As a massive voter petition circulates across Michigan to bolster civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community, local gay leaders in Greater Lansing are standing lockstep against continued discrimination. And changes to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act might just be the only way to cement those safeguards into place.
“If we leave it at the status quo, with the way things have been going, you’re going to see more discrimination and more rights of these individuals being suppressed,” said Bryan Crenshaw, a gay man and chairman of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. “This will bring us all closer to total inclusivity.”
Last week, Fair and Equal Michigan, alongside dozens of prominent public officials and businesspeople, submitted petition language seeking to initiate legislation to amend the state’s civil rights law to clarify prohibitions on discriminatory practices to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
The existing law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of religion, race, sex, height, weight and maritial status. The amendment aims to broaden that criteria to specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including the transgender community.
Organizers need to collect about 340,000 signatures by May 27 to send the proposal to the state legislature. If lawmakers ignore or reject the changes, the language would head to the November ballot for voters to decide.
Although attempts to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act have started and failed during nearly every legislative session since the statute was passed in 1976, organizers think shifting social perspectives and growing support from registered voters might be enough to finally level the playing field for the LGBTQ community.
“Each legislative cycle when the bills are introduced, they languish,” said Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan. “Enough is enough. It’s time to break the log jam in Lansing and modernize our laws. We know it makes sense economically. It’s good for tourism. It’s good for Main Street. And it sends the message loud and clear that Michigan residents — including the LGBTQ community — are ready to be treated fairly.”
The honorary leadership committee behind the recent initiative includes former Republican State Rep. Mel Larsen, who cosponsored the Civil Rights Act back in 1973. Others include DTE Energy President Jerry Norcia, Apple CEO Tim Cook, DOW CEO Jim Fitterling and Consumers Energy President Patti Pope.
Herman Miller CEO Andi Owen, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber, Mark Bernstein of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm and Whirlpool Corp. Vice President Jeff Noel — among dozens of others — have also signed on to support the initiative. Lansing Mayor Andy Schor also serves on the leadership committee.
“Solidarity is for all of us,” Bieber said in a press release last week. “We stand against any form of discrimination in the workplace or in the community — no one should be fired or discriminated against because of who they are or who they love. We are dedicated to fighting for a Michigan that’s open and welcoming to all.”
Alongside Crenshaw, Lansing City Council President Peter Spadafore and East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier — both members of the LGBTQ community — also voiced support for the amendments to the state law.
“Nobody should be denied public accommodations or be fired for who they love or who they are,” Spadafore said. “It’s long been my hope that legislators would follow Lansing’s lead and enshrine these rights into state law. That hasn’t happened. But we’re further along as a society, so hopefully hearts and minds have moved on this.”
“It’s necessary because right now, people of different sexual orientations can be legally discriminated against,” Beier added. “It’s amazing to me how quickly things have changed for the LGBTQ community within just the last 10 years. It’s clear we still have some room to grow, but I think we have the willpower to get there together.”
If the amendments pass through the legislature or the ballot, Michigan would become the 22nd state to specifically bolster protections for its LGBTQ residents. Movement on those civil rights amendments, however, have long been stalled by Republicans lawmakers — even with vocal support from former Gov. Rick Snyder.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, for example, said last year that he didn’t plan to hold a vote on civil rights legislation, warning it would clash with religious freedoms.
“I don’t think religion should be in the practice of discriminating against people based on who they are,” argued Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope. “I wish the legislature would have acted on something in the last 30 years, but since that doesn’t seem to be happening, it makes sense to take this to the voters. Discrimination still happens.”
“The fact that it’s legal to discriminate against someone based on their gender identity or sexual orientation — particularly in 2020 — is just totally unacceptable,” added gay Ingham County Commissioner Ryan Sebolt. “Michigan cannot continue to be labeled as a state where discrimination is legal but yet it continues to happen.”
Fair and Equal Michigan is confident in its movement. Organizers, as part of the announcement, cited a survey of 600 registered voters that shows 77.5% were likely to support legislation to amend the civil rights law to add protections for LGBTQ people — including 75% of leaning GOP voters and 66% of strong Republican voters.
“History will remember this,” added Ryan Buck, a gay man and trustee for Lansing Community College. “At a certain point, people need to stand up for what’s right. I truly believe that history will remember folks that came out on the wrong side of this, who stood against this inclusion and who came out in support of equality for all.”