BY AJ Trager
LANSING – On Oct. 30, Dana Nessel, one of four attorneys in the Michigan same-sex marriage case for DeBoer v. Snyder, announced a new bipartisan ballot committee that would work to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the equal protection clause of the Michigan constitution. It would also direct the state Legislature to update all laws to comply including the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. However, a letter authored in response to the announcement by national and state LGBT rights organizations highlights leadership concerns were the initiative to advance without engaging the broader LGBT community.
Signed by 17 LGBT rights organizations and three representatives in the state Legislature, the formal letter calls for collaboration in the movement to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the list of protected classes in the state constitution.
“We all support the need to advance inclusive and comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community of Michigan. We agree with Governor Snyder that it’s time to update Elliott-Larsen so that Michigan can be a competitive destination for top talent,” the release reads. “No one who wants to work hard and provide for themselves and their families should face discrimination. We share this important goal and believe that it is best achieved by working together. Victory in Michigan requires thoughtful planning and, most importantly, sitting down with all of the many communities and groups whose support and engagement will be essential to successfully updating our laws. Any attempt to move forward without a clear path to victory is ultimately a disservice to the LGBT people who live in Michigan and risks dividing our community and others who deserve protection from discrimination.”
As of presstime Nessel had not responded to BTL’s inquiry for her response to the formal letter.
The ballot committee, Fair Michigan, will be co-chaired by Republican Lansing attorney Richard McLellan and Nessel who hopes to begin gathering petition signatures for the ballot proposal early next year. The paperwork was filed Oct. 30 with the Secretary of State to get a constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot.
“We would just be adding different classes of people to the constitution who aren’t getting protection now,” Nessel told the Detroit Free Press. “The fact is that the Michigan Legislature has ignored efforts to protect people, so it’s time we gave Michigan voters the power.”
In his fifth State of the State address in January, Snyder called for legislators to continue discussions on amending ELCRA.
“Let’s keep up that dialogue and let’s show that we can deal with issues of discrimination in our state,” he said.
Many attempts have been made to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the list of protected classes listed under ELCRA. The latest was in 2014, when a coalition comprised of businesses and political figures across the state nearly passed legislation that would have added protections for the LGBT community. However, the initiative failed and no bill was sent to Gov. Snyder’s desk to be signed into law.
“Before we go down this path — and maybe it is the path we should take — we just really need to research it, think through it and see what lessons we can learn from around the country,” said Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan.
Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, was one of three legislators to sign the letter addressing a coalition strategy after Nessel announced her ballot committee. He is cautious of a ballot measure to amend ELCRA and wants the leaders of this push to be very careful in moving forward on any campaign.
“I speak to this from multiple perspectives. I applaud any efforts we can make to work on nondiscrimination initiatives but I also do know how grueling a campaign can be. The folks that are going to be opposing the ballot measure, their playbook is full of misinformation and personal attacks and that can be really hard on members of the LGBT community, particularly the trans community,” Hoadley told BTL.
In 2013 Hoadley played an integral role in a coalition supported measure, One Royal Oak, that solidified nondiscrimination protections for the city. Before entering into Lansing as a state representative, Hoadley worked on similar nondiscrimination campaigns on the national level and in the state in both Kalamazoo and Traverse City.
Many cities adopt nondiscrimination ordinances by way of city council, but a petition signed by Royal Oak residents forced the measure to hit the ballot box. Proposal A was written to uphold an inclusive human rights ordinance in Royal Oak that passed earlier that year but was suspended by petition. That move forced the measure into the hands of voters who, in the November election, voted to uphold the human rights ordinance. The One Royal Oak campaign achieved its goal and the ordinance passed with just 54 percent of the vote, becoming the 30th Michigan city to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
“I am in favor of getting the LGBT community protected but I honestly believe that substantive, long-lasting change happens from the bottom up,” Amy Hunter of the ACLU Trans Advocacy Project said. “You can’t measure the cost of a campaign like this in just dollars; you have to measure it in the potential harm to real human lives.”
Hunter joined the ACLU Michigan Trans Advocacy Project earlier this year and was among the list of signatories on the formal letter. She is following the proposed ordinance in Houston, Texas very closely and is fearful that the anti-trans ads and fear mongering present in the Texas campaign will appear in Michigan. She wants to see a ballot measure with community education on trans lives and says the 2016 ballot proposal could be extremely harmful without said education.
Hunter worked with Hoadley on the nondiscrimination ordinance in Kalamazoo. When she joined the efforts there was a bathroom exemption which she worked diligently to remove from the proposed legislation and also worked in educating the public on the issues surrounding the city ordinance.
“When you put stuff like this on the ballot, it allows for legislators that may not be on board with equality to try and thwart the efforts. I would be concerned about (trans exclusionary) bathroom bills and institutionalizing discriminatory policies in school access for trans athletes. I would be concerned with a Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Hunter said.
As a trans activist and leader in the state, Hunter is disappointed that the trans community was not contacted about the ballot measure launched by Nessel. When talking about trans lives, or an issue directly affecting any community, it is imperative to have their authentic voices share a seat at the planning table.
There are three things that are needed to educate the public, Hunter told BTL. One, they need to be educated about trans people. Two, they need to know why they should care that LGBT protections are added to the state law and get factual updates on nondiscrimination protections and regulations. And three, they need to be told why they should care, Hunter says, because not everyone is up to date on trans issues and knows the struggles trans men and women face on a daily basis.
“The biggest thing we are going to have to do is make sure we can educate the public on the real impact of these changes and then we are going to have an extra obligation to make sure that we are there to emotionally, personally and socially support in particular our trans friends, family and neighbors because unfortunately they are going to find themselves at the center for a lot of the misinformation and lies,” Hoadley said.
According to ballotpedia.org, multiple ballot initiatives have been announced for the 2016 election in Michigan and more are sure to arrive. The future of the death penalty is listed as a potential legislative referral with marijuana legalization, a ban on fracking and an initiative for earned sick time announced as circulating initiatives. And, finally, there is a proposed initiative to repeal the Michigan “Stand Your Ground” act. None of these measures have secured their place on the 2016 ballot.
Any incentive that seeks a spot on the 2016 ballot must get 315,654 signatures from registered voters. In Michigan, petitioners have 180 days from the day their petition was filed to collect signatures. Signatures older than 180 days at the time of filing will be presumed “stale and void.”
Fair Michigan still has to submit language to the Secretary of State and will then begin collecting signatures.
Nessel told the Detroit News the ballot initiative is being endorsed by a Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Kym Worthy, the Democratic prosecutor of Wayne County.
The official letter was authored by the ACLU-Michigan; Equality Michigan; Kalamazoo Gay & Lesbian Resource Center; Benton Harbor Out Center; LGBT Detroit; LGBT Network of West Michigan; Perceptions; Ruth Ellis Center; American Unity Fund; Equality Federation; Freedom for All Americans; Human Rights Campaign; National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund; Michigan PFLAG; GNA Gender Identity Network Alliance; Transgender Michigan; Transgender Advocacy Project; Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo; Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield; and state Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor.
This article has been updated to reflect that the official letter was also signed by PFLAG Michigan, Transgender Michigan and the Gender Identity Network Alliance bringing the total number of signees to 17.