Governor Gretchen Whitmer signs LGBTQ civil rights law for Michigan

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) This week signed landmark legislation to protect the state’s LGBTQ community.

In the process, she and her allies sent a message about what kind of state they want Michigan to be — and how they hope to push back against the far-right agenda, both at home. of Michigan and beyond.

The new law amends the Elliott-Larsen Act, Michigan’s civil rights law, to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In practical terms, that means everything from ensuring landlords can’t turn away LGBTQ tenants to ensuring employers can’t fire workers in same-sex marriages.

Defenders have been trying to push something like this for about 40 years. They finally broke through because, in the 2022 election, voters returned Whitmer to power while giving full control of the legislature to Democrats. This hadn’t happened since the Reagan era.

The new majorities in the House and Senate worked at a breakneck pace. Initiatives they have passed or are about to pass include a new tax credit for the working poor, the repeal of anti-union legislation, and several initiatives to address gun violence ― something very present in the minds of Michigan residents after the February shooting at the University of Michigan.

Compared to these measures, the LGBTQ amendment is likely to have a less visible impact on daily life because a version of the protections already exists. In a landmark case last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity fall under the Elliott-Larsen legal umbrella, even without new language.

But courts can and do overturn, particularly in Michigan, where voters elect justices to the seven-member Supreme Court. Plus, putting a law on the books, as Whitmer and the legislature just did, makes those protections much harder to dislodge in the future.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer listens to reporters during a press conference November 7, 2022 in East Lansing, Michigan. Recently, the Democrat signed landmark legislation to protect the state’s LGBTQ community.

Brandon Bell via Getty Images

And that’s not to mention the symbolic value in a state where attitudes towards LGBTQ issues still vary greatly, from individual to individual and, crucially, from place to place.

“There are places in Michigan where I’m hesitant to hold hands with my partner where I’m, you know, more reserved, where I’m not myself,” said Erin Knott, executive director of Equality. Michigan, at HuffPost. “It really tells members of the LGBTQ community that they are loved and appreciated for who they are and that Michigan stands with them.”

During Thursday’s signing ceremony, Whitmer echoed that call while acknowledging that not all elected officials and states feel the same way.

Michigan as anti-Florida

“Right now there is a national attack on our LGBTQ+ community, especially our trans neighbors, family and friends,” Whitmer said. “There are state legislatures across this country dedicated to legalizing discrimination. It’s dangerous, it’s wrong and it’s not American.

Whitmer didn’t choose any state, but it’s not hard to think of a few that qualify. Topping the list is Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has portrayed himself as a warrior against the “woke” crowd — an image he hopes will win him the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, which he seems almost certain to win. seek.

Like Whitmer, DeSantis has just won a resounding re-election and has partisan allies in the legislature passing a wave of legislation. But the actual content of this legislation is quite different. Instead of passing laws that make it harder to get and carry a gun, DeSantis and Florida Republicans are about to make it easier. Instead of repealing old abortion bans, they are enacting new ones.

And then there’s the GOP’s agenda to restrict what teachers can say about gender and sexuality, ban books that deal with these themes, and limit gender-affirming treatment.

At least in public, DeSantis and his allies bristle at the suggestion that their program targets the LGBTQ community. This defense would be more believable if DeSantis’ surrogates did not attack critics by calling them “groomersand if he weren’t awarding government posts to Christian ministry officials who (according to CNN) have floated theories about tap water making people gay.

“It really tells members of the LGBTQ community that they are loved and valued for simply being who they are, and that Michigan stands with them.”

– Erin Knott, Equality Michigan

DeSantis characterized his agenda as an effort to defend freedom against liberals for trampling on the rights of religious Americans and gun owners or for indoctrinating vulnerable children. And it’s not just the Governor of Florida making this pitch. Almost every GOP presidential candidate (including former president Donald Trump himself) has offered some version.

Whitmer also invoked the cause of freedom on Thursday, but from a very different perspective.

“Michigan is a state where we stand up for people’s basic freedoms,” Whitmer said, “whether it’s your freedom to make your own decisions about your body, your freedom to go to school or work without worrying about of a mass shooting, or your freedom to be who you are, to love who you love.

The call for freedom is one that national defenders have also made. “What people don’t want is politicians deciding their health care,” Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told HuffPost on Friday. “They don’t want politicians telling you where to go to the bathroom, they don’t want politicians telling you what books to read.”

A game for the center, not the periphery

The Elliott-Larsen Amendment is a Democratic bill signed by a Democratic governor. But Whitmer, in his remarks, highlighted the role Republicans have played in advancing civil rights now and in the past.

Elliott-Larsen is named after the two former members of the State House who sponsored him, Democrat Daisy Elliott and Republican Melvin Larsen. Elliott is no longer alive, but Larsen is and appeared at the signing ceremony to a rapturous ovation. Whitmer acknowledged this and then paid tribute to former Governor William Milliken, the moderate Republican who signed Elliott-Larsen and whom Whitmer frequently cited as a role model for public service.

And just as Whitmer saluted the two-state Democratic lawmakers who led the campaign to pass this new amendment, Senator Jeremy Moss and Rep. Jason Hoskins, she also went out of her way to point out that a handful of Republicans voted. for this as Good.

“These are values ​​we all share,” Whitmer said.

“Michigan is a state where we stand up for people’s basic freedoms.”

– Governor Gretchen Whitmer

That’s not the kind of rhetoric that DeSantis, Florida Republicans or their counterparts across the country typically come up with. Instead, they seem much more interested in scoring points with Fox News viewers by making Democrats the enemy, not just of Republican voters, but of America itself. In fact, a Republican lawmaker in Florida recently introduced a bill to effectively eliminate the Democratic Party from the state.

In Michigan, at least, that dynamic appears to be working to Whitmer’s and the Democrats’ advantage, as the right-wing agenda alienates many intermediate voters, including those who think primarily of economic issues.

One of Whitmer’s favorite lines, which she repeated on Thursday, is that “bigotry is bad for business.” Equality Michigan’s Knott and Amritha Venkataraman, Michigan State Director for the Human Rights Campaign, told HuffPost that several employer groups have been enthusiastic partners in their advocacy efforts because they believe that the promising protection against anti-LGBTQ discrimination helps them attract talent.

A political question – and a personal question too

But it’s hard to watch and listen to Michigan Democrats and not sense a motive beyond the political pragmatism at work.

Although the enactment of the Elliott-Larsen Amendments spanned four decades, the push for it received an additional boost last year in response to anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in Michigan politics — and in the wake of a floor speech defending the LGBTQ community by states Senator Mallory McMorrow that has gone viral.

The political push for LGBTQ-friendly candidates that followed joined and bolstered the campaign to protect abortion rights that dominated the 2022 election, leading directly to a Democratic majority that includes not only a record number of women in high-level positions, but also a record number of publicly LGBTQ members. Their ranks include House Speaker Pro Tempore Laurie Pohutsky and attorney general Dana Nessel.

Nessel spoke at the signing ceremony, recalling the stories of discrimination that have come to his office over the years – and how the new law will make it easier for him to act in the future. Nessel, who argued one of the cases that led to the US Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, also said the fight was personal.

Whitmer did the same when she pointed out that in addition to being a longtime visible ally of the LGBTQ community, she is also the “mother of a proud queer woman.”

Thinking about the four-decade struggle to pass the amendment and resistance supporters every step of the way, Whitmer cited a well-known LGBTQ ally from Detroit. Lizzo: “It was time.” Then she signed the law as she sat in front of a pride flag and wearing a Michigan “LOVE” pin on his backhand — once again sending the kind of message that DeSantis and other far-right avatars would never.


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