Members of Michigan’s private and public sectors are uniting to propose a new civil rights protection for LGBTQ+ citizens. The Fair and Equal Michigan initiative aims to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s legislation.

An interpretation of the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 2018 previously defined such discrimination as “sex” bias. The act protects people from discrimination based on 10 factors, including religion; however, there are currently no protections for LGBTQ+ individuals in employment and public accommodations.

Kalamazoo County Commissioner Tracy Hall said the protections must be granted now.

“We are one of too many states where people can be fired for who they love and how they identify,” Hall said. “And it’s time to change that.” 

Leaders of the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign are collaborating with LGBTQ+ groups, businesses, philanthropic outlets and political organizations in hopes of expanding that definition to include sexual orientation. 

University Regent Mark Bernstein (D) served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 2004 to 2012. He discussed the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act’s significance to the state.

“I learned how important and how urgent it is to include LGBTQ individuals in that legislation,” Bernstein said. “The opportunity to help make long-overdue changes is something that I’m thrilled to be a part of.”

The demand for alterations to the state’s civil rights legislation comes after several unsuccessful attempts by Michigan’s business community to sponsor anti-discrimination proposals in recent years. DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, Herman Miller, Whirlpool Corp. and Dow Inc. have all voiced their solidarity with Fair and Equal Michigan.

The Lansing-based research firm Glengariff Group polled likely 2020 voters in May and June of 2019 and found that 77 percent of surveyed citizens would support such a measure. Sixty-six percent of “strong Republican” voters would back the proposal. 

Jason Morgan, Chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and signee of the petition, views the initiative as paramount in ensuring the immediate protection of LGBTQ+ Michigan residents.

“This effort, I think, is particularly important right now because there doesn’t seem to be a clear path for getting legislative change to make this happen,” Morgan said. “You could still get married on a Saturday and be fired Monday for being gay.”

LSA senior Konrat Pekkip said he has seen the challenges members of the LGBTQ+ community face since arriving in Ann Arbor from his home nation of Germany.

“The situation is certainly very bad for LGBT people in Michigan legally,” Pekkip said. “We don’t have rights. We are not protected from housing discrimination, from employment discrimination.”

The number of discrimination complaints that have continued to surface has created an additonal sense of urgency in enacting protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has undertaken 44 investigations into claims of discrimination since the start of 2018. 

From his experience on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, Bernstein found that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is a daily occurrence in Michigan. 

“The threat of it occurring is unconscionable, and the fact that an LGBTQ person and their family would have to even feel vulnerable to that because of the failure of the Elliott-Larson act to include these protections is repugnant,” Bernstein said. “We are better than that as a state.”

In her experiences in the Kalamazoo government, Hall has encountered several examples of transgender individuals of color being denied housing, relieved of their employment and disrespected in academic settings because of their gender identity. 

“Trans people of color in Michigan experience homelessness at the highest rates in the country of all social groups,” Pekkip said. 

Currently, none of Michigan’s 83 counties have an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Only 22 percent of the state population is protected against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in private employment, housing and public accommodations. 

Wayne, Washtenaw and Ingham are the only counties that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in government employment. These counties are also the state’s most typically diverse and liberal centers. Ann Arbor and East Lansing were the first cities in the United States to adopt LGBTQ+ discrimination protections. Morgan said the rest of the state remains in question.

“I think Washtenaw County is a much more open and accepting community than most of our state, just given the population that lives here and the sense of community that we have,” Morgan said. “But I do still think it’s an issue here. And more importantly, I think it’s an issue that people have to fear that they could be kicked out of their home or not allowed to live somewhere or fired because of their sexual identity or orientation.”

Organizers of the petition intend to motivate discussion on the issue within Michigan’s Republican-controlled state legislature. Currently, Republican leaders have demonstrated resistance to the proposition because of its potential complications with pre-existing protections on religious freedoms. 

“I do not believe we can pass this law while still protecting religious freedom,” state Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, said during an episode of “Off the Record” on PBS WKAR-TV. “You’ve seen these laws passed in other states where what happens, in my opinion, is a reverse discrimination against those who have religious beliefs.”

Morgan said this rationale has been the main political mechanism used by conservatives in Michigan to prevent the legal clarification of prohibitions on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

“It seems like a fairly basic concept to me that no matter what your religion is, you shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against somebody because of who they are,” Morgan said. “That seems like the bottom line to me.”

Hall echoed Morgan’s sentiment. 

“You’re not going to get fired for what your religious affiliation is, but certainly I could get fired at any number of places for who I love,” Hall said. “I just disagree with that.”

For Fair and Equal Michigan, the greatest obstacle appears to be the makeup of the state legislature, where the Republican Party currently enjoys a majority. 

Proponents of the petition do not see it as a partisan issue. The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act was drafted by Democrat Daisy Elliott and Republican Mel Larsen as strictly bipartisan in an effort to make the proposal move swiftly to the legislature. 

“It’s a natural evolution of this law,” Bernstein said. 

If progress cannot be made through the state legislature, petition leaders intend to put the issue on this November’s ballot for the public to vote after collecting the required number of signatures for it to qualify. 

“The initiative seeks to give the state legislature the opportunity to do the right thing and make this amendment,” Bernstein said. “It’s a shame that we have to take this step through the process of obtaining signatures and the campaign that that requires, but if that’s what is necessary, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Michigan would become the 22nd state to have laws that explicitly outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation if it were passed. Morgan said passing the measure was vital.

“When we look back in history, at every pivotal point that we had as a country, we had to decide, do we continue to allow discrimination or not?” Morgan said. “When we decided to end that discrimination, when we look back, that has clearly been the right thing to do.”

Moving forward, Fair and Equal Michigan must collect the required number of signatures for it to go to the ballot and concurrently work with the legislature to convince representatives to resolve this issue before November’s elections. At the same time, the initiative needs to prepare for a state-wide campaign on the issue by garnering support from Michigan’s business, political, civic and civil rights communities. 

“I think this campaign needs to have a lot of conversations around the state about why this is important and why this is needed at this point,” Morgan said. “And I think they need to communicate with legislators as well to convey the support that they’re receiving and hearing from the public for an updated non-discrimination policy.”

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