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January 2020

Families with college-age or post-college age young men and women living away from the area know well the Thanksgiving ritual the younger sets observe each year. Youthful hordes return for a few days and most follow the tradition of congregating with friends the Wednesday night before the holiday. This year was not much different. Some gathered at the homes of friends still living in the metro Detroit area; for others there's the long-standing tradition of spending Wednesday night before the holiday at local drinking establishments, for many Dick's in downtown Birmingham or now at the newest addition to the city scene, The Morrie on Old Woodward. If your home is anything like ours, Thanksgiving prep time the next day is filled with typical parental Q and A as a means of catching up on the latest gossip about your children's friends from the night before. I am always curious to hear whether any of the Michigan expatriates are considering returning to the state. What I found interesting in recent years was that members (and allies) of the LGBTQ tribe don't have a return to Michigan anywhere on their radar, many citing the state's poor reputation in terms of being a welcoming place when it comes to diversity. I am convinced the negative image of the state on this issue has helped drive away/keep away who-knows-how-many bright, educated individuals who could be contributing to Michigan's future. And the blame for this lies squarely at the feet of public officials who ignore public opinion and have failed to update state law to provide codified civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community when it comes to housing and employment. Fast forward to about a week after the holiday and I found myself reading in The Detroit News an op-ed critical of the new Oakland County non-discrimination policy covering sexual orientation and gender identity (and veterans). The policy covers employees of the county, broadly defined, as well the employees of county vendors and contractors. Nothing new or unusual here – more of a fine-tuning of what has been county policy. Oakland's Equal Employment Opportunity Policy, last updated in 2010, already provided protection against sexual orientation discrimination for county employees and employees of contractors doing business with the county. The Detroit News opinion piece was written by Republican Chuck Moss, a 2020 candidate for the county commission representing the Birmingham-Bloomfield area (a fact reportedly left out by The Detroit News). The gist of his column was to paint a portrait of the newly-emboldened Democratic party-controlled county board of commissioners as not sufficiently dedicated to a financially well-managed county in the L. Brooks Patterson tradition. Yes, Moss spent time on the finance committee when he was a county commissioner in the past, and at the state level as chair of the appropriations committee before being term-limited as a House representative. My recollection of his state-level service includes him being a loyal GOP soldier, seldom – if ever – straying from the party line on issues. A decent budgeteer but a party sycophant nonetheless. What bothered me about his column was the use of the updated county non-discrimination policy as a whipping post to illustrate his point, contending through a circuitous route that the new policy could well cost the taxpayers money, but no one will know because the recently adopted policy no longer carried “fiscal notes” to show the financial impact, which is actually not correct or, more accurately, it’s disingenuous. Moss' logic seems to infer that fewer contractors and vendors will want to bid on county business or at a minimum, the bidding process will be more complicated. And he illustrates his position by asking whether county taxpayers would rather have civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community if it meant less sheriff deputies on the streets or lead testing for water, for example. Pure crap, to put it bluntly. County administration says the new policy will not be an impediment in vendor/contractor bidding, just as the county's non-discrimination policy had not been in the past. Oh yeah, the column also managed to weave in what has all the markings of party dogma boilerplate, calling the new policy “radical” and the social issue currently “unsettled” because it is “protested by conservative Christians and radical lesbians” – whatever that last bit means. To top things off, Moss questions whether county policy should be used for “social engineering” – a rather dismissive/offensive position for those of us old enough to remember past (and ongoing) battles for the extension of civil rights for other groups. Borderline homophobic, some might even say. My hat is off to the county board majority and newly appointed Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter for updating the non-discrimination rules of the game. At present, Michigan lacks a state law explicitly outlawing discriminating for sexual orientation and gender identification, so we have to rely on executive orders at the state level and adopted policies at the local level to start codifying rights of members from the LGBTQ community, estimated in some surveys to be about four percent of the state's population. In 2003 and again in 2007, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm issued executive orders protecting state employees based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression of the same. In January of 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer followed suit, issuing an executive order to protect both state employees and those workers of contractors doing business with the state from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission in May of 2018 adopted a statement saying the state Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (adopted in 1974; co-author GOP House member and Oakland resident Mel Larsen) prohibits sex discrimination which commission members said includes sexual orientation and gender identity, although some question that legal interpretation. In August of this year, the Michigan State Board of Education approved a resolution calling for expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Act and sent it to all legislators. Even some Oakland County local communities got in the game years ago. Among them: Birmingham, Farmington Hills, Ferndale, Huntington Woods, Lathrup, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak and Southfield, but not all ordinances provide employment protections. The simple solution would be for state lawmakers to take the time this session to expand the Elliiott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, but I don't have a lot of hope. Countless bills to accomplish this, including ones by Michigan Senator Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), are now lost in the legislative graveyard. There was an inkling of promise in one past legislative session when bills addressing this were at least given a hearing, thanks in part to a coalition of several dozen prominent Michigan businesses which demanded the issue be addressed. But the bills went nowhere. All this despite strong public support, with some Michigan polls pegging it at over 70 percent in favor of codifying into law sexual orientation and gender identity protections when it comes to housing and employment. We are then left continuing the grass roots approach to bringing about change while we wait for Michigan lawmakers to catch up. In the meantime, everyone should do some soul searching and ask whether the tired rhetoric from the past has any place when it comes to the discourse on LGBTQ civil rights. And then ask yourself whether those who hold contrary views on an issue of civil rights should even have a place in the government where they can set public policy. David Hohendorf Publisher

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