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July 2021

News editor Lisa's Brody's longform piece this month on the gender identity issue facing society couldn't be more timely as we close out the annual Pride Month in this area. It could also serve as a prelude to the 2022 election when voters could well be facing a ballot issue about extending the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to provide protection for members of the LGBTQ community.

The Elliott-Larsen Act was passed in 1976, thanks to Michigan House member Daisy Elliott (D-Detroit), who had been pushing for state civil rights legislation starting in 1966. She was told by legislative leaders they would take the issue up if she could find a Republican co-sponsor. Along comes Mel Larsen (R-Oxford), first elected in 1973 and a member of the civil rights committee in the House, who offered to put his name on the bill.

My first exposure to Mel Larsen came when a vindictive Democrat state lawmaker threatened to place a prison at an abandoned World War II Nike Missile base near my then home on Long Lake in Commerce Township in the late 1970's as a way to get back at then-Oakland County Prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson for his tough-on-crime programs, and the Republican's often glib attacks on state lawmakers. A group of us homeowners asked Larsen, who sat on a related committee, to tour the old missile base and help direct the state prison-plan away from our neighborhood – and it worked.

I always thought of Larsen, reportedly now residing in Birmingham, as hardworking and responsive, part of a political breed that varied quite dramatically from what we see now from Republican lawmakers who expend more energy tossing chum to political base foot soldiers than developing critically-needed legislation. Larsen was very much like some of those in Lansing – then-House member James Defebaugh (R-Birmingham) among them – who I considered mentors in my early years of directing news coverage of state legislative issues for a news organization in the western Oakland lakes area at the time. They had firm beliefs but worked across the aisle to serve the public. Little of the headline-grabbing nonsense we see cooked up in the political-party-meth-labs of today.

From what I recall all these years later, lawmakers had to grapple with pushback from the LGBTQ community in getting the Elliott-Larsen law passed. LGBTQ advocates at the time wanted their civil rights added to the bill but practical lawmakers saw little to no chance of passage if sexual orientation was added to the legislation, which passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate. Although the legislature's records don't reach back that far, a diligent researcher at the state library in Lansing provided me background for the House and Senate on the Elliott-Larsen Act's journey to passage through the two chambers. All Oakland County members in Lansing supported what we now see as the state's civil rights protections, sans the LGBTQ community.

Since it was first adopted, there have been about 20 amendments to the Elliott-Larsen Act, but none of them address LGBTQ concerns.

Just a half dozen years ago it briefly looked like progress would be made but LGBTQ activists differed on whether to go to the ballot. The issue stalled in the legislature once again thanks to some members who were hesitant to include transgender individuals in the bill, so two competing Elliott-Larsen expansion pieces of legislation received committee hearings but never came up for a vote.

This time around, things could be much different. LGBTQ activists all seem to be on the same page, against the background of support of 72 percent (61 percent strongly) of Michigan residents in a recent Glengariff Group poll.

Sufficient signatures (483,000), gathered by Fair and Equal Michigan, have been submitted to place the issue before lawmakers. If they fail to act, then voters will decide the issue on a 2022 statewide ballot. The proposal will not change the Michigan Constitution – it is citizen initiative legislation to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.” Without it, members of the LGBTQ tribe can continue to have housing denied or be fired from jobs on these very issues, with no state-level legal remedies.

The proposed expansion of the Act includes compromise language to protect “religious liberty” of individuals, a major sticking point with some conservatives.

The Michigan business community – large corporations and smaller businesses – has been on board with this effort for the past decade. They recognize, as many of us individuals do, that the state needs to be a welcoming place for members of the LGBTQ community or we will continue to lose valuable talent to places like New York City, California, Chicago and the Philadelphia area at a time when we need to be competitive. That's a self-preservation reality, aside from the general philosophical and ethical consideration of equal protections for all persons.

Joining the corporate support are a number of business organizations like the Chambers of Commerce for the Detroit area, the western side of the state, along with the Traverse City area, all of whom have lent their names to this effort. I have asked Joe Bauman, Birmingham-Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce President, whether our local group will also be getting on the band wagon. The response: the chamber of commerce here usually does not take a position on ballot issues although he was willing to take the issue to his executive committee to see their inclination. Given that the city of Birmingham years ago was among (if not the first) Michigan municipalities to enshrine in local ordinance the housing rights for gays and lesbians, it would be logical to support this push.

Lastly, there will likely be more hurdles for Fair and Equal Michigan, including challenges like the one filed in early June by the Honigman law firm on behalf of some recently-established, mystery group (Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice) that wants to challenge the validity of electronic signatures gathered during the pandemic when the petition drive had run up against the Michigan Stay-At-Home Executive Order that was in effect. The challenge was filed with the Michigan Board of State Canvassers. Fair and Equal Michigan, along with local state House member Democrat Mari Manoogian, were successful early on in the current petition drive to receive some relief from the courts, so hopefully further challenges like this can be deflected much the same.

As a final note, here's some food for thought for the powers that be at the Honigman firm, anchored in Detroit, with an office in Bloomfield Hills. I understand gigantic law firms handle representation of a variety of clients with sometimes conflicting agendas. But I find it more than a bit contradictory and disconcerting that the chairman and CEO of Honigman would lend his and the company's name to the list of the region's largest law firms which signed on to what one could appreciatively call a manifesto/statement in June of 2020, after the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breaonna Taylor, promising to “continue to advocate for equality, equity and justice for all“ when it comes to the community's Black and other people of color, but crank up the billing meter and take on a case that could well derail the current drive for codified equality when it comes to the LGBTQ community.

David Hohendorf



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