With Gov. Whitmer holding a signing ceremony in Lansing this week, members of Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community were given a major milestone to celebrate while also being emphatically shown that they remain a prime target for those hoping to score political points by fueling bigotry and sowing hate.
The reason for celebration came after an overwhelming majority in the Michigan House voted to amend our state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) on March 8 to explicitly include LGBTQ+ people. With the Senate already passing the same legislation, Gov. Whitmer quickly signed the bill into law on March 16. This culminates nearly 50 years of effort to explicitly add sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to ELCRA, making Michigan the 22nd state to have civil rights laws that are LGBTQ+ inclusive.
It is a tremendous victory that deserves to be hailed. But, one day after the House vote, an exclamation point was put on the undeniable fact that the work to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Michigan is far from done.
My euphoria over the passing of this historic legislation was quickly dampened the next day when I saw a posting on social media from the Oakland County Republican Party, which was encouraging people to attend a protest outside the Sidetrack Bookshop in downtown Royal Oak for hosting a “Drag Queen Story Hour” for children. In the eyes of the Oakland GOP, a drag performer reading a children’s story to kids is somehow a massive threat to society.
The protest was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, taking place when story hour was scheduled to occur. Along with providing insight to a right-wing political agenda that includes the continued demonization of LGBTQ+ people, it also showed how out of step with the mainstream that despicable tactic is, and how it can be overcome.
The ACLU of Michigan, along with many LGBTQ+ and allied social justice organizations, immediately began mobilizing their membership and constituents to show support for both the story hour and the bookstore. Those mobilization efforts paid off in a big way.
While there were about a dozen protesters, hundreds of people showed in support of drag performers, story hours and the bookstore with signs that read “Protect Kids from Guns, Not Drag,” “Teach Literacy Not Intolerance” and “Reading Is Fundamental — Bigotry Is Not.” The counter-demonstration was a resounding display of support for diversity, inclusion and tolerance.
I think both events reflect the current state of LGBTQ+ equality in Michigan
Right now, we are fortunate to have a governor, attorney general and secretary of state — along with majorities in both houses of the Legislature and on the state Supreme Court — who are supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to make great public policy strides for our community in our state.
Yet, at the same time, we cannot ignore the growing number of attacks we are seeing in other state legislatures, where LGBTQ+ youth and transgender adults are being targeted.
In states where Republicans hold control, legislation is being passed that criminalizes the provision of gender-affirming care for transgender youth. They are denying transgender students the ability to participate in school sports as their authentic selves. They are prohibiting the discussion and recognition of LGBTQ+ people in school curriculums. They are making it more difficult for transgender people to live their authentic lives, such as using public restrooms and obtaining accurate IDs. They are banning drag performers from appearing around minors. (The ACLU tracks this dangerous and destructive legislation, which can be followed by clicking on an interactive map that’s been created, including anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have been introduced here in Michigan.)
While such legislation is unlikely to be successful in our state at this moment, we are seeing a resurgence of efforts by right-wing activists in a number of Michigan communities. They are demanding that books in school and public libraries featuring LGBTQ+ characters be removed, that transgender students not be supported by school staff, such as being addressed in accordance with their preferred names and pronouns. School board members are being threatened and harassed for supporting LGBTQ+ students and policies that promote inclusion.
As just one example of the extreme positions being taken, a prosecuting attorney in Lapeer County is threatening to bring criminal charges against a librarian for her refusal to remove the book “Gender Queer,” which has LGBTQ+ themes, from the library. Even in the face of such a threat, the librarian there is bravely standing her ground and refusing to cave in to the demands of would-be censors.
These actions are a backlash to the progress that has been made on LGBTQ+ rights in recent years. The attacks are based on fear, mistruths and misinformation about what it means to be LGBTQ+. Transgender people currently seem to be the primary focus of these attacks, but it is really a political assault on our whole community.
The size of the counter-protest we staged in Royal Oak was incredibly heartening. It also provided a template showing how we fight back against the hate and cynical political opportunism by forces on the right: We show solidarity, we turn out when called upon to fight back, we speak the truth, and we continue to send the loud, clear, ironclad message that we refuse to let anyone shove us back into a dark and dismal closet.
That day is gone, and we’re not going back. Ever.
But the price of freedom, it has been said, is eternal vigilance. To not just survive, but overcome the right-wing attacks aimed at our community, we must continue to remain engaged, especially at the local level.
So, let’s celebrate our successes and take advantage of the opportunities we now have at the state level, but also remain vigilant and unbowed when it comes to working to address the serious challenges that still remain.