Before the U.S. Supreme Court hears a case on the legality of same-sex marriage, Outlaws, the University’s Law School LGBTQ organization, hosted a community conversation Wednesday on LGBTQ rights.
About 35 people attended the event, which began with speakers and then opened up to a Q&A session focused on LGBTQ issues in Michigan and the United States.
Speakers included Jay Kaplan, LGBT project attorney for ACLU Michigan, Lisa Ruby, Michigan Poverty Law Program attorney and Angie Martell and S. Kerene Moore, co-chairs of the Washtenaw County Bar Association LGBTQ Rights Section.
The conversation centered on the upcoming Supreme Court case on the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The court is scheduled to begin oral hearings on April 28. The case could have several major implications, including the possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage across the country.
Many attendees said they wished to know how the Supreme Court decision will impact LGBTQ families in Michigan as well as understand the current legal landscape.
Moore, who is also the vice president of the Jim Toy Community Center — a group focused on offering resources to LGBTQ individuals in Washtenaw County — said she thought the law community as a whole was becoming more open to granting legal statuses to LGBTQ individuals.
One example, she noted, is how courts are addressing divorces between same-sex couples.
“We’ve had a few judges here in Washtenaw County who have entertained annulments and we had one judge perform a divorce,” Moore said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but the legal community is coming around. We’ve been working on the conversation of how to give same-sex marriage these legal rights.”
Martell, an attorney specializing in family law, said the legal definition of marriage is also an ongoing issue. She said many in the legal community still disagree over the differences between marriage as a civil concept and marriage as a religious institution.
According to Martell, civil marriage doesn’t differentiate between gender or sex, whereas many conceptions of religious marriage do.
“I believe the U.S. Constitution has required universal marriage equality,” Martell said. “We’ve gotten lost in the difference between civil marriage and religious marriage.”
Kaplan, from the ACLU, addressed the potential aftermath of the Supreme Court case specifically, citing several other issues as areas of concern for the LGBTQ community in Michigan.
“One fear that I hold is that many people will think that once we have marriage equality, that everything will be taken care of,” Kaplan. “We still have tons of issues to take care of. For example, in most communities in Michigan, it’s legal to be fired from a job because you’re gay.”
Kaplan also touched on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has generated national controversy in recent weeks following the passage of a similar proposal in Indiana.
The RFRA is also a federal law that aims to protect religious freedom by allowing businesses and individuals to not follow laws they deem in violation of their religious beliefs. Because of a 1997 Supreme Court decision that ruled the federal RFRA not applicable to state laws, multiple states have passed their own state RFRAs. In Michigan, no RFRA has been passed, but a bill has been introduced several times over the past few years.
“The marriage equality for same sex couples is coming, and (RFRA) is the last gasp of people trying to find their way around it,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan also highlighted some challenges transgender people face in Michigan and in the broader Midwest.
“We make it very hard for transgender individuals to get a driver’s license or a state ID,” Kaplan said. “We require that a transgender has to have surgery and have a gender mark and change on a birth certificate. This is expensive, complicated and dangerous to many people.”
He added that some states do not allow any changes to birth certificates. This means some transgender individuals in Michigan who were born in such states may never carry a state ID that accurately represents their identity, according to Kaplan.
Ruby, with the Michigan Poverty Law Program, focused her remarks primarily on discrepancies found in Social Security, adoption agencies and public benefits for LGBTQ individuals.
“Gays and lesbians have not been prohibited from public benefits, but associated with all of these benefits are rules,” Ruby said.
She added that there are several legal problems concerning Social Security. For example, if one of the people in a same-sex union dies, the other does not receive a widow’s benefit. Also, if a same-sex couple’s child is not legally adopted by both of the individuals, they can’t collect on a parent’s work record in the case of death or disability.
Following the speaker’s remarks, the panel opened up to questions from the audience, many of which touched on personal questions such as how they could file for taxes as a same-sex couple or what their legal rights were if married in a different states.
The conversation ended on the topic of homophobia. Ruby said she hopes the idea of homosexuality was becoming less alien to people. She recounted her former fear of using the term “wife” to address her partner.
However, she said she receives many positive reactions to her relationship and no longer feels that kind of discomfort.
Around the room, many other attendants shared their similar stories.
“This country was built on the concept of three words: we the people,” Martell said. “ ‘We the people’ means all the people. In order to form a more perfect union means that we must include the ‘others’ if we’re going to last and cherish this almighty democracy.”