The Republican-controlled legislature is promoting bigotry against transgender youth while symbolically recognizing Pride for the first time. That worries state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky.
LIVONIA, Mich.—Saturday, June 19, Livonians will gather at Unity Church to celebrate a lot. Unity is offering local Michiganders a chance to join a drum circle Saturday night to celebrate all the things the weekend ahead has to offer.
The celebration Saturday evening will feature a drum circle made up of Unity members, another drum circle group, and the Livonia community, and be led by a professional drummaker. It will also feature food for those comfortable sharing meals at this stage in the pandemic and a wheelchair-friendly labyrinth for attendees to literally get lost in the festivities, said Unity business manager Nancy Bank.
Bank said that a donation of $10 dollars is recommended but not required, and though there is a registration process, she said it wasn’t a requirement either, joking “drummers don’t follow the rules.” Guests are asked to bring their own percussion instrument and lawn chair.
And, Bank said, there’s a lot to celebrate this weekend.
Saturday is Juneteenth, and Sunday is both Father’s Day and Litha, the summer solstice which is both a religious observance in many faiths and the official start of summer. Unity also is celebrating their “COVID Independence Day,” to commemorate the waning days of the pandemic. And of course, June is Pride Month. All those holidays are part of Unity’s celebration.
This Pride Month, there’s a lot for those local Michiganders to celebrate, but still a long road to walk toward true equity, explained state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia). The state Legislature formally recognizing Pride Month for the first time gives Pohutsky, who herself identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community, hope.
“It’s symbolic, there’s a lot of actual policy changes we need to enact,” she told The ‘Gander. “But that’s something that’s been denied to our community for decades, so the fact that those resolutions got through both the House and the Senate? It’s a really good day.”
Still, those policies to back it up matter, Pohutsky stressed. She highlighted specific issues before the Legislature right now that could bring action and commitment to the symbolic recognition LGBTQ Michiganders finally have received from their elected officials.
Targeting Transgender Youth
Bills targeting transgender youth have spread across the United States in 2021 alongside other right-wing proposals like limiting access to voting rights, in no small part thanks to Republican-aligned political action groups.
The ‘Gander’s sister publication Up North News identified the particular group responsible for the proliferation of the current wave of anti-trans youth legislation as most likely being the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), though ADF has not publicly taken credit for the legislation.
As introduced in Michigan, the legislation would prevent students from participating in athletics in schools that do not match the designation they were given at birth. The expressed purpose of these bills, eliminating competitive advantage granted by that time-of-birth designation, has been rejected by scientific research. Pohutsky, though, challenges the legislation on totally different grounds.
“I can’t think of any motivation [for these bills] other than bigotry and hatred, plain and simple,” Pohutsky told The ‘Gander. “What we’re actually arguing is the humanity of trans kids, and I am not willing to get lost in the details or the muck when that is what we’re arguing. There are studies out there and facts that can be cited and that’s fine, that may be persuasive for some people, but at the end of the day I am not willing to negotiate about the humanity of trans youth in this state.”
In an echo of then-state Senator Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer calling proposals to limit the protections of LGBTQ students in 2011 a “blueprint for bullying” amid clashes between state and local governments on the subject of discrimination rights, Pohutsky called the bills encouragement to bully trans students, and in particular trans girls who are specifically identified in many of the pieces of legislation and their associated rhetoric nationwide.
And nationwide, bills similar to the one proposed in Michigan, and those far more controversial, have found success with similarly Republican-dominated Legislatures. The version of the legislation passed in Florida allows schools to require students to have their genitals inspected by school officials to prevent trans girls from participating in girls’ athletics.
“The bills themselves are heinous,” Pohutsky said. “The hearing [the bill received] in the Senate received far, far more opposition and far more negative attention than the majority party was expecting. So I’m hoping they understand that Michigan is not like every other state.”
Pohutsky cited the damage that ostracism, exclusion, and bullying can have on the mental health of trans youth, from depression to suicidal ideation to drug abuse.
“The people of Michigan are not supportive of legislation that does that,” she said. “I think the hearing in the Senate was indicative of that and it is my sincere hope that the folks in the House who would be bringing that bill up for a hearing should it come out of the Senate took that to heart.”
Pohutsky also supports cementing that inclusivity of Pride with a bill that would prevent an even broader approach to preventing discrimination—including LGBTQ Michiganders in civil rights protections.
Recognizing the Basic Rights of LGBTQ Michiganders
Michigan courts found that while some forms of discrimination against LGBTQ Michiganders were ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court during a decision last year in favor of a transgender Michigander fired for her gender identity, that ruling did not cover all situations. Michiganders can still be fired or evicted for being LGBTQ, the court ruled.
Earlier this year, Pohutsky introduced legislation alongside state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Ferndale) that would protect Michiganders under the state’s civil rights law, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 (ELCRA), regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s something that a vast majority of Michiganders support, but the Republican-controlled Legislature has been slow to act on.
That’s made Pohutsky’s job passing the popular proposal harder, even in light of the Legislature’s Pride Month recognition.
“It oscillates between being very hopeful and very frustrating,” Pohutsky admitted. “Many local Chambers of Commerce reached out in support, including my own chamber, the Livonia Chamber of Commerce. Livonia has been historically fairly conservative, so the fact that that chamber went on record supporting it is really significant. But there hasn’t been a whole lot more movement [in the Legislature], which is frustrating.”
Moreover, the bills introduced shortly after her ELCRA modernization to target transgender youth make Pohutsky concerned that there may be attempts to leave trans Michiganders out of the ELCRA revisions.
“Those bills need to be passed as written,” she said. “[Moss] and I are both in complete opposition to adding in any language that would be exclusionary to the trans community.”
Despite the legislature’s slow activity on the bill, it’s likely to be Michigan law in the next few years regardless. There also is a proposal aiming to let Michiganders vote on extending those rights in 2022 sponsored by Fair and Equal Michigan, Equality Michigan executive director Erin Knott told the ‘Gander. While that approach would take longer than Pohutsky’s proposal, the number of roads to the same goal makes Knott think it’s an inevitability.
Knott said that many Michiganders are shocked that sexual orientation and gender identity are not already covered by ELCRA.
“People scratching their heads saying, ‘What, you mean you can be discriminated against here in Michigan in 2021 simply because of who you are and who you love?’ And the answer is, unfortunately, yes,” Knott told The ‘Gander. “So join the movement and help us change it once and for all.”
Taking into account that popular support and the support from the business community, Pohutsky thinks passing the legislation should be something that motivates both sides of the aisle.
“The people of this state, from average citizens to business organizations and community leaders, have been very, very clear that this is a positive change, whether you’re looking at it from the perspective of civil rights or from an economic standpoint and making sure Michigan has a competitive position,” said Pohutsky. “It’s frankly a no-brainer.”