Editor’s Note: This open letter was penned by Michelle Fox-Phillips and Charin Davenport speaking as the organizers of a meeting of Michigan’s transgender community which took place in Ferndale, Michigan on Nov. 14, 2015. Over 40 transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming community leaders attended this diverse gathering including, trans men, trans women, and trans people of color. What follows is the consensus reached by Michigan’s transgender community at that meeting.
Dear Ms. Nessel,
After learning of your efforts to place LGBT Civil Rights on the statewide ballot in the November 2016 general election, representatives of Michigan’s Transgender Community met at Affirmations to discuss what your proposal means for our community. Knowing that transgender people would be the target of the most vicious anti-LGBT attacks in a ballot campaign, we struggled to understand why you did not find it important to engage the community most at risk before launching a campaign that so critically effects our welfare. Nonetheless, by the close of our meeting, we reached a general consensus that it would be helpful to request you meet with the leaders of Michigan’s Transgender Community in order for us to understand your position and in the hopes that you would listen to our concerns, as well.
However, we were dismayed when, just two days later, Mlive published a piece by Tim Skubick, in which you are quoted as saying: “We are full steam ahead. I won’t talk to anybody about stopping [the ballot initiative]”. After reading this and other comments over the last several days, it appears to us that you have chosen to ignore the very real and serious danger your actions pose for Michigan’s Transgender Community.
It is our fundamental belief that we cannot be represented in the discussion about our civil rights if transgender people are not included in the discussion. To shut us out is demeaning and denies us the dignity we deserve.
Therefore, we feel we would be doing ourselves a great disservice if we did not make this appeal to you and your better judgement. We hope that you will seriously consider the following principle concerns Michigan’s Transgender Community has with your proposed statewide ballot initiative:
First among our concerns is safety. Nowhere in the United States is anti-transgender violence more horrific and discrimination more egregious than Michigan. A statewide political brawl with anti-equality forces places Michigan’s Transgender Community at grave risk of further violence spurred by hate-filled rhetoric. In Houston, anti-transgender violence increased during the recent ballot campaign and has not abated since. Transgender people in Houston live in fear, while the anti-trans forces feel more emboldened than ever.
Second, our basic civil rights should be protected by law and not subject to the capriciousness of a largely uninformed or worse, misinformed public. The transgender community is afforded very few privileges and our rights should not be decided by those who are able to take their privileges for granted. If the opposition succeeds in convincing the majority of voters that we are a threat to their way of life, their beloved institutions, and their families, we cannot win at the ballot.
Third, relatively few voters have any knowledge of the transgender community beyond the stereotypes of pop culture references and the fear-based images conjured by transphobic leaders. Proposing a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of a transgender community in such an environment will likely reinforce those negative messages. Make no mistake, the hate-filled, fear-mongering message used by our opposition is simple, cheap and incredibly effective. To counter it will require a massive campaign to educate Michigan’s voters about the nuances of what it means to be transgender and then convince them to approve a change to our state’s constitution. To believe that this massive undertaking can be accomplished within the time frame of your ballot campaign is naive at best.
Fourth, if voters turn down this ballot initiative, it will be very difficult if not impossible to convince our legislators to amend the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act. Even a failure to get the requisite signatures needed for the ballot will signal a lack of support to amend ELCRA in the near future. Lawmakers would only have to point to either one of those failures as evidence that the lives of transgender people simply don’t matter and, therefore, are not worth the political risk it would require to extend our civil rights under ELCRA.
Finally, the millions of dollars that would go into a single ballot campaign would be put to better use building a healthy culture of inclusion and awareness in Michigan. This includes working to elect transgender friendly candidates and training transgender people and our advocates to increase community awareness and acceptance.
Clearly, Ms. Nessel, you are passionate about LGBT civil rights. The transgender community of Michigan shares that passion. However, we are also passionate that transgender people are the authoritative voice for and about transgender people and to exclude the transgender community from deliberations about our own freedoms, rights and safety denies us the agency we have fought so hard to attain. If you believe, as we do, that transgender people deserve to have their rights fully protected, then certainly you must agree – decisions about us cannot be made without us as full and equitable partners in the process.
In light of the reasons stated above, we the Transgender Community of Michigan do not believe that a ballot initiative should move forward at this time.