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G-Sync: Equality Now, Not Later (The Challenge)

Hear from those on the front line who understand too well that the time is now and why we can not play politics with civil rights matters in the state of Michigan any longer.

What happens when we only give lip service to a civil rights matter? G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen finds out it means absolutely nothing and, on the heels of the Mackinac Policy Conference, calls for our state lawmakers to pass important legislation.
Last week, something unthinkable happened. Governor Snyder and both House and Senate crafted not one but two bipartisan deals that had jaws dropping all over the state. I guess we have become so jaded and used to things not working in Lansing that we forget the pleasures of those moments when it does. It has been a while.

The first coming together of Republicans and Democrats was with the passage of the "Grand Bargain" – a deal that would not just ship $195 million to Detroit but would also ensure that the city's retiree pensions, which were in jeopardy, would not slip from the very hands that earned them. Classy move.

The second deal arrived shortly after, as the body voted to raise our state's minimum wage in a package benefiting both parties and our state's citizens. Republicans, seeking to cut off a ballot initiative on raising the minimum wage slated for this November's election, effectively neutralized the measure, while Democrats secured a raise for the state's lowest income earners, taking our $7.40-an-hour wages to $9.25 an hour by 2018. Both parties got something for their investment of their energy on this one.

As I was at City Hall last week waiting for the elevator, I listened to the news from a friend who works in Lansing that signaled that maybe a third miraculous event had just occurred.

Taking his instruction, I went home and Googled "Governor Rick Snyder, Mackinac Policy Conference." And there it was as promised - the shocker.

That's What He Said
“I’m not taking a position on the actual issue at this point, but saying let’s get it in front of the Legislature, let’s have a dialogue and discussion, and hopefully get some resolution on this issue,” said Governor Snyder last week.

For the very first time since being sworn into office, our sitting governor addressed the need to explore the amending of Michigan's Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 (ELCRA) – a document that has been amended many times since its adoption to now include language barring anyone from denying someone a job or housing opportunity based on their religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status.

What an about-face from all the other times he has mentioned the LGBT of our state. Up until this point, the man who rode into Lansing on the "One Tough Nerd" horse and carried with him our fantasies that surely a tech guy could not do much harm, proved otherwise, as each bill that came before him that limited or crippled the rights of the LGBT and our families was signed, sealed, delivered back to the House and Senate as a new law. Needless to say, it has been a very difficult term.

But his statements at the MPC were different. Initially, they offered some hope. But as we parsed these statements in the days that followed, we quickly realized that it's possible nothing will be done despite the hopeful momentum. It is the disappointment the LGBT of our state have come to expect in this area over and over again as time slips by. It doesn't have to be this way.

Big and Small Business Agree

On the day of Governor Snyder's appearance at the MPC, other big announcements teed up the ball for a possible three-play of bipartisan support. It would have been so easy for him to hit that ball out of the park.

Three Michigan Fortune 500 firms, including Chrysler Group, Kellogg Co., and Pfizer, joined the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition on May 29, which also includes AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Consumers Energy, The Dow Chemical Company, Google, Herman Miller, PADNOS, Southwest Michigan First, Steelcase, Strategic Staffing Solutions, Whirlpool Corporation, Clark Hill PLC, Irwin Seating Company, Issue Media Group, Professional Property Management and Slow’s Bar BQ. (Full disclosure: Issue Media Group is the parent company of Rapid Growth Media but the thoughts and opinions represented in this editorial are solely my own.)

The Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition (MCWC) is a newly formed group of corporations with a mission to lobby our lawmakers to amend ELCRA, making it illegal in Michigan to discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Why do these businesses care? And, even better, why should we as a state care? It's quite simple, actually. Discrimination (or the ability to openly discriminate) is getting in the way of doing business and starting to embarrass our state in many ways in our efforts to compete globally.

Right before the governor was to take the stage, Detroit and Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce leadership addressed the packed room of 1,600 state business, education, and political leaders in attendance (as well of host of live stream viewers from all over the state), and our state's top two cities pledged their support to the MCWC.

“Michigan’s business community is sending a very clear message about the importance of workforce diversity to our state’s future,” said the CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber and MPC host Sandy Baruah. “We are in a global war for talent, and need the best and brightest workforce to compete in the 21st century economy, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. We are committed to a Michigan where all are free and welcome to contribute to our economic comeback.”

Not missing a beat, Grand Rapids' Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in lockstep with Detroit's pledge.

“It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. This is about Michigan’s competitiveness and our ability to attract and retain talent. We hear from our members in West Michigan on a regular basis that while infrastructure and tax policy impact the work they are doing, finding highly skilled, creative and talented people to fill jobs is a growing challenge,” said Baker. “Updating Elliott-Larsen won’t solve this problem on its own, but it sends a message to workers both inside and outside of Michigan that if they are qualified for a job, they will be treated fairly and judged on their merits.”

So why write about it? Simply stated, in talking to even people close to me, I discovered that many did not know that it is currently legal in the state of Michigan to fire or refuse to hire simply because that someone happens to be gay or lesbian or perceived to be so. It is ok for someone to deny a Michigan citizen who is LGBT (or is perceived to be gay but otherwise heterosexual), housing or to refuse them service in stores, restaurants, and other public accommodations. When you begin to break it down to the street level, it is not hard to see what a second-class citizenship we have created here in our state – or to notice how these practices echo other indiscretions and practices from our nation's past, all of which have gone on for far too long.

