Image via Maurice Williams on Unsplash Image via Maurice Williams on Unsplash

Fair and Equal Michigan hopes to expand the state’s anti-discrimination protections in housing, employment, and public accommodation for LGBTQ residents.

Depending on where you live in Michigan, you could find yourself being denied housing, a job, or a meal at a restaurant simply because of your sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. 

A new coalition of civil rights, business, political, and philanthropic leaders is working to change that.

This week, Fair and Equal Michigan launched a petition drive to expand Michigan’s anti-discrimination protections in housing, employment, and public accommodation for LGBTQ residents. The group submitted petition language to state election officials on Tuesday, and hope to push lawmakers to find a legislative solution or place the issue on the ballot in November.

“Every Michigander should have an equal chance at success, without threat of being fired, harassed, or demoted just because the boss doesn’t like that they’re gay or transgender,” Trevor Thomas, co-chair and president of Fair and Equal Michigan and board chair for Equality Michigan Action, said in the group’s announcement.

The petition language submitted to the Board of State Canvassers seeks to amend the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to ban discrimination against gay and transgender individuals. The amendment would expand the definition of “sex” in the existing law to include gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. 

Currently, Michigan prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status, but it does not explicitly safeguard LGBTQ Michiganders from being treated unfairly.

The protections for LGBTQ residents that do exist are limited and vary based on where they live. Although more than 50 cities and municipalities have enacted anti-discrimination protections, most haven’t, leaving many gay and transgender Michiganders vulnerable to discrimination. Only 22 percent of Michigan residents are fully protected by local nondiscrimination ordinances, according to the nonprofit Movement Advancement Project (MAP).

The amendment to the state’s Civil Rights Act was first considered as far back as 1983, but has repeatedly been defeated in the legislature. Republicans have argued that adding protections for LGBTQ individuals would infringe on a person’s right to religious freedom. 

The tides may finally be turning, though. 

In May 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission reinterpreted the definition of sex in the state’s anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. It was only then that the commission began investigating allegations of discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. As of October 2019, the commission had opened 44 such investigations, though the number of incidents is likely much higher due to underreporting. 

That reinterpretation of sex, however, has not been codified into law. That’s what Fair and Equal Michigan’s petition aims to do.

“Every Michigander should have an equal chance at success, without threat of being fired, harassed, or demoted just because the boss doesn’t like that they’re gay or transgender.”

Once state officials approve the petition language, organizers have until May 27 to collect the 340,047 valid signatures they need to send the measure to lawmakers. The legislature would have 40 days to either adopt the amended bill or allow it to go before voters in November.

Advocates hope the lawmakers and business leaders involved in the petition drive will put pressure on Republicans to change their tune. 

“Equality Michigan and the coalition of individuals that formed the ballot campaign would like to see a path forward as it relates to legislative action in both chambers,” Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, told COURIER in a phone interview. 

Senior representatives from Apple, Verizon, and Dow are among those who are supporting the effort. 

“Dow has called Michigan home for more than 120 years, and we are proud to bring top talent here from around the world,” Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said in a statement. “A fully inclusive community for everyone that lives in Michigan is imperative for all of us to continue effectively doing business in our great state.”

Organized labor has also expressed support for the petition drive. Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, said they “stand against any form of discrimination in the workplace or in the community.”

Several former Republican lawmakers announced their support for the petition drive as well, and have joined Fair and Equal Michigan’s “honorary leadership committee.” Among them are former Rep. Mel Larsen, co-sponsor of the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, former House Speaker Rick Johnson, and former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwartz, who served as a Republican but now identifies as an independent. 

Despite broad support for the measure, a legislative path forward appears unlikely. State Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have opposed adding anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals and are unlikely to back down. 

“Senate Majority Leader Shirkey has long opposed an expansion of Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Act,” a spokesperson told COURIER via email.

Knott of Equality Michigan, however, is unfazed. “If the legislature is not willing to take meaningful action, then we will bring it to the people and let their voices be heard,” she said. 

Nearly 78 percent of likely 2020 Michigan voters support efforts to amend the state’s civil rights law to protect the LGBTQ community, according to a survey of 600 registered voters by Richard Czuba, a non-partisan Michigan pollster. A majority of voters also said they would support a citizen initiative to bypass the state legislature and place the issue on the November ballot, including 75 percent of voters who lean Republican and 66 percent of strong Republican voters.

A similar ballot measure was considered in 2016, but ultimately fizzled due to lack of support from LGBTQ-rights advocacy groups, including Equality Michigan, who feared the measure would be defeated. 

Knott is confident things will be different this time, in part because of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whom Knott described as a “pro-equality champion.” Whitmer backed a legislative attempt to reform the Civil Rights Act in 2019 and issued an executive directive strengthening protection for LGBTQ individuals during her first week in office. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.

“The landscape right now presents a better opportunity for a ballot initiative,” Knott said. 

If the group succeeds, Michigan would join 21 other states and the District of Columbia in having laws explicitly banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We’re going to support the ballot’s coalition to help expand that bipartisan support,” Knott said. “Hopefully we’re going to break that logjam that’s happening in Michigan so that we can finally have an inclusive Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act.”