Here’s What the Gayest Legislature in Michigan History is Doing for LGBTQ Rights

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attends a Motor City Pride parade in Detroit.

By Kyle Kaminski

June 13, 2023

Last year, Michigan voters elected the most openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual state lawmakers in state history. Now the state’s laws are changing to help strengthen protections for the LGBTQ community.

LANSING—Michigan hasn’t always stood up for the LGBTQ community.

It wasn’t until 2014 that a federal district judge in Michigan first ruled that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples was unconstitutional. It took another five years for state officials to find the bravery to fly a Pride Flag on a state building. Even last year, state lawmakers—then under Republican leadership—couldn’t even pass a seemingly simple resolution to recognize June as Pride Month. And before this year, the state’s civil rights laws didn’t include any protections to prevent LGTBQ people from being fired from their jobs over who they love.

The sputtering start to equality was enough to put Michigan behind 20 other states in terms of how well its laws and policies work to improve the lives and experiences of its LGBTQ residents.

But this year, the tide has turned.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan’s once-divided legislature, now under newfound Democratic control, are forging a path toward progress that aims to leave no one behind. And the state Capitol—last year a symbol of stalemate and missed opportunity—now hums with Pride as lawmakers quickly work to reshape the state’s legislative landscape with an eye toward equity.

A Legislative Revolution

Last June, Michigan lawmakers struggled with the concept of LGBTQ Pride.

The state Senate—then under Republican control—effectively blocked a resolution that would’ve declared June 2022 as Pride Month. Then-Majority Leader Mike Shirkey twice postponed a vote on the bill, and then ultimately left the resolution to stall out in a committee. 

Republican lawmakers had taken issue with how the resolution singled out the LGBTQ community for recognition, and Shirkey reportedly wanted to add in language about how “not every citizen” in Michigan necessarily “agrees with the lifestyle of the LGBTQ community.”

In an election year that focused largely on exploiting divisiveness, with plenty of extremist chatter about “groomers” and drag queens, the Republican blockade was to be expected. State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said last year’s hesitancy to recognize Pride sent the wrong message to Michiganders, and only helped to solidify an “agenda of division” in Lansing.

It may have also solidified what happened at the polls about five months later, when Democrats were able to take full control of the state government for the first time in about 40 years. 

In November, a record-setting number of Michigan voters also turned out to elect the most inclusive legislature in state history—with at least seven lawmakers who identify as LGBTQ. 

And the result has been six straight months of legislative action focused on strengthening LGBTQ rights—including a Pride Month resolution that passed the same day it was introduced.

Expanded Civil Rights Laws

In March, at about the same time that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was signing a bill to ban teachers from mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation to codify LGBTQ protections into the state’s civil rights laws. It permanently outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“There are state legislatures across this country dedicating themselves to legalizing discrimination,” Whitmer said at the bill signing. “In Michigan, we will keep expanding freedoms and getting things done on the issues that actually make a difference in people’s lives.”

READ MORE: Democrats ‘Running to the Finish Line’ to Protect LGBTQ Rights

The legislation followed a state Supreme Court ruling last year that found Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and education on the basis of sex, had also extended to sexual orientation.

Whitmer’s signature ensured that the high court’s ruling cannot be reversed—and went one step further by extending protections to include gender identity or expression. Whitmer said the extra protections were necessary due to a “nationwide assault on our LGBTQ-plus community.”

Before this year, Michigan was one of 29 states that did not have laws explicitly protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Democrats made it a top priority this year after the effort was blocked by Republicans for years. 

Moss—the bill’s sponsor and Michigan’s first openly gay state senator—said amending the act to include protections for the LGBTQ community has been 40 years in the making. 

“The baton has been passed from generation to generation,” he said.

Former Republican Rep. Mel Larsen, who helped author the civil rights act in 1976, attended the bill signing in Lansing and said the “original intent, and the intent still, is that every citizen of Michigan has the right to be protected under the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.”

The anti-discrimination legislation also helped solidify Michigan’s reputation as the “anti-Florida”—namely because it arrived at a time when Florida and other Republican-led states across the country are trying to erase the legal existence of people who are trans and to restrict the expression of those who are nonbinary, gender-fluid or who perform in drag.

