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By Stephanie White
We are all tired of waiting for the Michigan Legislature to get their act together and expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to include all of us, aren’t we? When they aren’t ignoring us (which is most days), they either roll back our rights, (such as codifying into law the right of adoption agencies to discriminate against us), or they fumble an attempt at doing something right (such as the recent failure to expand ELCRA). I understand it when I hear, “It can’t be done. They are broken.”
But I have another suggestion. What if we get serious about taking matters into our own hands? What if, instead of giving up on their brokenness, or waiting for them to come around, we build the power and the political conditions that lead the Legislature to do the right thing? 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. We have a serious shot at updating the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by 2019. If you are with us, here’s what I suggest we do together over the next 3-4 years.
Build Relationships with Both Parties
There’s an old adage in politics: “There are no permanent allies and no permanent enemies. Just permanent interests.” Today in Michigan’s movement for LGBT rights, that couldn’t be more accurate. Historically we have been much more successful expanding our legal rights with the help of our Democratic friends. And too often, we’ve had to fight Republican enemies who demonize us. But of course, neither party is homogenous and we see people evolving every day.
Winning equality requires us to become more nuanced in working with lawmakers of both political parties. This isn’t easy to do, especially in a highly polarizing presidential election year, but it can be done. Equality Michigan has started by creating a bi-partisan board of directors whose members are building relationships for us all over the Capitol.
Increase Our Political Impact
Since we don’t have the votes we need today to expand Elliott-Larsen, we have to create a majority of lawmakers who do share our values. Not a Democratic or Republican majority, but a pro-equality majority from both sides of the aisle. By pooling our resources and investing wisely, we can bring a few more allies with us to Lansing in both 2016 and 2018 and thereby shift the balance of power. Equality Michigan is helping to reboot Pride PAC and finding new investments for the first time in many years to make this possible.
Lawmakers are like the rest of us – there is a lot that they care about and a lot they are asked to do. It’s easier to forget, to delay and to ignore the people who they don’t interact with. We have to be relevant to lawmakers’ lives. We have to build relationships of mutual respect and power. You can be part of that by showing up to candidate and lawmaker events, by helping with campaigns, by donating your time, talent and your voice to the political process. Let’s all agree to vote this year. It doesn’t even matter who you vote for, but only that lawmakers understand that the LGBT community is a voting population.
There’s power in numbers and we know we have the numbers on our side. More and more people every day believe that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be against the law. We need our lawmakers to know that everyone from faith leaders, business people, union members, straight allies, and more, support expanding Elliott-Larsen to include all of us.
In the next two years you will see more coalitions like the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition emerging. Equality Michigan is working with LGBT Detroit to create a Queer People of Color Caucus across the state, and the ACLU has already launched the Transgender Advocacy Project. The state network of PFLAG is organizing straight allies, the National LGBTQ Task Force is working with faith leaders, and Pride At Work (the pro-LGBT union group) is rebooting their work in Michigan. You can build the power and impact of these groups by joining ongoing efforts or by creating your own.
Tell Our Stories
Lastly, we know we still have a great deal of teaching we have to do. We have to educate lawmakers, the general public, the media, and our friends, family and neighbors. When we tell our stories at our community gatherings, at our club meetings, to the press, and to lawmakers, they understand us and they support us. We have to win over both hearts and minds, and all the fact sheets in the world don’t carry as much weight as our personal stories and human connections. In 2017 when the ECLRA expansion bill is introduced again for the new legislative session, we’ll all come to Lansing to show our collective support and tell our stories en masse.
As you might recognize, this is not a new path that I’m suggesting. It’s the same winning path to providing environmental protections, to expanding health care and to winning civil rights. I know we’ve tried and stumbled and been thwarted in the past, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t win our rights.
As a friend of mine likes to say, “‘No’ is just the first thing they say before we win.”