LANSING — Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he has felt compelled to include sexual orientation and gender identification in Michigan’s hate crime law since 2015, when eight gay men, including a friend of his, were targeted in Lansing.


“Two thugs found out eight different men were gay by going onto computer dating sites,” Jones said. “They beat these men bloody, tied and chained them up and robbed them. When they were captured, they made a confession to the police department that they hated gays and hope they die.”


A year later, Sen. Steven Bieda, D-Warren, introduced an amendment to Michigan’s hate crime law — co-sponsored by Jones — to include additional penalties for crimes motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation and gender identification. It never got a hearing.


On Feb. 8, Bieda re-introduced the amendment, cosponsored by Jones, Sen. Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights, and seven Democrats. State and local LGBT advocates are praising the bipartisan group of senators who support the legislation.


Michigan’s hate crime law includes victims targeted by race, color, religion, gender or national origin, but Bieda said he wants prosecutors to have additional tools to “go after lawbreakers” and include other vulnerable populations. Perpetrators are guilty of a hate crime if they maliciously cause physical contact with a victim, damage or destroy a victim’s property or threaten a victim by word or action, according to the law. It is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, a fine up to $5,000 or both. That would be in addition to other felony punishments.


Even though sexual orientation and gender identification are not covered by the current law, the Uniform Crime Reporting System Act requires crimes motivated by sexual orientation to be reported to the State Police for data collection purposes. In 2015, Michigan had 61 reported bias incidents motivated by sexual orientation, according to State Police crime data. Sexual orientation was the second-most reported bias motivator, after race.


Including sexual orientation and gender identification in the hate crime law could elevate the punishment for some of these incidents.


Nathan Triplett, director of public policy and political action for Equality Michigan, said it might also heighten feelings of safety and security among the LGBT community. He said Equality Michigan commends Bieda and his co-sponsors on their efforts toward equality. Equality Michigan is an advocacy organization committed to changing laws that disproportionately affect LGBT people.


Similarly, Mary Jo Schnell, executive director of the OutCenter in Benton Harbor, said the amendment would have phenomenal impact on the community her organization works to protect.


“The people we serve are so pleased to see this kind of leadership at the state level,” Schnell said. “This says, ‘Hey, we are putting a stake in the ground here to say that we are protecting people.’”


The OutCenter offers programs on free on-site counseling, a teen gay-straight alliance and civic engagement and diversity training, among other advocacy and support services. It serves Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties in Southwest Michigan.


“One of the biggest things we wait for and fight for on behalf of our communities is that we are protected from discrimination,” Schnell said.


Jules Shelby, a licensed counselor in private practice at Oasis Health in Traverse City and North Michigan field coordinator for Transgender Michigan, said she is particularly supportive of the inclusion of gender identification in the proposed amendment.


“Transgender individuals are being violently murdered based solely on the fact that they do not conform with their gender assigned at birth,” Shelby said. “And as long as that’s the case, we need legislation.”


Bieda said it’s hard to predict if the bill will get a hearing because the Legislature is “lopsided,” and Republicans, who hold the majority in both houses, have not typically supported LGBT rights. He said the bipartisan sponsorship it has received so far makes him hopeful that there will be more support moving forward.


The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Government Operations. Committee Chair Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, could not be reached for comment.


“I think it’s one of those issues that a lot of people don’t understand, but if people start to understand more, it will be harder to ignore,” Bieda said.


— CAITLIN TAYLOR, Capital News Service


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