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DETROIT – Two months into the New Year, the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce (DRLGBTCC) has set the pace for establishing relationships and connecting LGBT contacts for Metro Detroit.
The chamber has been recognized as a non-profit since October 2013 and has expanded its board membership to nine as of October 2014, covering Genesee, Lapeer, Lenawee, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, Saint Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne counties. Over the past year the chamber has worked to cement relationships with corporate leaders at GM, Comerica, Chrysler, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Merrill Lynch, Pride Source and the City of Detroit Police Department.
Detroit was designed to house 2.5 million people but currently houses 650,000, with much of the population residing in metro suburbs. CEO of the DRLGBTCC, James Felton Keith, says that gap provides a good opportunity to help scale the southeast Michigan community and how it will cater to the growth of the area while working within the confines of an LGBT-repressive state government.
Currently, with 24 different member partner groups, the DRLGBTCC engages membership and chamber partnership through the executive leadership of company employee resource groups (ERGs). Individuals within the ERGs are establishing robust supplier diversity relationships and workplace equality policies. The chamber wants to find more ways to get suppliers goods and services contracts with these companies.
“Establishing good policy at your ERG or having your ERG advocate to the human resource department with good policy for how to get on board more LGBT businesses or how to identify LGBT business, benefits all of us as we trickle down, even if we are in hospitality or consulting, it creates an ecosystem,” Keith said.
Designed as an early kick-off celebration for Black History Month, the chamber sponsored a town hall meeting Feb. 4 at Wayne State University to discuss the intersections of marriage equality, LGBT unity within the church and the energy in Michigan surrounding a push for LGBT inclusions, are contributing to the current momentum of LGBT activism.
Town Hall speakers included Rev. Roland Stringfellow, pastor at MCC Detroit; Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center at WSU; Jay Kaplan, attorney at the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project; Dana Nessel, attorney for the DeBoer-Rowse family in DeBoer v Snyder (now headed to the Supreme Court of the United States); and Michelle Elizabeth Brown, formerly of the Human Rights Campaign.
Discussion was chaired by Keith, who began the evening with a look at the new documentary “For Faith, For Love, Forever,” which explores the debate on same-sex marriage in the African-American community and its inclusion in the black church. Stringfellow was interviewed and appears in the documentary speaking about his work with the project “Umoja.” The project seeks to understand the experiences of and educate straight black people of faith with the LGBT community in their places of religious practice.
“I can’t immediately start talking about marriage, I have to address marriage equality from a scriptural standpoint. Many within the African-American community would use scriptural arguments to separate folks,” said Stringfellow. “What really is vitally important are the relationships and the kinship that you have with one another. And if you look at scripture, scripture upholds that and says ‘that is what we need to uphold, more so than being dogmatic and legalistic about these particular sacred texts.'”
Kaplan spoke about the “slippery-slope” of the proposed bill in the State Senate, the Michigan Religious Restoration Act, and how it undercuts “non-religious” situations and bends the line between personal ideals and the agenda of a business entity. Nessel took an in-depth look at statewide statistics on how LGBT protections in the state are lacking, the statewide adoption code and how an in-favor ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court could alter access to joint parent adoption for LGBT couples in Michigan.
“If you look at business, inclusion leads. Jay used to call me up and say ‘We need to get up there and talk about the economics of discrimination and show that all of the Fortune 500 companies with non-discrimination provisions, that offer domestic partner benefits notice that they are good for business.’ The thing I want to stress here is the different nature of truth claims,” Hammer said.
Truth claims for LGBT rights function differently in the brain, Hammer says, and operate a different part of the mind when based on what is good for business versus when they are based upon religion. These varying points of argument have different sets of authority and persuasiveness and don’t interact the same way because they provide different truth claims, Hammer explained.
“It’s hypocritical of the Governor in saying that he would run the state like a business,” Hammer said. “Because if he did, he would institute non-discrimination provisions, stop hounding every public employer who tried to provide domestic partnership benefits and would be in favor of marriage equality. And then we look at what the state did.”
Discussing LGBT issues within the range of politics or the church can be hard depending on who the audience is. In efforts to build more bridges between the LGBT community, the church and statewide governmental policies Hammer and Kaplan suggest changing the approach to avoid mucking up the messaging with bias.
“You have to have different messengers and different messages,” Kaplan said. “I think when you look at the media, they do showcase us (the LGBT community) as an affluent community but when you look at demographics there are higher levels of poverty in LGBT families than there are in heterosexual families. And a lot of that is reflective of the discriminatory policies and regulations in our state.”
“What you all do (the chamber) is what we would consider expensive,” Keith said addressing the town hall panel. “Because you have to network person by person and can’t reach a thousand people at once.”
The DRLGBTCC is in the last stages of partnering with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which provides a program that certifies LGBT owned businesses and suppliers of goods and services. Every member of the DRLGBTCC has an opportunity to apply for the program that will help to connect LGBT companies within the area.
“When you think about LGBT politics you should think about the ACLU of Michigan and Equality Michigan etc.,” Keith said. “We (the DRLGBTCC) will not launch social focused campaigns. If you’re thinking about LGBT social issues, you should think about the Ruth Ellis Center, Affirmations or KICK Detroit. Our focus is to be a good partner with the large and small corporations that exist in the southeast region, with some focus on Detroit, since it is the biggest city in the area, and needs the most support from a population standpoint.”
DRLGBTCC board members include: Pamela Alexander (Wayne State University), Kevin Heard (Michigan.Com), Ramon Harris (Chrysler LLC), Kevin Dombrow (Sheraton Hotels), Jan Stevenson (Pride Source / Between The Lines), Dr. Harley Etienne (University of Michigan), Ben Gellman (The Future Project), Mary Fuller (Microsoft) and Rev. Roland Stringfellow (Metropolitan Community Church).