nessel was creating the office’s first terrorism and hate crimes unit. It was an eye-opening experience, Olsen said.

“It gave me a firsthand experience of some of the ways that our community in particular is impacted in ways that I don’t know that I necessarily fully realized before,” Olsen said, “especially as it relates to the trans community and the crime that happens at an exponentially higher rate than other communities, even within the LGBTQ community.”

At the time Olsen was in the AG’s office, Michigan’s hate crime law did not cover the LGBTQ+ community. Legislation to expand the hate crimes law, which opponents have blocked since 1988, passed the state House last week and is expected to pass the Senate before being signed by Whitmer.

Despite those gains, the nation has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of legislative actions to curb LGBTQ rights, particularly those of transgender Americans. There has also been a backlash against businesses for supporting LGBTQ+ people. Target was dragged through the digital mud for putting up displays of pride-related items, and Bud Light, and parent company Anheuser-Busch, have faced protests, boycotts and violent videos for providing a promotional Pride beer can to a transgender social media influencer. 

Olsen debated having this interview for fear it would come back at both him and the university. 

“I’m not a fan of the spotlight,” he said. “But if I’m being honest, I think the national conversations happening and the different actions that are being taken do have some sort of chilling effect on the community and a hesitation to be visible. But that makes it more important for us to be in these spaces and be visible, to show and demonstrate to future generations.”

Even with all the progress, Olsen said it is important for leaders like himself and Grace Wojcik, director of the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center at MSU, to tell their stories. 

“There’s still so much hurt and pain for our community. Headlines, on a daily basis, show just how far we have to go. So, I think that’s why it’s more important than ever we need people in prominent roles to share their stories, to step into what, in this case, may be an uncomfortable space and continue for positive change.”


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