By Tara Cavanaugh
Many LGBTs don’t know that they can be fired or denied housing simply because of their sexuality or gender identity, and that there are no federal or state laws to protect them.
Equality Michigan, a nonprofit that lobbies for LGBT rights, is on a mission to educate people about the discriminatory laws in Michigan, in hopes of spurring the community to action.
In a townhall meeting in Livonia on April 27, a panel of speakers addressed the legal hurdles for LGBTs. Denise Brogan-Kator, interim executive director of Equality Michigan, said the goal is to have such meetings in every district in the state during the next three years.
“Michigan, I argue, is one of the most discriminatory states in the country from a legal standpoint,” said Brogan-Kator, who is also a licensed attorney.
She highlighted the problem with Proposition 2, passed by voters in 2004. It defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, and it also denies health care for same-sex partners and has helped limit second-parent adoption rights – which means that thousands of children with same-sex parents are only allowed one legal parent.
Laura Hughes, another panelist at the meeting, highlighted the dangers for LGBT youth in the foster care system. Hughes is the director of the Ruth Ellis Center, a shelter that offers services specifically for LGBTQ youth, many of whom are kicked out of home because of their sexuality.
Studies show that few foster families want to accept LGBTQ foster children, Hughes said, and many of those who work in shelters don’t want to deal with sexuality either. “It’s easy for workers to assume all runaways or foster youth are the same,” she said. It’s also difficult to encourage children to return home if their parents are violent or not accepting.
Panelist Katie Strickfaden, the legal director for the new Domestic Violence Court in Wayne County, discussed domestic violence in LGBT relationships. “Domestic violence between LGBT couples is the least reported in domestic violence situations,” she said, “which is probably because if you’re outed, and it gets back to work, you can be fired.”
Amending the Eliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act was another issue discussed at the townhall meeting. The act, passed in 1976, provides protections against discrimination in employment, housing and other areas. The classes that are protected include race, religion, age, sex, height, weight and familial or martial status. Activists have tried for more than a decade to amend the act to include sexuality, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes on that list.
Equality Michigan Policy Director Emily Dievendorf, who also actively lobbies in Lansing, said that the current legislature, which is dominated by conservative lawmakers, does not want to touch social issues. But “it’s not as if social justice issues died in the last election,” she said. “Progressives did not vote. They stayed home.”
Dievendorf noted that there have been some successes worth celebrating. State Republicans recently tried to take away health benefits for domestic partners of state employees, but their efforts failed, and the benefits take effect in October.
August Gitschlag, field director at Unity Michigan (which is a collaborative effort of Equality Michigan, the Michigan ACLU and Affirmations), also pointed out that some cities across the state are talking with the agency about creating non-discrimination ordinances, which could protect LGBTs from housing discrimination or job discrimination – or even both.
Strickfaden, who is from Holland, Mich., said some people in more conservative areas of the state “don’t really know” what LGBT equality means. “They mostly think gay marriage,” she said. “If you separate these things, explain to them that discrimination is rampant, they usually get on board.”
Lack of legal protections for Michigan LGBTs
-No protection against housing discrimination
-No protection against job discrimination
-No specific protection against bullying in schools
-No same-sex marriage
-No same-sex parent adoptions or parental rights for both same-sex parents