by Cynthia Price
Organizers of a hearing in Holland to research the impact of discrimination on the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) community may have gotten more — or less — than they bargained for last Tuesday.
Because emotions still run high concerning the Holland City Council’s failure to pass an ordinance protecting LGBT persons a year ago, most of those who testified ignored the major question of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR): how changes to Michigan’s anti-discrimination laws would impact them personally.
Instead, most focused on revisiting the ordinance debate, expressing opinions rather than telling their stories.
MDCR Community Organizer Regina Calcagno said she did not find this surprising. “There were some people at the hearing who were more interested in talking about Holland's debate over this issue and that was to be expected. Clearly, a year later, feelings on both sides remain hurt by previous hearings.”
In fact, according to MDCR’s Public Information Officer Jacki Miller, one of the reasons the MDCR chose Holland as the second hearing site was the feeling it would draw out people with a variety of opinions and life experiences. The first hearing was held in Jackson. Calcagno comments, “Far more people attended the hearing in Holland and there was much greater diversity in the opinions and stories than there was in Jackson.”
MDCR sought and received a grant from the Tides Foundation to examine the impact of Michigan’s nondiscrimination law on individuals, communities and the state, particularly the state’s economic activity.
Calcagno, an attorney who received her Juris Doctor from The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, and Sarah Reed, a social researcher, joined the MDCR team specifically to work on this project, which will result in a report to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in early 2013.
The hearing was intended to elicit responses about “what you would gain/lose if Michigan’s anti-discrimination policies are or are not amended” to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), passed in 1976 and amended since, protects people on the basis of religion, race, color. national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, and marital status. As several people testified at the hearing, people are often surprised to find out that sexual orientation is not on that list already.
Interns working with the non-profit Holland Is Ready, a group which formed in 2010 after Hope College declined to let an Oscar-winning screenwriter speak at a sexuality forum because he was gay, go door-to-door in Holland to take the citizenry’s temperature regarding LGBT protections. Three of them spoke up at the hearing to say they were surprised at how widespread support is for an end to LGBT discrimination.
The interns were the first to mention that many people express surprise when told that there are no laws or ordinances preventing such discrimination. Elizabeth Spreitzer of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan agreed, adding, “One of the hardest parts of my job is explaining to LGBT community members who call with a housing complaint that they do not have protections under state and local laws. If ELCRA changed, I could do more than just listen sympathetically.”
Indeed, a report by the Fair Housing Center (in conjunction with other centers around the state) found that 22% of the 36 Grand Rapids-area test cases by same-sex couples showed evidence of discrimination.
That report explored amending Elliott-Larsen as “one strategy for success.” Legislators attempted to add sexual orientation and gender identity to ELCRA in 1997, 2001, 2003 and 2005, without success.
Though MDCR emphasized in its introduction at the hearing that the Tides-funded project “is not connected to any actions that have been taken by the legislature,” many who spoke addressed the possibility of amending Elliott-Larsen.
Comments at the hearing reflected a wide variety of perspectives, from accepting parents of gay men to conservative Christians who were vehemently opposed to adding LGBT community members as a protected class.
Opinion was divided, though not evenly. While 24 of the 42 people who testified were in support of expanding civil rights protections to the LGBT community, there also appeared to be many in attendance who supported that expansion but did not speak publicly. A large group at the back of the packed City Hall room — 200-250 people attended — spoke in hushed tones to each other indicating support, but only one or two of them testified officially.
A majority of those in opposition relied on the Bible and conservative Christian sources to express the opinion that homosexuality is a sin and a lifestyle choice that should not be protected.
Substantive issues raised included the conflict caused by requiring business owners who believe that what the LGBT community does is wrong to provide them services, that is, the rights of those business owners (a restaurateur, for example) would be curtailed in order to extend rights to others.
Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan’s 11-year-old LGBT project, counters, “People are entitled to their religious and their moral beliefs, but we live in a society where if you choose to engage in commerce, you have to do a lot of things — comply with building codes, pay payroll taxes, meet occupational safety standards. And you have to adhere to nondiscrimination laws. We don’t tell people, you’re exempt from this if you believe in racism.
“When you do polling in the state of Michigan you find that the majority favor fairness in sexual orientation and gender identification. If it’s the will of the people as a whole to protect LGBT rights, that becomes just another practice required of businesses.”
The ACLU of Michigan “strongly supports amending our state civil rights laws to include sexual orientation and treat people fairly.”
While Regina Calcagno found the hearing very worthwhile, saying, “I was very pleased with the civility demonstrated by the speakers and the audience; there was also some very valuable testimony that came out of last night's hearing,” some local residents in attendance were less pleased.
Holland activist and business owner Ken Freestone said, “The meeting was very typical of what has been said numerous times from both sides over the past year.”
Commented West Michigan resident Adam Wilson, “On both sides of the issue, for it and against it, there were accurate statements and facts, and opinions that were presented as facts.”
Adam Wilson’s brother Erin is the founder of Until Love is Equal, a high-profile group formed after the Holland City Council vote, which operates primarily through social media. Erin Wilson attended with his children, and commented from a broader perspective. “This is one of those difficult moments where we are asked to live up to the U.S. Constitution... This basic equality we are seeking in Holland is not necessarily convenient and it is a challenging moment, but those two facts never have stopped us from living up to our basic freedoms.”
Perhaps most eloquent is a young gay man, Steve Snider, who testified but added later, “I actually have much more to say than I could fit into 3 minutes at the meeting.” Snider details a consistent pattern of discrimination since coming out in high school. “I had teachers talk about me openly and some openly ridicule me, other kids in school openly treated me with hostility, verbally abused me, and physically assaulted me because of my sexual orientation.” He encountered discriminatory acts at college, from the medical profession, and in his working life, including being fired from “the best paying job I ever had.” He adds, “I hope to see that one day I am accepted as equal to every other man and woman under the eyes of the law and I believe we have demonstrated throughout history the effectiveness of helping change the hearts and minds of those who practice discrimination by taking that big step.”
Calcagno emphasizes that the MDCR, which was established to assist the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (the only commission mandated by the Michigan Constitution), is still very interested in hearing people’s stories. In addition to attending a third hearing set for Ann Arbor on July 12, commenters may email her at email@example.com or visit www.michigan.gov/documents/mdcr/ELCRAPrompt2012_385444_7.pdf to learn more.
Civil Rights Department explores impacts of LGBT discrimination
by Cynthia Price