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It’s a new year, and Equality Michigan has a new political team in place to drive what they are calling a new three to four year legislative plan to move LGBT equality forward in the state.
“We are launching our new political effort to expand gay rights in Michigan,” said Nathan Triplett, the organization’s new political director.
Triplett is by no means a new face to LGBT equality. He rose to prominence as a teen fighting to implement a gay/straight alliance at Portage Central High School, served as an ally voice while an undergraduate student at Michigan State University and helped organize the organization’s Local Electeds Against Discrimination (LEAD) and the approval and implementation of more local human rights ordinances across the state. The last two were part of a comprehensive strategy to create a groundswell of support for amending the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA).
Triplett will report to Stephanie White, Equality Michigan’s recently installed executive director. Sommer Foster, who is Equality Michigan’s director of policy and outreach, will work in tandem with Triplett.
The trio, during an interview in their third floor offices of the AFL-CIO building in downtown Lansing, said the new proposal will focus on several prongs.
The project will work to elect more LGBT-friendly lawmakers to the Legislature in 2016. In 2017 it will work on local municipal elections to “build the bench” of potential lawmakers who are also friends from various regions, and in 2018 the group will focus on flipping the currently anti-gay Senate to an LGBT supportive one, as well as working to elect a supporter to the governor’s office
“This includes our friends who are Republican,” White emphasized in the conversation, noting that many members of the GOP, particularly younger members, are supportive of LGBT equality.
“These are critical elections that will shape the political landscape over the next decade,” said Triplett.
Reshaping the political landscape will be key in amending the state’s civil rights act to include LGBT people. Attempts to amend ELCRA have been introduced regularly in the state Legislature since 1981, and in 2014 two different bills to amend the civil rights act received the first public hearings on the matter. However, Republicans wanted to drop gender identity from legislation, while LGBT community leaders and Democrats wanted the bill with gender identity — sponsored by East Lansing State Rep. Sam Singh. The non-inclusive legislation was sponsored by Republican Frank Foster who lost his seat in a primary in August 2014.
As a result of the debate over inclusion of the transgender community, the GOP controlled House did not bring either bill up for a vote in committee and both proposals died at the end of 2014. Current House leadership has said, despite calls by Gov. Rick Snyder to amend the law, that they have no interest in having the discussion.
With what appears to be an intractable opposition to full LGBT equality leading in the current GOP controlled Legislature, some activists have launched a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution. The proposal’s language was approved by the State Board of Canvassers on Dec. 29. The proposal would amend the constitution to include gender identity, sexual orientation, gender and sex as protected classes. The move would eliminate the 2004 marriage amendment as well.
Supporters have until July 11 to collect 315,654 valid signatures of registered Michigan voters. Collecting that many signatures could cost the ballot initiative committee leading the effort — Fair Michigan — at least $1 million.
How well such a ballot measure will fair with voters in November is up for significant debate. Basic polling indicates the measure could pass. However, when that polling is subject to modeling efforts, which take voter behavior into account as well as challenge the support for LGBT equality with political messaging threatening men in women’s bathrooms, the results show a significant defeat in the offing. Those differing political models have created what, to some, may appear to be a split in the community. But Equality Michigan leaders said that is not quite an accurate assessment.
“What you see is a conversation about strategy,” said White. “We are unified as a community that civil rights have to happen. We’re debating how that happens.”
She noted that in addition to the plans to rev up political support through elected officials, the new strategy will also harness “affinity groups” to tell the LGBT equality story.
“That includes people of color and people of faith, as well as labor,” said Foster.
To accomplish this, the agency will tap into the existing network of community centers and LGBT equality organizations including groups like PFLAG and LAHR. With that grassroots movement, the organization will provide in-depth trainings on how to lobby and deliver effective messages on LGBT equality through story-telling
“We need labor telling the story of how they have always stood with the community,” said Foster. “We need LGBT people of color to tell their stories, and we definitely need people of faith telling their stories as well.”
The hope is that using this model — which all three leaders said was not a new model, as it is borrowed from numerous other social justice movements over time — will help shift the discussion on LGBT equality and civil rights making it more untenable for politicians to fail to support inclusive legislation.
It will also, Triplett noted, create powerful political ties.
And that political strength is essential in addressing LGBT equality issues and beating back so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) like bills which would carve out exemptions to allow religious groups to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The political power, White noted, would also prevent politicians from trading away our rights — as apparently happened last year when Snyder signed legislation allowing adoption agencies that contract with the state of Michigan to discriminate against those to whom they would provide adoption services. Snyder allegedly traded his signature on that bill for a legislative deal to fix the state’s crumbling road infrastructure.
“The goal is to get to the point where we aren’t bargained like that,” White said.