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Would Michigan voters approve LGBT civil rights in 2016?

LGBT flag
Antioch University

There’s a fierce debate happening right now in Michigan’s LGBT community.

Some activists are launching a big campaign to put civil rights for lesbian, gay and transgender people on the ballot. 

But others say voters just aren’t ready. 

LGBT discrimination is legal in Michigan. But making it illegal? That's tough. 

Here’s the reality of being LGBT in Michigan right now:

You can be fired, or evicted, or have a doctor refuse to treat your infant child if you're gay, lesbian or transgender in Michigan, and there’s legally nothing you can do about it.

But trying to change that can be risky.

When Houston, Texas put LGBT civil rights up for a vote this fall, the measure failed miserably, because of ads like this.


Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom, simply by claiming to be a woman that day," the ad says. "No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom. And if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined. Protect women’s privacy. Prevent danger. Vote no on the Proposition 1 bathroom ordinance. It goes too far.”

Those attack ads focused on one tiny part of the civil rights proposal in Houston: that trans people could use whichever bathroom fits their gender identity.

These attack ads twist that, literally showing a man in a woman’s bathroom, about to assault a little girl. 

And, just in case it needs to be said: these ads are lies. Experts – including law enforcement – say there’s no link between these civil rights protections and bathroom assaults.

But the problem is, those ads work. Even in Michigan.

“Once they’re exposed to our opponent’s message, we do not have majority of Michigan voters with us on Election Day,” says Amy Mello, the Public Engagement Director forFreedom for All Americans. That’s a national group that’s fighting for LGBT civil rights.

Mello says when they’ve done in-depth voter models in Michigan, something happens: Many voters who are otherwise telling pollsters “sure, I’d vote for LGBT civil rights,” change their minds when analysts actually show them the Houston TV ads.

She says if Michigan puts a civil rights vote on the 2016 ballot, it will probably fail. By about 700,000 votes.  

“So they’re looking at a gap that is hundreds of thousands of changed minds,” says Mello. “It’s an incredible hurdle in front of them.”

Some trans people worry a campaign could make them targets of violence

But forget the polling for a second.

What these “bathroom ads” are also really good at doing, is falsely depicting trans people as scary child molesters.

And some trans people in Michigan are afraid that a big, heated political battle would put them in a dangerous spotlight.

Those fears came up at a packed meeting for LGBT groups this week.

“We’re already subject to just astronomical rates of violence and discrimination and murder,” says Amy Hunter, a trans woman, who’s the Transgender Advocacy Project Coordinator at the ACLU of Michigan.

She’s helped lead successful campaigns for LGBT civil rights in local elections around the state.  

But even when they won at the city-wide level, Hunter says, she was still a target.

“I got threatening phone calls. I was threatened with rape. So I know that this happens in a political atmosphere.”

Hunter says right now, too many Americans think they don’t even know a trans person.

It’s like marriage equality 40 years ago, she says. A cultural shift is going to take some time.

That's why she and others with the ACLU believe that working with Michigan's lawmakers is the best option: going through Lansing might be slow, since it's controlled by Republican lawmakers. But Hunter says, strategically, it doesn't require millions of fundraising dollars, and there are fewer minds to change. 

Others say these rights can’t wait, and 2016 is the year to win them

But others in the LGBT community argue that time is not something that can be wasted right now.

Not when so many LGBT people are dealing with discrimination that keeps them out of jobs, housing, and healthcare.

"And the fact of the matter is, unless we have laws in place, we can't promise people that we can really do anything to assist them,” says Dana Nessel, a high-powered attorney who's leading the fight to put LGBT civil rights on the ballot next year.

Her coalition, which is called Fair Michigan, says the 2016 presidential election – with all the young, progressive voters it brings out – is the best time to win this fight.

And their polling shows most voters in the state do, actually, support LGBT civil rights.

Nessel and Fair Michigan supporters say if the LGBT community works together to show voters why these bathroom attack ads are garbage, then they can win in 2016.  

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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