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East Lansing celebrates nation's oldest LGBT nondiscrimination law
By Todd Heywood
Originally printed 3/1/2012 (Issue 2009 - Between The Lines News)
While some in the Michigan legislature are working to push through legislation that would roll back local nondiscrimination laws, the city of East Lansing today will recognize the 40th anniversary of the nation's first-of-its kind nondiscrimination law that protected people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
East Lansing City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Nathan Triplett is sponsoring a resolution to honor the anniversary at the council's Tuesday meeting.
"Outside of East Lansing and the 18 cities that have passed similar ordinances in Michigan, it's still legal in our state to fire someone for being gay," Triplett told Between The Lines. "That's entirely unacceptable. It's also ironic and tragic that at the very moment we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of our groundbreaking policy, there is a bill pending in the state legislature that would void our human relations ordinance and in effect legalize discrimination against LGBT people in East Lansing."
On March 7, 1972, at the urging of the Gay Liberation Movement student group at Michigan State University, the city adopted a law prohibiting the firing or discrimination of a person based on "sex or homosexuality." City Council passed that first law, which applied only to city hiring practices, by a 4 to 1 vote.
Gay Liberation Movement was the forerunner to MSU's current Alliance of Queer and Ally Students, the main campus LGBT student group.
The passage was not without controversy, however. An article in The Advocate, dated May 10, 1972, reported that the original provision allowed city officials to fire any employee for homosexual solicitation. That amendment initially passed on a 3 to 2 vote but was rescinded at the following council meeting on a 3 to 2 vote. In addition to the solicitation clause, that same article cites opposition from Mayor Wilbur Brookover, "He said he had once done a study for the U.S. Navy which indicated that 'no person is a homosexual by nature. Their pattern of behavior is to try and get recruits by telling people homosexuality is natural. I don't feel the employees of this city should be open to that possibility.'"
Even though Brookover was opposed to the move, East Lansing's law laid the groundwork 40 years ago to protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination. However, in Michigan, the state has not adopted comprehensive legislation to extend such protections statewide, leaving it up to each local unit of government to take action. This has lead to serious ballot battles, which were costly and divisive in communities such as Lansing, Hamtramck, and Kalamazoo.
"Because of that first step we can now say today that hundreds of cities across the country have passed and successfully implemented nondiscrimination ordinances covering gay and transgender people," Jon Hoadley, executive director of Unity Michigan, said in an email to BTL. "This has made millions of lives better without the terrible consequences opponents claim will happen."
Advocates from across the state are celebrating the anniversary.
In an emailed statement to BTL, Emily Dievendorf, policy director for the Equality Michigan, had this to say on the anniversary, "East Lansing was brave enough to do right by all of its residents by addressing discrimination at the very point of its acknowledgment. Now, forty years later, other cities are still arguing whether it is worth their time to protect their citizens. Cities on the fence should recognize that East Lansing is a thriving success in a struggling economy for a reason. Welcoming communities reflect the kind of big picture thinking that attracts and retains workers and residents committed to each other and, in turn, growth."
In an interview with BTL, Jeffrey Montgomery, former director of the now defunct Triangle Foundation, praised the anniversary. "East Lansing led the way; others followed," he said. "Michigan was once a real leader in establishing GLBT equality. Now is our time recommit and return to such a role again, " said Montgomery.
Mt. Pleasant, Jackson, and Holland are all municipalities with active movements to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances that include LGBT people. And on Monday, it was announced the city of Flint officially adopted a fully inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance.
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