Whitmer signs directive barring LGBT discrimination

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Jeynce Poindexter fought back tears this morning.

The Equality Michigan transgender specialist and victim advocate witnessed Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivering on a campaign promise. She signed an executive directive designed to protect state employees from sexual orientation-related discrimination.

Jeynce Poindexter (left) and Gretchen Whitmer (right) on Jan. 7, 2019 | Ken Coleman

“There are no protections for people like me,” Poindexter said. “If my manager or landlord does not like me, or the fact that I’m trans, they can literally throw me out and I have no recourse. I can’t do anything about it. So this step that [Whitmer] is taking is huge beyond belief.”

The signing told place at Affirmations, a nonprofit that serves the LGBTQ community, in Ferndale, a suburb of Detroit.

The Whitmer directive is similar to one that now-former Gov. Rick Snyder signed days before leaving office on Jan. 1. The Republican’s directive stated that all state departments and agencies that perform procurement functions and provide loans and grants to local units of government and private entities must not discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

Gov. Rick Snyder at his year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

The Whitmer measure provides added protection to all state employees and those working for entities that do business with the state, as there is no exemption for religious organizations.

“If we’re going to attract the talented workforce our businesses need to create jobs and grow our economy, then we’ve got to get on the right side of history,” Whitmer said. “That’s what this executive directive is all about.”

The measure fortifies non-discrimination protections in four ways:

  • Clarifies that employment protections cover all state employees
  • Requires all recipients of state contracts, grants and loans to extend protections to their employees
  • Prohibits discrimination in state services
  • Extends prohibitions on discrimination to include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression

Whitmer was joined by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II; state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield); Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter; Erin Knott, interim executive director of Equality Michigan; and Cheryl Czach of Affirmations’ board of directors.

Gretchen Whitmer (left) and Garlin Gilchrist II (right), Jan. 7, 2019 | Ken Coleman

The Whitmer measure is designed to compliment the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, which prohibits discrimination in Michigan on the basis of “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status” in employment, housing, education and access to public accommodations. Whitmer also called on the legislature to strengthen the act to sexual orientation.

For many years, LGBTQ activists have argued that the law needed to include sexual orientation and gender identity, but attempts to do so failed in the GOP-led Legislature, even with some bipartisan backing.

Now-former Rep. Frank Foster (R-Petoskey) sponsored legislation adding sexual orientation protections, but lost his GOP primary in 2014. The man who beat him is now Michigan House speaker, Lee Chatfield (R-Levering).

In May 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission adopted a regulation stating that “sex” under the Act includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, now-former Attorney General Bill Schuette, who was a Republican gubernatorial candidate, issued a stinging opinion last summer arguing that the commission overstepped. Schuette said “sex” referred to the biological differences between males and females, not sexual orientation or gender identity.

At the time, Whitmer tweeted her support for LGBT rights in response.

“Gov. Whitmer is leading by example,” said Erin Knott. “It’s an example that the Michigan legislature should by taking immediate, meaningful action. First, they should adopt rules in the House and Senate to protect their own employees from anti-LGBT discrimination. Then they should, at long last, expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to make it fully inclusive.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel fought as a private attorney against Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in 2015. She started the Fair Michigan campaign in 2016. The group planned to put a proposal on the ballot to protect LGBT people from discrimination, but it didn’t win support from some activists.

Dana Nessel with her family | Facebook

Nessel instead decided to run for AG as a Democrat and became Michigan’s first out gay top elected official. She applauded Whitmer’s action today.

“This action is deeply personal to me and I am grateful that Governor Whitmer has made anti-discrimination one of her top priorities in her first several days in office,” Nessel said. “This is a step in the right direction and I am hopeful that soon our state laws will also reflect the paradigm of equal protection under the law for all Michiganders.”

Moss, the first openly gay member of the state Senate, said Whitmer’s directive is a “step forward.”

“Michigan lags behind the rest of the country in protecting our LGBT community from discrimination While many gay and trans people in other states have held onto the hope that equality will continue to progress, Michigan residents have questioned whether our state would start progressing at all,” he said. “Today is an encouraging step forward.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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