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Michigan LGBTQ+ Leaders Prioritize Their Wish Lists for the Incoming Democratic Legislature — With an Amended Civil Rights Act at the Top

The potato industry has its own state commission. Isn’t it time for LGBTQ+ Michiganders to have one?

The 2022 midterm elections are history, and LGBTQ+ Democrats in Michigan are rightfully celebrating some significant wins. The state boasts a newly redistricted, majority-blue leadership for the first time in 40 years, as well as a higher number of openly queer legislators than ever before. Pride Source reached out to local community leaders to ask what’s on their wish list from our elected officials in the coming term.

First, a few high fives

“I’m incredibly excited,” said Mark LaChey, first vice president of the Michigan Democratic Party. “Barack Obama getting elected president was incredible. I think it made me cry. But within the four corners of Michigan, this is absolutely the most exciting and gratifying election result that I as a Democrat and I as an LGBTQ person can celebrate.”



Jey’nce Poindexter said she “wasn’t shocked or surprised” by the election results. Poindexter is director of communications for the Trans Sistas of Color Project, case manager for the Ruth Ellis Center and manager of the Kelly Stough Project. “I wasn't quite sold on the red wave,” she said. “After the election, I was super happy that I woke up in a Michigan with the same leadership. It's not lost on me, the importance of getting Governor Whitmer re-elected, of making sure to keep Jocelyn Benson, making sure to do what I could to make sure to get people to vote for Dana Nessel and just encourage and enlighten them on her platform.”

HRC state political director Amritha Venkataraman called the 2022 election “a really strong rebuke against hateful policies. We worked really hard on ‘Hate Won't Win,’ and I feel really validated by the voters of Michigan in saying that they don't want a hateful state. They want a loving and accepting state.”

Amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act

A loving and accepting state begins with amending Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA).

Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, now in her third term and recently elected Speaker Pro Tem, put it simply.

“Obviously, Elliott-Larsen,” she said, in reference to prioritizing the final push toward amending Michigan’s civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as protected classes.  “That, I think, is a priority for the whole legislature or at least the Democrats.”

Further, she called an amendment that left out the transgender community or one with a religious exemption “a non-starter for me. And I think that that is the case with our whole caucus,” she continued. “As far as I'm concerned, what we need to do is codify what the Department of Civil Rights has been doing and what was the opinion issued in Rouch World,” she said, referring to the case decided by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2022, which affirmed that the ELCRA includes protections based on sexual orientation.

Regarding ELCRA, Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, said she was “cautiously optimistic.”

“We know that in past legislatures that there was bipartisan support to amend our state's civil rights law,” Knott said, “but unfortunately, leaders never allowed committee hearings or the chance for a floor vote. And so, we are cautiously optimistic that we're going to get these non-discrimination protections within the first 100 days of the new legislature.”

“One of the reasons why amending ELCRA is so critically important is because it will have a ripple effect on all sorts of other laws and policies when you say that LGBTQ individuals cannot be discriminated against in all areas and walks of life,” she added.

Conversion therapy

Knott added a conversion therapy ban to the list of executive actions Equality Michigan and the Hate Won’t Win Coalition would like to see codified.

“The world didn't end when the governor took action to ban conversion therapy as it relates to taxpayer dollars [being] used to fund the barbaric practice,” Knott said. “So, we really believe that the legislature can follow her lead and act swiftly after they amend Elliott-Larsen to put a ban in place.”

Transgender rights

Knott gave a preview of the Hate Won’t Win Coalition’s upcoming campaign to protect transgender individuals as it relates to Medicaid insurance. There exists an insurance bulletin to that effect, but Knott would like to see that broadened and codified. “Transgender individuals and their doctors are making the decisions that are right for them and not insurance companies,” Knott said. As a longer-term goal, she also mentioned the possibility of establishing Michigan as a sanctuary state for transgender families.

Hate crimes

Many also said they’d like to see more work done to strengthen hate crime legislation. In 2020, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in People v. Rogers that Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act does include gender identity as a protected class. However, that’s the extent of LGBTQ+ inclusion. But there has been talk of legislation that would codify that decision to explicitly include the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act.

Reproductive Freedom for All

While Pohutsky was pleased with the passage of Proposal 3, Reproductive Freedom for All, she said there’s still work to be done when it comes to protecting reproductive freedom.

“I know with the passage of Prop 3, some people think that we did it, we're good, we can just put a bow on that,” Pohutsky said. “But there are a lot of existing statutes that we need to repeal. Prop 3 guarantees the right to reproductive health and that includes abortion care, contraception, gender-affirming care. But there are a lot of statutes that we have that limit the access to those forms of healthcare for folks. And we want to make sure that everyone has equitable access to reproductive health care.”

State Sen. Jeremy Moss, recently elected President Pro Tem, was specific about the 1931 abortion ban still on the books in Michigan.

“Proposal 3 really should compel us to repeal that outdated and cruel 1931 abortion felony and continue the mandate from the people of the state of Michigan to respect bodily autonomy and protect reproductive freedom,” Moss said.

Marriage

Moss also has his eye on repealing Michigan’s 2004 marriage amendment.

“Clarence Thomas signaled that Obergefell is on his chopping block after the repeal of Roe v. Wade,” Moss said. “And so even with the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, because we have this language as passed by voters in 2004 in the Michigan Constitution banning marriage equality, if Obergefell should fall, we would not be one of those states that could issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. I'm confident that most Michiganders would support it, but the only way to change the Constitution is a vote of the public.”

Inclusive language improvements

Venkataraman said she would be advocating for “language changes throughout all of Michigan law to make it more inclusive and open to LGBTQ folks and same-gender families.” For example, using neutral terms like “parent” instead of “mother” and “father.”

