BY AJ TRAGER
YPSILANTI – State Sen. Rebekah Warren spoke Jan. 26 with members of local and national LGBT organizations on the importance of passing federal, statewide and municipal LGBT protections and how far Michigan has to go to become a fully inclusive state.
Sponsored by the Equality Research Center at Eastern Michigan University, Warren was joined by Greg Varnum, director of external relations of Equality Michigan, and Naomi Goldberg, who leads the research analysis at the Movement Advancement Project, an independent think tank that provides research, insight and analysis that help speed equality for LGBT people. Varnum was standing in for Equality Michigan’s executive director, Emily Dievendorf.
Warren has introduced amendments to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), Michigan’s Civil Rights law, every session since winning her first position into state elected office nine years ago and vows that she will continue to do so until the state gets it done.
“It’s often said that the states become the incubators for the federal government. And here we find that sometimes the localities, or municipal governments, become the incubators for the state, and they can push policy up to us (the legislate),” Warren said.
Polling shows that upwards of 75 percent of Michiganders believe that LGBT protections under ELCRA should be granted in the state and 70 percent believe those protections are already available, Varnum said.
Eighteen states in the country lack sexual orientation and gender identity protections in the workplace, covering nearly 52 percent of LGBT individuals. Turning up the temperature on the legislature through lobbying and calling elected officials when a bill has been introduced is one way to push for an update to those protections, but establishing municipal LGBT protections will also move the state forward.
“In the last few years we have actually passed so many local ordinances (for LGBT protections) that we now have more than any other state in the United States,” Varnum said. “Last year we passed Pennsylvania. They had 32; we now have 35.”
ELCRA was a point of tension last term with two different bills having been introduced into the state legislature; one version, introduced by Warren in the Senate and Rep. Sam Singh in the House, provided for sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression protections and the other, introduced by Rep. Frank Foster, only provided for sexual orientation protections. Efforts to pass ELCRA failed in 2014, but 2015 is a new year, and Warren is expected to reintroduce the amendment containing all protections.
The original Republican bill was to be passed in conjunction with the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act (MiRFRA), which sought to protect people’s “deeply held religious beliefs” from certain government actions. Activists and the LGBT community have nicknamed the act a “license to discriminate,” fearing that the passing of this act could provide avenues for religion to be used as a weapon.
While both sides of the political spectrum are seeking protections for sexual orientation, leaving gender expression and gender identity out of the equation poses significant dangers for all LGBT individuals. Removing the expression protections leaves those who act or present as more “butch” or more “femme” than an assumed gender presentation, for example, at risk for discrimination that can come from any corner. ELCRA is more than just a workplace equality issue; it is a statewide incentive to keep more innovative, diverse minds from leaving the state.
A recent Gallup poll found that 5.4 million people in the workplace identify as LGBT. Studies on resume content have found that individuals who identify as LGBT or have LGBT qualifications listed on their resume are less likely to get a call back than someone who doesn’t have those skills listed, Goldberg said.
“When we think of America, we think of the basic bargain: you work hard, you get ahead. For LGBT people, that basic bargain is broken,” Goldberg said. “For LGBT people it is harder to find and keep a good job. And then once you get that job, you work just as hard but get fewer benefits and pay more in taxes.”
Equality Michigan, big businesses and other groups such as Freedom Michigan (a coalition of people focused on updating the ELCRA with all LGBT protections included) fought hard last year to keep MiRFRA from showing up on Snyder’s desk for signature. However, MiRFRA has been reintroduced into the Senate by State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake. Organizers are urging Michiganders to get active in fighting the passing of the bill by joining LGBT equality groups and contacting their state representatives.
An amendment to the ELCRA may not happen in 2015 despite a push from the LGBT movement. In his State of the State speech, Gov. Snyder said that he would like to see continued discussion on the ELCRA amendment. However, House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt.Pleasant, has already stated that ELCRA is not on the top of his list. Thus, Equality Michigan has started preparing for a 2016 ballot initiative that could cost upwards of $20 million.
“We’ve gotten smarter in our organizing,” Warren said, “I think we have the best coalition that we’ve ever had with activists from the LGBT community, with allies, with business folks, with folks from academia and folks from public policy. We have everybody coming to the table in a very different way to say, ‘This is morally the right thing to do,’ because everyone deserves protection in the workplace, at home, and to not worry about being evicted because their landlord doesn’t like how they look or who they share their home with. We also know economically it is one of the most important things that we can do.”