MICHIGAN – Public opinion on LGBT rights in Michigan has shifted over the years and as grassroots groups do more community outreach, members of the LGBT community are beginning to see a shift in public opinion and employment along with increased regional protections. But is the state progressing fast enough to entice and keep the efforts and employability of qualified LGBT college graduates?
In 2013 the Detroit Regional Chamber released a study called “Mobility and Employment, Michigan’s Millennial Talent: Where Are They Going?” which reported that 40 percent of Michigan graduates leave the state. Sixty-six thousand college degrees were handed out in 2012, which means that Michigan lost the minds of more than 26,000 individuals who took their expertise to another state, a figure that business and education leaders say must be changed. Thirty-eight percent of those who left after graduation moved to more LGBT inclusive areas such as Chicago, New York or California, the study showed.
That same year the Michigan Civil Rights Commission published a report on LGBT inclusion in the state that found Michigan has an estimated 182,436 LGBT individuals contributing to the workforce. Of that number, 91 complaints per year are filed alleging that they were discriminated in the workplace based on their sexual orientation. And those are just the people who came forward, the report reads: “It is important to note that the number of complaints filed with state enforcement agencies is not an accurate depiction of the number of cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.”
“What we realized with Gov. Snyder’s Civil Rights Commission putting out a report, stating how it is costing Michigan millions of dollars every year to not have workplace protections, and when companies like Google say that it doesn’t know how much it wants to grow the Ann Arbor operation if the state has these (anti-LGBT) policies, it is becoming a serious issue for us in the state,” Director of External Relations at Equality Michigan, Greg Varnum told BTL.
National spending power by the LGBT community is estimated at more than $800 billion annually, a largely untapped demographic that companies are keen to reach. The economy is moving more towards tech companies and the advancement of information services, Varnum said. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, one of the largest tech companies in the world, came out recently as a gay man.
“All of these major corporations, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Dell – all contribute to pro-LGBT causes. And what kind of climate do you think these companies are looking for? Are they looking for a state where their employees are going to feel safe and protected, or do you think they’re looking for a state (like Michigan) where they are going to have to go an extra mile to sell themselves to potential employees to have them stay in that state,” Varnum asks.
“So it presents a very real economic threat to the state that we all need to be worried about because the types of economy and businesses we are trying to attract here are really turned off by this behavior,” Varnum pressed.
In the 2013 Report on LGBT Inclusion Under Michigan Law, an anonymous source was quoted describing how workplace discrimination harmed their family’s livelihood when the breadwinner was seen by his employer at a gay bar and was immediately terminated, with no means of fighting for his job, forcing the family to live on unemployment benefits for as long as the state would allow.
“The University of Michigan has already come forward and said that it is losing too many professors because of this, that it (the lack of LGBT protections) is hurting the University, and that it cannot educate the students the way it would like to because of this discriminatory law,” Varnum said.
So what can Michigan do to fight the lack of inclusive protections, to keep people in the state? LGBT activist groups suggest focusing on the cities and making sure that each one adds sexual orientation and gender identity to their human rights ordinances, as well as continuing to work on eventually passing pro-LGBT legislation statewide.
“Compared to ten years ago, LGBT rights are now a bipartisan issue,” Varnum stressed.
A 2010 census shows that more than 278,000 LGBT people call Michigan their home, with four cities in the mitten added to a list of the top 25 cities in the nation with the highest number of gay and lesbian couples.
The Human Rights Campaign highlighted only 22 Michigan companies in the 2013 Corporate Equality Index report. Among those that were highlighted were the three major automotive companies Chrysler, General Motors and Ford Motor Company, who all received 100 percent for their work integrating workplace protections.
With the second installment of the report, many companies continue to improve their score, determined by how many employee protections and benefits are provided by the company. But others stayed stagnant below the half-way point, in part due to the lack of leadership within state government to include more LGBT protections.
“If you are an LGBT person living in this state, the idea that you can be fired simply because of who you are, and the fact that it does happen, is enough to get a lot of us motivated,” Varnum said. “There are other ramifications that are talked about.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal law enforcement agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination does not currently hold protections for gender identity and sexual orientation and only covers a very limited number of companies, determined by employee base and company size. Michigan does not currently have statewide laws preventing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Last fall efforts to amend the state law to include these protections in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act attracted a broad based coalition working as the Michigan Competitive Workplace Initiative. In spite of overwhelming public support, Republican leadership failed to deliver on the hopes of businesses and activists alike. Early indications by then House Speaker Jase Bolger that a serious effort was underway were thwarted. In the end, a small group of far right politicians set efforts back.