Ending Conversion Therapy

In May, two Democratic state lawmakers introduced two bills that would prohibit “conversion therapy” on minors in Michigan. The pseudoscientific term—which refers to any practice or treatment that attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity—also includes efforts to eliminate sexual or romantic feelings toward someone of the same gender. 

The archaic, scientifically discredited, and dangerous practice has already been banned in at least 21 other states—largely because it operates under the false notion that different sexual orientations or gender diversity are abnormal or unhealthy. Research shows that several thousand young Michiganders are still threatened with or subjected to the practice every year.

And if state Reps. Felicia Brabec and Jason Hoskins can help stop just one child from facing the trauma of LGBTQ conversion therapy; their latest legislation will serve its purpose, they said.

“This is all part of protecting the LGBTQ community here in Michigan,” Hoskins told The ‘Gander last month. “Ultimately, we want to be able to protect LGBTQ children and also get rid of the things that cause discrimination to flourish—and conversion therapy is one of those things.”

READ MORE: Bills Protect Kids from ‘Abhorrent Practice’ of Conversion Therapy

Studies have repeatedly shown strong associations between experiences with conversion therapy and adverse health effects like anxiety and depression. Conversion therapy has also been shown to lead to a much higher likelihood of both substance abuse and suicide. 

The American Psychiatric Association flatly rejected the concept of conversion therapy more than two decades ago, and Whitmer signed an executive order in 2021 that banned state and federal funding for conversion therapy on minors, labeling it as a “harmful” practice to have in Michigan.

Every bill to ban conversion therapy for minors, so far, has stalled in a committee—mostly under Republican leadership. But this year, with Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers, activists are confident there’s enough support in Lansing to finally get the ban passed into law.

Redefining Hate

Last month, Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) introduced legislation that would reportedly update Michigan’s “outdated” and “woefully inadequate” laws to better protect against hate crimes—including new sentencing guidelines that would make it easier for prosecutors to charge those who target others based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

House Bill 4474, 4475, 4476, and 4477 would enact the Michigan Hate Crime Act, which also includes protections for hate crimes committed based on ethnicity, age, or disability. Arbit said the bills will help “transform Michigan from a national laggard to a national leader on hate crimes prevention, intervention, and response,” according to reports from Michigan Advance. 

“We can demonstrate that Michigan’s justice system will treat hate crimes with the seriousness and severity that they are due,” Arbit said. “Now is our moment to send a message that we will not tolerate hate crimes anywhere in the state of Michigan.” 

Building Momentum

Whitmer is keeping her foot on the gas to help protect LGBTQ rights.

This month, at the Motor City Pride parade, the governor signed an executive order to form the state’s first LGBTQ+ Commission—specifically to address issues facing Michigan’s LGBTQ community, including on topics like health, safety, and economic opportunity.

The stated goal: Make Michigan a place where anyone can build a brighter future.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs an executive order to form the state’s first LGBTQ+ Commission alongside Attorney General Dana Nessel and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.

“As we celebrate Pride, we must continue taking action to ensure that everyone has the freedom to be who they are in Michigan,” Whitmer said in a statement this week. “I will fight like hell to bring more diverse voices into the decision-making process. … While other states are engaged in the business of bigotry, Michigan is standing up for the LGBTQ+ community.”  

The newly formed commission—whose members will be appointed by the governor—is designed to advise Whitmer and the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity on ways to “eradicate and prevent discrimination” against the LGBTQ community, as well as address “other forms of inequality” that haven’t already been addressed by the state legislature.

Activists said the commission marks a major milestone in advancing LGBTQ rights in Michigan, and ensuring that voices of the community are heard at the highest levels of state government.

“This bold initiative demonstrates Michigan’s dedication to cultivating a more inclusive and welcoming state, where every individual can live authentically and without fear of discrimination,” Hoskins said in a statement announcing the new commission this week.

Added Moss: “This is what recognition feels like, and this is what representative government looks and acts like. After years of state leaders ignoring LGBTQ+ pride, suppressing our rights and policy needs, and raining on our parades, the rainbows are out and shining bright.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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