And this is where I call on our governor to stop his vague promises of future dialogue, discussion, and exploration and to instead commit to changing the law. If there is no law to protect someone, then there is no legal channel where justice can be served. It's been 40 years since Bella Azbug introduced a bill at the federal level that attempted to make things right, and it's time for our leaders to give something more than lip service.

Governor Snyder Knows The Stats

Many examples are out there, including one from Equality Michigan's site, where in 2007 the Michigan Fair Housing Centers conducted an investigation into housing discrimination against LGBT people. The agency sent out 120 paired individuals posing as same-sex couples attempting to secure rental housing all over our state. And what has been confirmed again and again is that indeed discrimination against same-sex couples was "widespread," even as they controlled for factors such as race, education, and economic status.

A more recent study from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights reported on January 28, 2013 that, even though the commission famously issued a statement in 1983 that ELCRA should be amended to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the climate for Michigan's LGBT has not gotten better with the passing of time.

In fact, they report that "discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, (1) exists and is significant, (2) is protected in other states, but not in Michigan, which (3) has direct negative economic effects on Michigan." (Report can be read here.)

And yet, even with the mounting evidence, past and present, to support Michigan's LGBT inclusion in ELCRA, our elected body has enacted horrifying steps backward, as witnessed in the example of Michigan House Bill 5039, which was introduced in 2011 to undo the LGBT housing and employment protections that more than 20 Michigan municipalities have adopted over the decades.

If we were trying to send a signal to the world that we as a state wanted to innovate a new Michigan in a post-2008 economic collapse landscape, to the outside firms and individuals who read the headlines, such actions in Lansing signaled a retreat to the dark ages in the arena of civil rights.

Governor Snyder is a smart man. Even his MPC statement is calculated and echoes his trust-me-I'm-one-tough-nerd campaign style of 2010. But this time I believe we as citizens are smarter. If you have been waiting as long as I have for this moment, then it is time to stop playing games with people's well-being. It is time for a new strategy based on bipartisan action.

So I Am Calling His Bluff

As the governor re-stated his position on Michigan Public Radio’s Stateside program with host Cynthia Canty after the conference, he added something very telling at the end of his oft-given statement: "I don’t believe in discrimination and I think it would be great if they actually, if the legislature looked at the issue later in the year." Along with so many careful listeners out there, I began to doubt it would happen this year as soon as I heard the phrase "later in the year."

The real victory must come now and it has to arrive before November if Governor Synder's "I don't believe in discrimination" line is to have any power or worth beyond empty campaign rhetoric.If the governor is truly committed to being against discrimination, then it is time for him and the entire legislative body on both sides of the aisle to do the right thing BEFORE the election.

As the governor, he needs to lead on this matter to begin to undo the many civil rights missteps during his tenure. To have a hostile environment like the LGBT have experienced in Lansing's chambers advance in cities all across Michigan is to further roll the dice with headlines that always follow of such folly and shortsightedness. Michigan's elected leaders in Lansing must break from the past's narrative of exclusion and no longer play politics with people's lives, shelter, or ability to make a living here.

And we must do so before the next governor is elected, whether it be Rick Snyder or Mark Schauer.

The Real Benefit of a Win

An early win like this can restore the faith of the majority of our state's citizens who truly want to see bipartisan cooperation advance our government's work.

A win in this arena would mean that for the very first time in Michigan's history when I go to the polls, I won't have to vote for the guy or gal who offers lip service but for a person who would eliminate this blind spot in our state. We must reaffirm that all Michiganders, regardless of our religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, marital status or sexual orientation and gender identity, deserve equal rights.

Let's not become cynical on this matter of equality and fairness; let us be crystal clear about the picture before us as citizens of this state. Equality matters a lot or else our government would not devote so much time to this matter, as evident since the very beginning of our nation. "We hold these truths to be self-evident…" The evidence is in, Governor Snyder. It is time to settle this matter and you have the power to lead us forward in the affirmative equality matters in the state of Michigan.

I'm taking a very hard line position on this issue, because we need to get it in front of the legislature now (not later), have a much-overdue dialogue and discussion, and then pass some bipartisan legislation so we can move Michigan forward.  

The Future Needs All of Us. (It is really that simple, my fellow Michiganders.)

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Celebrate Grand Rapids' growing diversity of events by visiting G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!

Editor's Note: I wish to thank the Grand Rapids Public Library for their research assistance on this week's editorial. Also happening this week, Propaganda Doughnuts is teaming with the Grand Rapids Public Library for a clever project seeking to honor #NegroniWeek! For every "Negroni Doughnut" sold, $1 will go directly to keeping books in the hands of the public. For more info about this new summer craze and to learn more about the Negroni, visit http://negroniweek.com/

Images of the 1993 March on Washington are from the photo archive of Tommy Allen Creative/Art. Other press conference image is of Bella Abzug from 1972.
June with the sun high in the West Michigan sky is the Unofficial Big Idea/Dreamers Month.

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