Michigan’s legislature seems poised to amend the state’s nondiscrimination protections, but the improvement might only benefit the LGB community and leave the T behind — and an AT&T; executive may be to blame if that happens.
Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act was first enacted in 1976 and currently protects against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of race, sex, religion, age, height, weight, marital or family status, and national origin. A heavily funded national effort has campaigned this year to add both sexual orientation and gender identity to that list to protect the LGBT community from discrimination.
However, despite the inclusive position taken by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and a coalition of other groups advocating for the change, the Republican-controlled legislature has now introduced a bill that only would add sexual orientation, leaving transgender people unprotected.
One of the proponents for this under-inclusive solution has apparently been AT&T; Michigan President Jim Murray. He told BuzzFeed that he “prefers” the “five-word bill” (sexual orientation and gender identity), but activists on the ground say he’s been actively lobbying for the “two-word” bill instead. Murray conceded to Between The Lines News that he’s heard from lawmakers of both political parties that they are “just not comfortable with transgender protections.”
As a result, a number of Michigan-based LGBT groups, including Equality Michigan, have launched a campaign called “Dropping The Call,” urging citizens to contact AT&T; and hold the company to its promise to support a fully-inclusive update to Elliot-Larsen. AT&T;’s own Equal Opportunity Policy protects against discrimination based on gender identity.
The whole reason adding LGBT protections seems like a possibility during this lame duck session is because Republican Rep. Frank Foster promised to introduce the bill. Having a Republican lead the charge helped attract more support from business groups and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. But Foster lost to a more conservative challenger in his primary, and several other anti-LGBT extremists won their midterm elections. He has now introduced a bill, in conjunction with House Speaker Jase Bolger (R), that only would add sexual orientation.
In addition, Bolger has introduced a bill that would allow businesses to use their religious beliefs as justification to refuse service to same-sex couples. The “license to discriminate” bill, mirroring other “religious freedom” efforts that were defeated earlier this year in Arizona and other states, would compromise some of the very public accommodation protections offered by either version of the Elliot-Larsen update.
It’s not impossible, however, that Democrats might hold out for an inclusive bill. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is vying for $1 billion in funding for state-wide road repairs, which will require some Democratic support. The lawmakers could refuse to support the funding request until a bill that protects both sexual orientation and gender identity is on the table.
Snyder, for his part, seems to support updating Elliot-Larsen, but has maintained his non-answer about who should be protected — “Discrimination is wrong, period” — while refusing to address specific questions about the inclusion of gender identity.
The situation mirrors a similar controversy over the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act from 2007, when LGBT groups agreed to support a sexual orientation-only bill, angering and alienating many who identify as transgender. HRC President Chad Griffin apologized to the transgender community for that mistreatment earlier this year, and the LGBT movement, having learned from the mistakes of that betrayal, is now committed to full solidarity on a trans-inclusive bill in Michigan. Still, if Murray convinces lawmakers to successfully pass a bill that only includes sexual orientation, it could leave the particularly vulnerable transgender community unprotected for years to come.