When I left high school in the mid 1960's, folk singer Bob Dylan had just gone electric with Highway 61 Revisited. Cannabis and other mind altering drugs were making an appearance in the suburbs. Plum Street, the Haight-Ashbury knockoff, was taking shape in downtown Detroit. The fight for civil rights of the Black community and the Vietnam War dominated the evening headlines.
On the home front, my neighborhood was one of the first developments of new homes in Sterling Heights, surrounded by migrant worker farms bordering the Clinton River, which was then clean enough to swim in at what was known as the Bare Ass Beach. My family was part of the out-migration from Detroit prompted by the move of General Motors offices to the new Tech Center in Warren, where our senior production engineer father was reassigned.
I had no knowledge then that an LGBTQ+ community even existed in the metro Detroit area. But as a buddy and I hired in for the afternoon shift at the 8 Mile and Mound Road Chrysler plant the summer after graduation from a Catholic high school, the real world education began in earnest before our first year of college.
A number of the employees at the plant each Thursday would crowd the plant parking lot at lunch time to see what transgender workers would be wearing in the after hours at the half dozen gay bars in Detroit. It was a weekly ritual throughout the summer, but it was readily apparent that the mere existence of an LGBTQ+ community was not something that was widely discussed.
I didn't give this issue much thought until 10 years later, during one of my first post college newspaper jobs, when lawmakers in Lansing were facing possible passage of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which state Rep. Daisy Elliott (D-Detroit) had been pushing since 1966 to address societal inequities experienced by Black Michigan residents. Legislative leaders told her they were willing to move her proposed legislation if she could find a Republican co-sponsor for her civil rights bill. Mel Larsen (R-Oxford), first elected in 1973 and a member of the Civil Rights Committee in the House, offered to put his name on the bill. And the rest is history.
There was some push at the time by the LGBTQ+ community to add the civil rights of that group to the legislation but the practical realities of finding sufficient support with this change to the bill prevented this.
In the ensuing nearly 50 years, there have been about two dozen attempts to amend the original Elliott-Larsen Act but to no avail. But in 2023, progress was finally achieved with passage in the last month of an expanded Elliott-Larsen Act to include protections for the LGBTQ+ community, codifying what a recent court decision and interpretation by the Civil Rights Commission in Michigan that the original act provided protections for this part of the population, now estimated in this state to number about 375,000 residents. Although polling showed that well over 60 percent of the state's population supported expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, decades-long Republican control of the legislature basically blocked any movement of past amendments. Even the support over a decade ago from major corporate employers and unions in the state could not move the legislative needle on this issue.
It took the flip to Democratic control of the both the House and Senate, under a Democratic governor, to make this possible, bolstered by the persistent focus of lawmakers like state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Bloomfield Township, Southfield), the main sponsor of the just passed legislation, who worked tirelessly for years to reach this goal of building on what lawmaker Mel Larsen, now a Birmingham resident, had originally set in motion.
For the most part, support for the expanded Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act came from the Democrats, although three Republican Senators did vote with the majority. Among them, Sen. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) and Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), who had abstained from voting when it came time to move this bill from committee and had unsuccessfully attempted to amend the legislation when it came to a floor vote. Over in the House, Republican Mark Tisdel, representing Rochester Hills, joined the majority in support, while Republican Donni Steele of Lake Orion who now also represents Bloomfield Township, along with Thomas Kuhn (R-Troy), were among a group from the GOP who spoke against the expanded protections, mixing talk of religious freedom with anti-transgender sentiment.
Sen. Moss has suggested that other changes are also needed, including amending the Michigan hate crimes law and the state Constitution ban on same sex marriages.
But even then, the battle for this portion of the population is far from over.
The lack of codified protection for the LGBTQ+ population in Michigan has already driven talented young individuals to cities in other states, mainly New York, Chicago and California. I personally know a number of gay college graduates originally from Oakland County who steadfastly refuse to return here not only because of the lack of legal protections but also a prevailing attitude in the small but aggressive minority that continues to try imposing their anti-gay agenda and moral views on the rest of the population.
The minority view basically emboldened the conservative set, like the people that hurled anti-gay epithets at a close friend who was crossing N. Old Woodward Avenue in downtown Birmingham when he was in high school. It's the same crowd that discouraged gay patrons from frequenting a popular breakfast/lunch gathering place in the West Bloomfield area in past years.
Some now organize to restrict what is available in the stacks of books at the public library or they target what is taught or at least acknowledged in the schools, perhaps thinking that it is a person's choice to be gay or transgender and their child will be lured into this lifestyle. So far from the reality of the situation. Their agenda accomplishes little other than leaving those from the LGBTQ+ community feeling even more isolated and not represented, especially in the schools where diversity of races and lifestyles should be recognized and respected.
Call me old fashioned, but I really believe that attitudes and values on crucial issues are often passed along in the home, from one generation to the next. Until this cycle is broken, Michigan will remain an unwelcoming place for a part of the population that has been marginalized for far too long.
I celebrate that long-overdue codification of rights for the LGBTQ+ community. Not sure we can legislate the remaining problem away. At least not in the short-term.