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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 the kind of state they want Michigan to be ― and how they hope to fend off the agenda of the far right, both within Michigan’s borders 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 renters to guaranteeing that employers can’t fire workers in same-sex marriages.
Advocates have been trying to pass something like this for about 40 years. They have finally broken through because, in the 2022 election, voters returned Whitmer to office while giving complete control of the legislature to the Democrats. That hasn’t happened since the Reagan era.
The new House and Senate majorities have been working at a breakneck pace. The initiatives they have enacted or are on their way to passing include a new tax credit for the working poor, repeal of anti-union legislation and several initiatives designed to curb gun violence ― something very much on the mind of Michiganders following February’s mass shooting at Michigan State University.
Relative to those measures, the LGBTQ amendment will likely have a less conspicuous impact on everyday life because a version of the protections already exists. In a key case last year, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity fell under the Elliott-Larsen legal umbrella even without new language.
But courts can and do reverse themselves, especially in Michigan, where voters elect justices on the seven-member Supreme Court. Moreover, putting a statute on the books, as Whitmer and the legislature just did, makes those protections much harder to dislodge in the future.
And that’s to say nothing of the symbolic value in a state where attitudes about LGBTQ issues still vary a lot, from individual to individual and, especially, from place to place.
“There are places in Michigan where I hesitate to hold my partner’s hand where I am, you know, more guarded, where I’m not my true self,” Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, told HuffPost. “This really says to LGBTQ community members that they are loved and valued for just being who they are and that Michigan stands with them.”
At Thursday’s signing ceremony, Whitmer echoed that call while acknowledging that not all elected officials and states feel the same way.
Michigan As The Anti-Florida
“Right now, there’s a nationwide assault on our LGBTQ+ community, especially our trans neighbors, family and friends,” Whitmer said. “There are state legislatures across this country dedicating themselves to legalizing discrimination. It’s dangerous, it’s wrong and it’s un-American.”
Whitmer didn’t single out any states, but it’s not hard to think of a few that qualify. At the top of the list is Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has promoted himself as a warrior against the “woke” mob ― an image he hopes will allow him to win the GOP 2024 presidential nomination, which he seems near-certain to seek.
Like Whitmer, DeSantis just won a resounding reelection and has partisan allies in the legislature passing a flurry of laws. But the actual content of that 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 bans on abortion, they are enacting new ones.
And then there is the GOP’s agenda to restrict what teachers can say about gender and sexuality, ban books that address such themes, and limit gender-affirming treatment.
At least in public, DeSantis and his allies bristle at the suggestion their agenda is targeting the LGBTQ community. This defense would be more credible if DeSantis’ surrogates didn’t attack critics by calling them “groomers” and if he wasn’t giving government posts to Christian Ministry officials who (according to CNN) have floated theories about tap water turning people gay.
“This really says to LGBTQ community members that they are loved and valued for just being who they are, and that Michigan stands with them”
DeSantis has characterized his agenda as an effort to defend freedom from liberals out to trample on the rights of religious Americans and gun owners or to indoctrinate vulnerable children. And it’s not just the Florida governor making this pitch. Pretty much every GOP presidential contender (including the former president himself, Donald Trump) has offered a version.
Whitmer on Thursday also invoked the cause of freedom, but from a very different point of view.
“Michigan is a state where we stand up for people’s fundamental 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 being worried about a mass shooting, or your freedom to be who you are, love who you love.”
The appeal to freedom is one that national advocates have also been making. “What people don’t want is politicians deciding their healthcare,” Kelley Robinson, Human Rights Campaign president, 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 Play For The Center, Not The Fringe
The Elliott-Larsen amendment is a Democratic bill signed by a Democratic governor. But Whitmer, in her remarks, emphasized the role Republicans have played in promoting civil rights, now and in the past.
Elliott-Larsen is named for the two former state House members who sponsored it, Democrat Daisy Elliott and Republican Melvin Larsen. Elliott isn’t alive anymore, but Larsen is and appeared at the signing ceremony to a rousing ovation. Whitmer recognized him and then paid tribute to former Gov. William Milliken, the moderate Republican who signed Elliott-Larsen and whom Whitmer has frequently cited as a role model for public service.
And just as Whitmer hailed the two-state Democratic legislators who led the campaign to pass this new amendment, Sen. Jeremy Moss and Rep. Jason Hoskins, she also went out of her way to point out that a handful of Republicans voted for it as well.
“These are values we all share,” Whitmer said.
“Michigan is a state where we stand up for people’s fundamental freedoms.”
This is not the kind of rhetoric that DeSantis, the Florida Republicans or their counterparts across the country typically offer. Instead, they seem far more interested in scoring points with Fox News viewers by making Democrats out to be the enemy, not just of Republican voters but of America itself. In fact, one Florida Republican lawmaker recently introduced a stunt bill to effectively eliminate the state’s Democratic Party.
In Michigan, at least, this dynamic seems to be working to the advantage of Whitmer and the Democrats because the right-wing agenda alienates plenty of middle-of-the-road swing voters — including those thinking primarily about economic issues.
One of Whitmer’s favorite lines, which she repeated on Thursday, is that “bigotry is bad for business.” Knott from Equality Michigan and Amritha Venkataraman, Michigan state director for the Human Rights Campaign, told HuffPost that several employer groups have been eager partners in their advocacy efforts because they think promising protection against anti-LGBTQ discrimination helps them to attract talent.
A Political Issue — And A Personal One Too
But it’s hard to watch and listen to Michigan’s Democrats and not sense a motive beyond political pragmatism at work.
Although the enactment of the Elliott-Larsen amendments has been four decades in the making, the push for it got an extra nudge in the last year in response to anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in Michigan politics — and following a floor speech defending the LGBTQ community by state Sen. Mallory McMorrow that went viral.
The political effort in support of LGBTQ-friendly candidates that followed dovetailed with, and reinforced, the campaign to protect abortion rights that dominated the 2022 elections, leading directly to a Democratic majority that includes not just a record number of women in top roles 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 her office over the years — and how the new law will make it easier for her to act on them in the future. Nessel, who litigated one of the cases that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage, also made clear the fight was personal.
Whitmer did the same when she pointed out that in addition to being a longtime, visible ally to the LGBTQ community, she is also the “mother of a proud gay woman.”
Thinking about the four-decade struggle to pass the amendment and the resistance advocates faced every step of the way, Whitmer quoted Detroit native and well-known LGBTQ ally Lizzo: “It’s about damn time.” Then she signed the legislation while sitting in front of a pride flag and wearing a Michigan “LOVE” pin on her lapel — once again sending the kind of message that DeSantis and other avatars of the far right never would.