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“Gender identity” splinters coalition pushing to add LGB (and sometimes “T”) protections

 There’s a split in Lansing about how far and how aggressively to push for gay rights in Michigan -- specifically to update the state’s civil rights law.

Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act

This is as much a cultural split between Lansing lobbyists and the LGBT community and how they view their mission as it is a difference of opinion about tactics and priorities. However, it has now jeopardized, if not already doomed, the effort to update Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA).

The ELCRA already has protections against housing and employment discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and weight, among other things.  It’s long been a goal of Michigan’s LGBT advocates to add LGBT protections to the law.

History repeating itself

Thirty years ago, that effort cost state Representative Jim Dressel (R-Holland) his job. He lost his Republican primary in 1984 after he introduced a bill to add the phrase “sexual orientation” to the law.

This past summer, state Representative Frank Foster (R-Petoskey) suffered a similar fate for being the millennial Republican leading the effort on the GOP side of the aisle. His hope was to leave the introduction of the law a part of his political legacy.

Gender identity

But, efforts to accomplish that goal in this year’s “lame duck” session are now hung up on the words “gender identity.” That phrase would ensure that transgender people are also covered under the law.

A business coalition, put together and led by AT&T of Michigan President Jim Murray, was pushing the issue saying it’s not just a question of fairness, but talent - convincing people that Michigan is open, inclusive, and a good place to look for a job. Not only was it a persuasive group on its own but pretty much every multi-client lobbying firm in Lansing was also engaged in the effort.

But there were people in the group who said too many Republican lawmakers were uncomfortable with adding transgender protections.

“I don’t have the votes for something like that. I don’t,” says Murray. “I’ve been told by many legislators that they’re still on the fence with the sexual orientation part, but they’re not comfortable yet with the transgender part.”

Meantime, AT&T issued this statement today regarding Murray and the efforts to update the ELCRA. "AT&T always has and always will support civil rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. We applaud Jim Murray for his efforts to expand the Elliot Larson Act to be fully inclusive, and recognize that without his leadership, these initiatives would not have moved forward.  We pride ourselves on our commitment to promoting LGBT issues, and will support only a bill that is fully inclusive,” wrote AT&T Midwest Region Vice President Paul La Schiazza.

So, AT&T making it clear that its official corporate position is that any update should include gender identity. And, we should note, some in the business coalition have said they’re willing to go with a compromise version, others say they’d prefer no bill over a bill that does not cover gender identity.

But dropping those two words - “gender identity” - is a non-starter with LGBT advocates -- the ACLU, Equality Michigan, etcetera. They say, “Nobody gets left behind…”

So, the powerful coalition of business groups employing big Lansing multi-client lobby firms and LGBT groups-- some of them national organizations with access to big bucks - plus the ACLU, and so on, fell apart over gender identity.

Never again

Some are asking the ACLU and the LGBT groups: Why not compromise now and try again for more later?

And the answer is, there have cases where the LGBT movement dropped the “T” to try to win votes for anti-discrimination laws and it’s never worked out well for them.

A bill failed altogether in Congress back in 2007. New York passed a law without it, and advocates have never been able to re-visit the issue. It’s considered, actually, a shameful chapter in the movement’s history, and there’s just a very strong “never again” sentiment on that question within the LGBT community.

Can it pass?

As a practical matter, LGBT groups say they think there are enough, barely enough, votes in Lansing to get the fully inclusive bill passed if it’s put up for a vote. All 50 state House Democrats are on board, plus one independent. That means picking up just five Republicans.  

But, Lansing’s business lobbyists say those five additional votes from Republicans are not there (assuming no Democrats drop off). And, state House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) says he’ll oppose voting on a version that specifically mentions “gender identity.”

Where things stand

So, one side  - the business coalition - continues to work on passing the compromise: the LGB version - without the T. The other side: now working to kill it.  

But LGBT lobbyists think they have an ace in the hole. They are ready to go to the ballot in 2016. They were already making preparations to do that, anyway, in an effort to repeal the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

But that question could be decided before then by the United States Supreme Court. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee is being challenged. If the high court takes the case, and says states must decide the marriage question, then a campaign to repeal Michigan’s constitutional amendment would be first in line.

But if the court strikes down marriage bans, then the infrastructure would be there to support a ballot measure to amend the civil rights law that’s teed up and ready to go.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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