BY STEPHANIE WHITE
It’s time. If there’s one thing that LGBT people in Michigan can agree on is that it is clearly time we updated our statewide nondiscrimination law to include all of us. You know it’s time, I know it’s time and 70 percent of voters know it’s time. Even Gov. Snyder agrees. In his last State of the State address he called on our Legislature to look at expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to finally outlaw discrimination in our state based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
So how do we get there? The good news is that we aren’t the first state to develop a strategy to win our rights. There are many lessons to be learned from around the country on what works and what doesn’t.
The bad news (or at least sobering news) is that there are no quick and easy paths, only long hard work. Luckily, we aren’t starting from scratch. But there are still a few years of work to put the pieces in place and get our lawmakers in Lansing to be ready to do the right thing.
The only sure way we know we can win is by a multi-year process that includes:
1) Winning over more and more friends in the Legislature who will stand with us;
2) Strengthening the skills and capacity of organizations all across the LGBT movement to work smarter and in coordination towards our common goal;
3) Educating and engaging our allies such as the labor movement, the business community and faith communities, among others;
4) Correcting the fears and misconceptions that the general public now has about what expanding our rights means, or doesn’t mean, for them.
Thankfully, the Board of Directors for Equality Michigan just recently reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to making this work our top priority. They charged me and the rest of the staff with developing the multi-year plan that brings together all of the parts of the LGBT community across our state to work as one united movement. And although I’ve only been in the role for one week, I’ve already heard from organizations far and wide that they are ready to work together, and are eager for a central plan.
But, you may ask, why don’t we just put it to a vote? Lots of us have looked at that 70 percent public approval and felt encouraged. We want to believe that our friends and neighbors will support us this time, but unfortunately we don’t really know if they will. It is a gamble. And like most gambling, it could produce a big payoff, or it could produce a painful cost. The people who will pay that cost are the members of our community who are already most vulnerable: trans people, poor people, and disproportionately, people of color. That’s why we have to first invest in our coalition and first educate the public before we are ready to withstand those attacks. And then, if we decide to proceed, the people who are most vulnerable must be the ones who help us make that decision.
One of the lessons learned from history is that the high approval rating can be easily eroded when the opposition starts attacking our community and trying to drive wedges between us. We have to spend between $3-7 for every $1 they spend just to have a chance at winning a popular vote. That can quickly add up to $15-20 million. And then there’s the moral question of letting the public vote on our basic rights. We call foul (rightfully so) when they vote to deny our rights, so it’s hard to ask them to grant us our rights. Many in our community won’t support that strategy, leaving us divided. And, finally, if we lose, we know from history that we have closed off the path to equality for many years. A huge cost to all of us.
The winning path to protecting our basic rights is longer than any of us would like. But the leadership in our community is smarter, more sophisticated and bigger than ever. And, most importantly, we are united in our commitment to working together until we can stop saying, “It’s time,” and start saying, “It’s done!”