Susan J. Demas: Time for Michigan GOP leaders to stop blocking progress on LGBTQ rights

June 6, 2019 6:46 am

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Last week, bipartisanship platitudes flowed on Mackinac Island like free drinks at a lobbyist reception.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the GOP leadership’s top legislative priority, auto insurance reform, against the backdrop of the Mackinac Bridge (which naturally spawned a new round of “building bridges” metaphors).

Want to prove the kumbaya is for real? Republican leaders should allow a vote on legislation introduced this week by state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) adding protections for LGBTQ people in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Whitmer and Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel are in full support.

Same-sex marriage has been the law of the land for almost four years now. But not all progress is uniform. In Michigan, it’s still legal to fire someone or deny them housing for being gay, bisexual or transgender.

Rep. Jon Hoadley at the announcement of non-discrimination legislation for LGBTQs, June 4, 2019 | Derek Robertson

As the mother of an LGBTQ kid, as a bisexual woman, and just as a human being, I think it’s time to stop treating folks as second-class citizens.

Here’s the thing. Despite conventional wisdom from seersucker-clad pundits (who probably still prefer the term “homosexual” and wish dames wore poodle skirts and bobby socks), I bet it would pass the GOP-controlled Legislature.

I think that both state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) know that. But they’re personally opposed to the legislation, so it’s likely dead on arrival.

Supporting LGBTQ rights has, thankfully, become a mainstream position for Democratic politicians in the last decade — you’re an outlier if you don’t. But most people don’t realize most rank-and-file Republicans are on board, too.

Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, May 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

Back in 2013 — before same-sex marriage was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court — 75 percent of Michigan voters supported expanding Elliott-Larsen to LGBTQs. And get this: 56 percent of those who identified as “strong Republicans” agreed.

It’s heartening to see state Rep. Tommy Brann (R-Wyoming) co-sponsor this latest bill. (And it’s particularly eyebrow-raising to note he hails from the same Grand Rapids suburbs as former GOP National Committeeman Dave Agema, best known for comparing gays to alcoholics and claiming they want free health care because they’re all dying of AIDS).

But Republican elected officials have, thus far, been woefully out of step with their constituents. Thanks to gerrymandered districts, however, they’ve felt they only need to satisfy those who show up in GOP primaries and tend to be far more right-wing than the rest of the electorate.

Frank Foster

In private, however, many Republicans admit it’s getting harder and harder to defy polls and justify denying basic rights to people.

Still, there’s a pervasive fear that they’ll get Frank Fostered — suffering the fate of the Petoskey GOP state rep. who lost his seat in a 2014 Republican primary after voicing support for Elliott-Larsen expansion.

By now, most people have remembered that it was Chatfield who beat him — so it begins to make sense why a popular LGBTQ rights measure doesn’t have a prayer in his chamber.

I suppose it’s nice that Chatfield understands that open bigotry doesn’t play so well anymore, so he instead insists he doesn’t know LGBTQ folks who have been discriminated against. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights, of course, knows otherwise and is currently investigating complaints.

There is no earthly reason why sexual orientation and gender identity shouldn’t be formally added into the 1976 law to ensure that all Michiganders have the same rights. That would put Michigan in line with 21 other states and Washington, D.C.

Jeynce Poindexter of Equality Michigan | Ken Coleman

We currently rank at the bottom of states for LGBTQ rights. As the Human Rights Campaign notes, hate crime, anti-bullying and education laws don’t address LGBTQs. There’s no ban on “conversion therapy” for youths, although state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) is waging another uphill battle to change that.

We might be a purple state, but our laws are an absolute backwater for LGBTQ people.

The first top Republican leader who stands up and fights for real change will be hailed as a hero in the history books. You can take that to the bank.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.