Don’t Leave Gender Identity Out When Reforming Civil Rights Law

November 13, 2014

In Michigan, it’s still far too easy to discriminate.

It’s shocking that, in 2014, state law still allows someone to be fired, denied housing or refused services simply because he or she is gay or transgender.

Needless to say, we can do better.

To see that we do, Sen. Rebekah Warren and Rep. Sam Singh have introduced bills to update the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, the state’s anti-discrimination law, to include protections for people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Groups like the ACLU of Michigan have joined with countless supporters – businesses, civil rights groups, faith leaders and the LGBT community -- to back this fully inclusive proposal and are coming together again in strong opposition to a bill introduced yesterday by Rep. Frank Foster that leaves transgender people without protection.

Even as support swells for the update of Elliott-Larsen to protect the entire LGBT community, Rep. Foster, House Speaker Jase Bolger and others are insisting that gender identity and expression be excluded from the law’s protection in order to make the bill easier to pass. Leave gender identity for another day, they suggest. Better to have something, they argue, than nothing at all.

But in truth, that something becomes nothing – in some ways, worse than nothing – the second we agree to abandon vulnerable communities in the name of political expedience. Outlawing discrimination based on gender identity is essential to crafting a non-discrimination bill that is truly inclusive. After all, freedom means freedom for everyone.

To get a clear picture, some background is in order: In 1976, the state took a significant step in its historically slow crawl toward equal justice for all.

That’s when Governor William Milliken signed into law the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, the state expanded constitutional protections to prevent discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, public accommodations and educational facilities. Protections were extended to cover religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex and marital status.

Crucially omitted, however, was any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

Now that we have a historic opportunity to rectify this oversight, we must maximize this chance. And we only do that by ensuring that the entire LGBT community is included. Transgender people cannot — and will not — be left behind.

And it is critical that we remember that this is more than an academic exercise. This is a matter of grave human consequence, and it ought to be confronted with the urgency it demands.

In my experience, the hostility (and often violence) that too often meets the transgender community is as much a product of ignorance as it is of hatred (here’s a helpful primer on gender identity for those unfamiliar with the topic).

Furthermore, it’s widely acknowledged that transgender women of color suffer the highest incidence of violence and discrimination within the LGBT community.

It’s a cruel irony then that many of those who most require the law’s protection are being met not just with legal indifference, but legal predation. Make no mistake, when the government refuses to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable it isn’t only ethically rotten, it’s participation in historical oppression. Businesses and employers who practice such discrimination aren’t shielded by the law’s indifference. They are then protected by the law’s enforcement.

Ultimately, though, their discrimination hurts us all. Businesses lose and so does our economy. Bias against the LGBT community makes us all a little more bereft, economically as well as morally. This is not who we want to be.

That's why the ACLU of Michigan and a broad, bipartisan coalition of organizations and businesses across the state are joining together to launch Freedom Michigan, a grassroots campaign with one clear goal: win non-discrimination protections for LGBT Michiganders this year.

Modernizing Elliott-Larsen reflects the best of our values. It shows that, as a state, we believe that all enterprising and industrious people — including those who are gay and transgender — deserve the opportunity to earn a living to take care of themselves and their families. It shows that, when it comes to having a place to live or work or shop, our state believes that all people should be treated fairly and equally regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

The current debate over the update of Elliott-Larsen demonstrates that progress requires deliberate and persistent action by concerned parties. There is no natural evolution toward greater human freedom. History shows that the tendency toward freedom is a product of human impulse and struggle and our willingness to honor the best of our values.

In the ongoing struggle to expand civil-rights laws to safeguard gay and transgender people, we’d do well to remember those lessons.

Key News & Documents
ACLU History: Fighting for Equality
LGBT Rights

By Eli Day, Civil Liberties Fellow