Michigan leaders are more supportive of the LGBTQ community than ever, but laws haven’t kept up
This Pride Month marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City, one of the foundational events in the historic fight for LGBTQ rights. And while there’s been a lot of progress, and plenty of reasons (and opportunities) to celebrate in the coming weeks, inequality and hate persist.
Late last month, a trans woman and two men were killed in a triple shooting on Detroit’s east side. (The incident, one of a wave of shootings over Memorial Day weekend, does not appear to be related to the potential east side serial killings and rapes targeting sex workers that police said they were investigating Wednesday.) Fox 2 identified the victims as Alunte Davis, Paris Cameron and Timothy Blancher,all members of the LGBTQ community.
Police have not indicated a motive for the shooting. Cameron was one of at least eight trans women of color killed in the U.S. this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
LGBTQ Michiganders still face legal discrimination
When you might be killed for your identity, policy protections aren’t enough to assuage personal safety fears. But in other areas of public life, they can ensure some security. In Michigan, though, that security eludes LGBTQ residents.
Case in point: you can still be fired for being gay. Equal rights based on sexuality are not protected under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. That means you could legally be denied housing and employment just because you’re gay or trans.
This isn’t just theoretical. Aimee Stephens was fired from her job as director of a funeral home in Garden City (a community between Dearborn Heights and Westland) in 2013 after she told her boss she was transgender. Her employer, Harris Funeral Homes, argues that they were exercising their right to religious freedom when they fired Stephens. The wrongful termination suit has made its way through the courts, and is now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide whether the federal Civil Rights Act protects people like Stephens.Fired for being transgender
Next up in the fight for LGBTQ equality in Michigan
Changing state law would go a long way toward securing these protections for LGBTQ residents, even if the Supreme Court doesn’t take up the case. Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Rep. John Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) introduced legislation this week to amend Elliott-Larsen to include sexuality and gender identity and expression as protected classes. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has thrown her support to the initiative, after signing an executive order in January that offered those protections to state workers.
Attorney General Dana Nessel also spoke out for the bills. Nessel previously represented the Michigan couple whose lawsuit challenging state adoption laws (DeBoer v. Snyder) became part of the landmark Supreme Court marriage equality case. In March, she negotiated a settlement that prohibits the state from working with or funding adoption agencies that won’t serve LGBTQ clients. (A Catholic adoption agency is challenging the settlement.)
These top officials are reversing their predecessors — Whitmer’s executive order eliminated an exemption for religious organizations written by former Gov. Rick Snyder. And former AG Bill Schuette, a fierce defender of religious liberty laws, argued against Nessel in DeBoer v. Snyder. When the Michigan Civil Rights Commission took it upon itself to interpret Elliott-Larsen to include sexual orientation last year, Schuette wrote a legal opinion saying only the Legislature could make that change. The Commission, which investigates housing and job discrimination complaints, said it would not abide by Schuette’s directive.
Some cities have taken on the issue by expanding LGBTQ rights locally. Ann Arbor was the first in Michigan to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1978, and Detroit and other cities soon followed suit. In 2008, Detroit City Council added “gender identity or expression” to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. On Tuesday, Huntington Woods became Michigan’s first city to ban gay conversion therapy.
But more progressive officials and a patchwork of local protections aren’t a substitute for state law. The Republican-controlled legislature has been an obstacle to amending Elliott-Larsen for at least a decade. House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have both indicated they wouldn’t support legislation that doesn’t include protections for religious freedom.
Hoadley’s bill has one Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Tommy Brann(R-Wyoming). According to Michigan Advance, Hoadley said Tuesday that the current climate in Lansing gives them hope they’ll find more support across the aisle.
“We are in a moment where we can take on big, bipartisan opportunities here in the state of Michigan … like the one in front of us,” Hoadley said. “And we know that by having co-sponsors put their name on the bill, with more folks raising their hand saying they want to be on the right side of history, that there’s a moment here where we can get this done.”
Amending Elliott-Larsen would go a long way to making Michigan a more welcoming state to all its residents. In a Tuesday speech about the civil rights bills, Whitmer talked about a man who said he might move to Oregon after his gay son said he wouldn’t live in a state where he didn’t have equal rights, according to the Detroit News.
A generation of young people are paying attention to what this state tells them about their right to live freely, and our legislature holds the power to tell them they have a place in Michigan’s future, just as they are. –Kate Abbey-Lambertz