The numbers keep growing as Michiganders step up and claim equal rights – city by city, township by township. In 2013, ten more municipalities passed local human rights ordinances to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
These local ordinances currently provide a patchwork of protection covering 1,901,597 people in 31 municipalities. And while amending the Elliott-Larsen Act at the state level would bring equality to everyone and is the ultimate goal – the work accomplished across the state at the local level in 2013 is historic.
Much of the effort to change the laws locally has been accomplished through the work of Unity Michigan, a coalition of organizations across the state with Jon Hoadley at the helm. Unity Michigan started coming together in 2007 and by 2011 decided to focus on getting the statewide human rights protections passed. This specific focus has helped them stay on task.
“We took on a multi-prong approach to statewide change,” Hoadley said. “We continue to focus on a way for people to get involved wherever they live, and on educating the public on the fact that in Michigan you can still be fired for being gay.”
The more municipalities that institute protections, the better the case can be made that Michigan is ready for the law to change. Unity Michigan’s “Don’t Change Yourself, Change the Law” initiative has brought thousands of equality supporters together to educate communities about the importance of civil rights legislation, while their “LEAD – Local Electeds Against Discrimination” project demonstrates the support by political leaders throughout the state.
But most impressive is the acceleration of human rights ordinances passed. The ten cities that joined in 2013 are Pleasant Ridge, Kalamazoo Township, Oshtemo Township, Battle Creek, Linden, Delhi Township, Meridian Township, Delta Township, and Trenton had ordinances pass by their governing bodies. Royal Oak faced a ballot initiative to protect the ordinance passed by their city commission, and they successfully became number 31 when voters approved it in November.
The fight for equality in Royal Oak was a substantial one, costing over $100,000 and countless volunteer hours. Multiple organizations stepped in to make the ordinance a reality. There was also a coordinated effort on the west side of the state to make ordinances a reality in Kalamazoo Township and Oshtemo.
Attorney Jay Kaplan of the ACLU is particularly proud of how Unity Michigan has kept the LGBT organizations on the same page.
“Less than a decade ago, most of the LGBT organizations were operating in silos, not working collaboratively, and there were turf wars. I think today we can see that when we work together for common goals (and each organization has an important, vital role to play), we can progress – like we have seen with the number of local communities passing LGBT-inclusive human rights ordinances, which has helped build momentum for eventual passage of LGBT-inclusive civil rights laws. When we speak in one united voice, we’re viewed by policy makers as stronger and they start to listen.
“I believe that Unity Michigan has made a difference in that it has gotten all the LGBT and LGBT-allied organizations to sit down at one table, to identify our common goals and objectives for the LGBT community, and to recognize the importance of collaboration in reaching those goals. There is strength and power in working together and no one organization can do it all.
“The ACLU of Michigan has been involved with Unity Michigan since its inception back in 2007. We have a history of working together with allied organizations and as a non-LGBT specific organization we have connections to those allies that can partner with Unity in the campaign for LGBT equality.”
As the state’s largest LGBT community center, Affirmations was able to hold two voting seats at the table of Unity Michigan, and able to administer a mini-grant that was used to build communications between all community centers. They were also the host of many Unity Michigan meetings.
“From my experience, Unity Michigan got us all to the table and built relationships among the LGBT organizations that are going to help us in other issues as well,” said Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia.
Garcia said that the idea of “unity” is crucial in finally getting equal rights in Michigan. “This shows the state that we are working together. Ten years after the loss in 2004 (anti-gay marriage amendment) there is still this aftertaste, this idea that we’re at each other’s throats or something, but that just is not the case. We are working together. And we are not going to stop.”
The Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center is the most recent addition to Unity Michigan, joining this year to help with getting ordinances enacted and connect the work across the state. “Unity Michigan has been an incredible group of organizations to work and collaborate with over the last year. By working together we are seeing true policy change at the local level and growing support to amend Elliott-Larsen,” said KGLRC Executive Director Zachary Bauer. “I am exceptionally proud to work along side such amazing partner organizations and LGBT leaders. It has been amazing to see this group coalesce behind this shared goal.”
