March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Nearly 80 activists mobilize in Lansing to call on state legislators for protection against LGBT discrimination

Thursday, May 24 — In Michigan, someone can be fired from their job or denied housing because they're gay.

Driving that fact home to legislators was a key point in Equality Action Day, a lobbying day at the Capitol organized by Equality Michigan. LGBT activists from all over the state gathered to speak with their representatives and senators to encourage them to amend the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to allow for protection based on sexual orientation.

"The act prohibits discrimination in housing and employment for the usual things, like religion, marital status, weight, race and gender but Michigan is one of the states across the country that does not have protections for sexual orientation or gender expression," said Amy Hunter, president of the Equality Michigan Pride PAC.

LGBT activists are hopeful that will change with an amendment to the act. State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, introduced legislation that would put LGBT people under the act's umbrella of protection.

"Sixty-five percent of Michiganders want this," Emily Dievendorf, policy director for Equality Michigan, said at the rally outside of the Capitol. Dievendorf was referencing a poll that gauged whether or not people in Michigan supported nondiscrimination laws for LGBT groups.

"For the first time in Michigan history a majority of people want this," she said to the crowd. "Unfortunately we have nothing. You can be fired for being gay, for someone thinking you're gay."

There are 18 city, township and county ordinances around the state that prohibit LGBT discrimination, including the city of Lansing. East Lansing was the first city in the nation to do so when it enacted a nondiscrimination ordinance 40 years ago.

Two such ordinances popped up last year, Hunter said: "That sends a pretty strong message to the state. If they're enacting them on the local level we should probably be looking at it in state law."

People who attended the event separated into groups based on their constituency and spoke directly to legislators and their staff.

Although none of the legislators she planned to speak with were available, Farmington resident Linda Burnett said speaking with staff members was still a powerful statement.

“I think it was very effective,” she said. “We didn't actually get in touch with the three legislators but we told their staff some of our stories about people we knew who were fired for being gay. When you tell them a story like that, they're looking right at you. It gets their attention. We weren't just going in there with statistics or generalizations.”

And it turns out being against discrimination can also help out the struggling Michigan economy, Hunter said.

“There is absolutely uncontroversial evidence that states and communities that are inclusive and welcoming and that have laws on books are the places where large companies choose to locate,” Hunter said. “Fiscal austerity is not a climate that encourages the best and brightest to move here. It’s a good economic decision but also just the right thing to do.”

Nearly 80 percent of transgender people have felt discriminated, harassed or unsafe in the workplace, Hunter said. And roughly 42 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. She added that some of the highest numbers in the youth homeless population identify as LGBT.

“It's not because they're crazy,” she said. “It's because our society doesn't allow them to live effectively.”

“You cannot legislate away bigotry or bias but what you can do is put effective protections on the books,” Hunter said. “It's a deterrent but it’s also a tangible source from which to spring a conversation to start a narrative with the community. Enacting legislation that protects marginalized segments of the community empowers them lets them know they don't have to live on the margins anymore.”

Legislation like this has come up before and it’s always hit opposition in either the House or Senate and has died. Warren’s legislation is slated for a hearing in the Senate Government Operations Committee.