Establishing a commission

Among Michigan’s 361 state of Michigan boards and commissions. — from the Black Leadership Advisory Council and the Michigan Women’s Commission to the more obscure, like the Board of Auctioneers and the Michigan Potato Industry Commission — the LGBTQ+ community is not represented among them. Roland Leggett, chair of the LGBT & Allies Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party; Antonio Dave Garcia, executive director of Affirmations LGBTQ+ community center; and LaChey would like to see that change to better enable the community to develop policy making priorities on a statewide basis. For example, an advisory board could tackle big-picture issues like ending the epidemic of violence and murder of transgender women of color.

“I don't think it's smart for everyone across the whole state to do individual separate asks,” Garcia advised. “I think that has to be organized and prioritized.” To that end, a meeting of LGBTQ+ leaders from across the state had been convened.

Budget

One way the government can support the LGBTQ+ community is through its dollars.

“Of course, we can have more [LGBTQ] representation,” Poindexter said. “And also, just to be quite honest, more financial backing, allocation to the agencies and the programs that we know have been doing the work for years.”

Garcia concurred, adding, “We're gonna talk to the new leadership of the Senate Health Committee and the House Health Committee and try to get an appropriation out of the Michigan state budget, likely for health and human services.”

Leggett said he’d like to see a greater investment in community health.

“The folks in our community are really hit hard by the pandemic and by the volatile political system the last several years,” Leggett said. “And so there's a lot of work that needs to be done in order to ensure that the folks in our community get access to the resources that they need and get the support that they need.

“I have a particular keen interest in seeing larger investments that focus specifically on the needs of the transgender community, for example,” he continued.  “In Detroit, transgender women of color are murdered at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. And so a focus on how we can address that would be a really great step.”

He’d also like to look at how law enforcement interacts with the transgender community — and the LGBTQ+ community in general — and see what can be done legislatively to improve it.

Banning the panic defense

“I have a bill to ban the gay or trans panic defense,” Pohutsky said, referring to the homophobic and transphobic legal strategy aimed at partially or completely excusing crimes like murder and assault based on the defendant’s claim that they were thought by their victim to be LGBTQ+. It has been used in conjunction with other legal strategies.

Ending criminalization of HIV status

LaChey would also like to overhaul the law that criminalizes nondisclosure of HIV status to a partner before engaging in penetration, something that a 2019 law sponsored by former State Rep. Jon Hoadley aimed to do. Notably, it appears that the new guidelines are not being applied consistently. While they’re strengthening that law, lawmakers can also repeal the ban on sodomy, which is still on the books despite a 2003 SCOTUS decision that legalized consensual homosexual sex.

Democratic priorities

Several interviewees pointed out that queer Michiganders deal with many of the same concerns as other Michiganders do.

“A lot of our issues aren't just specific to us,” LaChey said. “So when [Whitmer] is acting to fix the damn roads, when I as a gay person drive on those roads, my life is better.”

Moss named several areas where the Democrats are eager for movement, after 40 years of Republican rule.

“I think that we start off with where voters expect us to start, including restoring labor rights and making sure the wealthy and powerful don't unilaterally set the terms and conditions for working people in the state of Michigan. It includes protections for historically vulnerable communities, not just the LGBTQ community, but minority populations all around that have been neglected in state law for our elderly, who need a better support system.”

The same can be said for common sense gun reform, which is on the minds of many in the LGBTQ+ community presently due to the recent massacre at Club Q in Colorado Springs. Moss is an original member of the House Gun Violence Prevention Caucus.

Increased support for the interests of other marginalized groups is something Pohutsky would like to see. She mentioned specifically the Michigan CROWN Act, introduced by former State Rep. Sarah Anthony, that addresses hair discrimination, which disproportionately impacts women of color.

The big three

Turning to the executive branch, all lauded the first-term performance of Gov. Whitmer, Secretary of State Benson and Attorney General Nessel. Venkataraman summed it up.

“I think they're doing great,” Venkataraman said. “They have done everything that they can do with their executive power to help advance LGBTQ rights and make sure that Michigan is an open and welcoming place. But we haven't had control of the legislative branch, which is key. And so we have so many more opportunities, and [they] have been really excited to help figure out how we continue moving forward.”

But there’s always room for improvement. LaChey, who said “I’m excited for the next four years and applaud [Whitmer’s] re-election,” would like to see more LGBTQ+ representation in terms of appointments to the judiciary.

He also noted the lack of queer representation in Whitmer's cabinet.

Leggett called their performance “wonderful,” but “just a start.” He mentioned specifically going further to eliminate barriers to voting that members of the transgender community sometimes experience. He talked about a benefit to an LGBTQ+ Commission in this situation, so that “we're doing it in a comprehensive manner, not in our own silos,” he explained.

Like others, Moss detailed how Whitmer, Benson and Nessel have gone to bat for the LGBTQ+ community “time and time again.”

“Governor Whitmer has gone as far as she can in her executive authority to ban discrimination in state employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Moss began. “She had an executive order that would prevent any Department of Health dollars going toward entities that would support conversion therapy. She has made sure that her cabinet and appointments have reflected the diversity of the state of Michigan. Jocelyn Benson right away wanted to make sure that someone's driver's license matched their gender identity and that gender designation was not a barrier to somebody living as their authentic self. And of course, Dana Nessel personally herself, as attorney general, argued the Rouch World case before the Michigan Supreme Court, which indeed verified that LGBTQ Michiganders ought to be protected in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.”

“Now, with a legislature that can back up these executive actions, I think that the potential is limitless for the LGBTQ community in Michigan,” he added.



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