The KGLRC was able to engage over 7,500 pro-equality voters in southwest Michigan, leading to the two new ordinances in the area. KGLRC also provided support to the ONE Battle Creek campaign and considerable staffing resources to the ONE Royal Oak campaign last November.
KICK – The Agency for LGBT African Americans typically focuses on the Detroit and Hamtramck communities, but continues to grow and connect beyond those borders. Executive Director Curtis Lipscomb explained, “Unity Michigan is the first statewide coalition KICK has joined and remained a member since the winter of 2011. Staff members John A. Trimble, Alvina M.H. Bursey and I have been voting board members and The LEAD Academy graduates Bursey and Oliver Buffington Jr. have participated in the annual organizational retreats to secure Unity Michigan’s continued affirming camaraderie and structure.”
KICK also helped with the ONE Royal Oak Campaign, sending Project Coordinator Bursey to lead staff and volunteers in door-to-door canvasing and phone bank recruitment.
Detroit has had a nondiscrimination ordinance since 1979 protecting gays and lesbians, and that ordinance was updated in 2008 to include gender identity and expression. “The City of Detroit leads within Michigan in legal protections that benefit its residents. As a Detroit LGBT organization, KICK is obligated to assist our neighboring urban areas in achieving protections, therefore a connected and stronger Michigan develops, attracts and retains a welcoming population,” Lipscomb said.
The Ruth Ellis Center, whose work focuses on homeless and at risk LGBT youth, has also been involved in fighting for equality across the state. “As a direct service provider for homeless and runaway LGBTQ youth, Ruth Ellis Center is a unique partner in the coalition. We have contributed what we can to the broader advocacy efforts because it will improve the work prospects for the young people who seek supportive services here,” said Executive Director Jerry Peterson. “Collaborating strengthens our awareness and understanding of each partner and their vital contribution to creating safety and equality for LGBTQ folks in Michigan.”
Youth at Ruth Ellis Center are provided basic needs like food and shelter, as well as counseling and training and help finding work. The reality that in Michigan they can still be fired and discriminated against for being gay is just one of the many challenges they face as they become adults.
Equality Michigan Communications Director Greg Varnum has seen collaborations come and go over the years, and EM has been part of most of them. By working on a specific issue, Unity Michigan has been able to stay focused. “Prior to Unity Michigan being created, there had been numerous attempts to build a coalition of the organizations engaging on LGBT public policy. While those efforts had varying degrees of success, none of them had much staying power. While the sole focus of the coalition’s work is workplace discrimination, through Unity we have built more long-lasting working relationships that benefit our work on every issue,” Varnum said.
“While we do not claim credit for cumulative work done by the coalition, Equality Michigan is particularly proud of our work supporting the ONE Royal Oak campaign,” said Varnum. “Adding ten local communities to the list of places in Michigan where LGBT people are provided legal protections from harassment and discrimination is a big deal. That momentum would not be there if it were not for the tremendous work poured into these ten communities, and especially the way the statewide LGBT communities came together to support the ballot initiative in Royal Oak.”
The Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion is a 72-year-old social justice organization working to build sustainable inclusive communities and opportunity for all. They participate in Unity Michigan through their Faith & LGBT Equality Project.
“Our organization participates as the lead partner working to recruit allies from the faith community for the purpose of challenging discrimination against LGBT individuals here in Michigan,” said Kevin Hogan, manager of the Faith and LGBT Equality Project. “I am most proud of the fact that since we began our participation with the Coalition the number of ordinances protecting LGBT citizens here in Michigan has moved from 16 to 31! In many instances the support of the faith community has been an important part of this success.”
Hogan also credits Unity Michigan’s Jon Hoadley for the group’s success.
“I must mention how important the leadership of Jon Hoadley and his team have been to the success of the Coalition. He is a truly effective leader that keeps our organizations and our roles in focus and moving to reach goals,” he said.