Susan J. Demas: How long will Michigan LGBTQs have to wait for full equality?

Susan J. Demas

Amid the unfettered joy unleashed by this week’s surprise U.S. Supreme Court decision barring LGBTQ discrimination in federal law — thanks in great part to the late Michigan transgender activist, Aimee Stephens — was an uncomfortable realization.

Because now the most conservative high court in modern history has managed to lap Michigan’s GOP-controlled Legislature in human rights.

“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court pick (just to sweeten the victory). “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Five years ago, same-sex marriage became the law of the land. Michigan was shamefully one of the four states that fought marriage equality all the way to the Supreme Court. That was thanks to the zealousness of GOP then-Attorney General Bill Schuette (who thankfully went on to lose his gubernatorial bid in 2018) and yes, the spinelessness of GOP-then Gov. Rick Snyder, who likely privately backed LGBTQ rights but bent to the will of the far right time and time again.

Michigan is always behind the curve.

Poll: 74% back proposed LGBTQ anti-discrimination law, including most Republicans

For years, we’ve yet to see a vote on protecting LGBTQ people in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. This is despite the support of 74% of Michigan voters, including about 70% of those who identify as “Lean GOP,” and almost 60% of those who identify as “Strong GOP.”

Major corporations support the push for LGBTQ rights, as do Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel. The legislation spearheaded by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) even managed to pick up a GOP co-sponsor this session.

But Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have remarkably remained unmoved, even though they are so clearly swimming upstream in a changing world and are on the wrong side of history. But their obstruction is no doubt fueled by the fact that they’ve seen zero repercussions. Most Republicans occupy safe (often gerrymandered) red seats, so their main fear comes from riling up the far right and facing a primary.

They don’t have to care what the majority thinks.

And most of those equality-minded business interests that Republicans are usually so intent on pleasing have largely failed to yank their financial support, thus sending the message to Republicans that obstinance on LGBTQ rights (or Black Lives Matter or any number of social justice priorities) isn’t a deal-breaker (i.e. keep those tax breaks coming).

Michigan LGBTQ community still waiting for business leaders to step up

When it became clear that the Legislature wouldn’t act (again), activists turned their energy toward a ballot measure banning LGBTQ discrimination in state law. If they gathered enough signatures, the Legislature could approve it before going to voters — allowing Republicans one last chance to do the right thing — something important to many wary of giving voters veto power over their basic rights.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, making it virtually impossible to gather enough signatures in person. A judge last week granted an extension, but the measure won’t appear on a ballot until at least 2022.

That’s a long time for LGBTQ Michiganders to wait. I have been marching for my basic rights as a bisexual woman since 1994. And even today, my daughter and thousands of others know that they face the possibility of being fired just for loving who they do. That’s not full equality. That’s not living up to the promise of America.

Of course, the Legislature could still act. Leaders can put legislation up at any time — and many Republicans privately say it would pass. But last week, the Senate wouldn’t even vote on Moss’ resolution recognizing June as Pride Month — a symbolic gesture, sure (Whitmer already declared it for the state of Michigan). But the GOP’s inaction sends its own very clear message of just how much they value LGBTQ people.

Anyone who expects that to change anytime soon wasn’t watching Michigan Senate session Tuesday when Republicans couldn’t even give Moss a couple minutes of respectful silence during his speech entreating his colleagues to step up now on Elliot-Larsen.

Pro-LGBTQ officials running Michigan is a sea change

“I’m making the appeal to the other side of the aisle — surprise me. Just like the composition of the conservative-led Supreme Court, we can’t achieve equality this term without you. … I saw a tweet today that Neil Gorsuch’s conservative take is, ‘Get off my land. Keep away from my gun. Stay out of my bedroom,'” he said.

“I’m not asking for you to become a hero or an activist. I’m asking you to represent your constituents — your LGBTQ constituents, your Republican constituents. No malice from our community from evolving, learning and growing on this issue. We wouldn’t gain wide-reaching support if not for people changing their minds. Join the entire Democratic caucus in supporting this bill and ask the Senate majority leader to put it up for a vote. I welcome all of you to celebrate Pride Month with us and embrace equality.”

It would be so simple to do. It would change the lives of thousands of Michiganders overnight. It is unequivocally the right thing to do.

It shouldn’t be hard. It only is because Republicans want it to be. And that is because they don’t believe that my child should enjoy the same basic rights and freedoms as their kids do.

That’s shameful. That’s stone-cold bigotry. We’re living in the year 2020 and I’m done being nice about it.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-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. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. 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. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.