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A Community Comes Together for LGBTQ+ Equality During History-Making Michigan Senate Hearing

Sarah Bricker Hunt

Local LGBTQ+ activists, leaders, allies and community members made history last week, adding their vocal support to the Michigan Senate Committee on Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety’s historical hearing on amending the state’s civil rights act.

The Feb. 2 hearing marked the Senate’s first official act in the new term, underscoring how the legislative body is prioritizing its work on expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to include LGBTQ+ protections.

Several community members spoke in support of the amendment, including Sen. Jeremy Moss and state Rep. Jason Hoskins, Hazel Park Mayor Pro Tem and Michigan Civil Rights Commission member Luke Londo, ACLU Michigan Staff Attorney Jay Kaplan, Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott and Detroit Police Corporal and LGBT Liaison Dani Woods.

Sen. Moss remarked on how far LGBTQ+ support in Michigan has come, especially in light of the current nationwide political climate. “There was a time when our community had few outlets, and it was incumbent upon us to express who we were alone,” Moss said. “To get to the point here, 50 years later, a week removed from the governor’s State of the State, where an Elliott-Larsen amendment was brought up and received the longest and largest applause… is quite a journey.”

State Rep. Hoskins also remarked on Gov. Whitmer’s Jan. 25 State of the State speech. “As the governor stated in her State of the State, ‘Bigotry is bad for business,’” Hoskins said. “Individuals and companies are prioritizing inclusivity and diversity in their decision making. There’s a reason for that.”

Support for the amendment at the hearing and among the documents submitted to the Committee according to the official record was overwhelming. A total of 32 speakers or documents were in favor of the amendment, while four were in opposition, including two speakers at the hearing.

Community members Libby Ranshaw and Kathy Busard spoke out about their opposition to the legislation, citing fears about sexual assault against women at the hands of men only pretending to be transgender women in single gender spaces like bathrooms. The committee responded quickly, with one member, Sen. Jeff Irwin, remarking that he found the speakers’ testimony “offensive.”

“I thought it was offensive to the many, many people who are victims of sexual violence because they are LGBTQ,” Irwin said. “Those are the victims who we are trying to protect here, by making sure we respect the rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of whether or not some people think they deserve those equal rights or not.”

Committee Chair Sen. Stephanie Chang noted that the issues of sexual assault and domestic violence are “very real and very important,” but added, “I am horrified you would bring those issues together in conversation about this bill.”

The committee also heard from the wife of Aimee Stephens, the transgender woman whose workplace discrimination case went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020. The Court ruled a month after Stephens’ death in May 2020 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes sex discrimination protections. An emotional Donna Stephens told the committee that she believes Aimee’s health decline was related to the loss of her job. “The harms of discrimination are both real and felt by people like Aimee,” she said.

Knott testified about the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth and transgender women of color. “We’re witnessing a sea of change,” she said. “But do not be fooled — discrimination is a very real problem that our department of victim services sees every day. Discrimination in employment, housing, education, healthcare and, more often than not, violent crimes disproportionately being targeted at our transgender women of color.”

“It’s no secret to any of us in this room that recently we’ve seen an uptick of horrific behavior aimed at our youth,” Knott added. Amending the ELCRA, she said, would show LGBTQ+ youth that they are loved for who they are.

Corporal Woods’ testimony before the committee mentioned her 16-year marriage and her time on the Detroit police force. At one point, the officer relayed an incident that occurred on the job, when her partner made a transphobic comment about a citizen. “No legislation protects my community,” she noted. During the hearings, Woods said she is proud to serve as the police department’s LGBT liaison, a role that has her connecting officers with training and awareness initiatives.

“Explicit LGBTQ inclusion is so incredibly important so that people know they are wanted and valued by any institution,” Woods said. “Sexual orientation and gender identity is no longer conversed about in secret, where only whispers and conversation amongst LGBTQ+ members in communal silos feel free to voice their feelings and tribes. There is no reason to wait, and it is imperative that we not wait for full non-discrimination protections under the law so that people will fully see ourselves in the state civil rights law and that they know we are protected, no matter what.”

Luke Londo, who is openly bisexual, provided powerful testimony to the committee focused on the historical nature of the hearing and on his own personal experience growing up in the Upper Peninsula. “Today, we are presented with the historic opportunity to change the climate in Michigan so that the students we educate don’t leave right after graduation,” his prepared remarks read. “So that our best and brightest don’t look for more welcoming places to build their careers and families; so that corporations considering Michigan don’t turn away because their employees want to live in vibrant cities that embrace diversity.”

In his remarks, Londo touched on his teen years in the U.P. “I quit playing football when I was 16 because it was easier than coming out in a small town in the Upper Peninsula,” he said. “In fact I didn't come out until college, and I still remember the raw terror of that moment as I know my life would be divided into what happened before and after that conversation.”

As he grew up, Londo noted, he didn’t have leaders to look up to like Moss or Hoskins, who are both openly LGBTQ+; out lesbian Attorney General Dana Nessel, and others. “But our children do now,” he said. “My four-month-old son does now. Please, do right by each other, do right by our children and do right by our state by explicitly extending the civil rights protections within the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to the LGBTQ+ community.”

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