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‘It’s about damn time’: Michigan House passes LGBTQ+ civil rights protections bill


‘It’s about damn time’: Michigan House passes LGBTQ+ civil rights protections bill

Mar 08, 2023 | 6:40 pm ET
By Laina G. Stebbins
‘It’s about damn time’: Michigan House passes LGBTQ+ civil rights protections bill
Michigan Pride | Angela Demas

“This victory has been a long time coming,” said the state’s first openly queer female lawmaker, state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), before gaveling in the Michigan House’s final vote Wednesday on a historic bill protecting LGBTQ+ Michiganders from discrimination.

Senate Bill 4 expands the 1973 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to protect against discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. It was previously adopted 23-15 in the Senate last week, with three Republicans joining their Democratic colleagues in the vote.

On Wednesday, the measure made its final passage in the House — with a vote of 64-45, and eight House Republicans voting in favor of the bill — and will now head to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for her expected signature.

“Every Michigander deserves to be treated with dignity and respect under the law. I’ve been calling for changes to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to strengthen legal protections for our LGBTQ+ community for years, and I am proud that we are finally getting it done,” Whitmer said in a statement Wednesday.

Often emotional lawmakers gave speeches describing a political landscape that has long been openly and aggressively hostile to the LGBTQ+ community.

‘It’s about damn time’: Michigan House passes LGBTQ+ civil rights protections bill
State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) at the Michigan Pride rally in Lansing on June 26, 2022. | Photo by Laina G. Stebbins

“I … rise today as the first out, queer woman to serve in the Michigan Legislature,” Pohutsky said in her floor speech before the vote. “ … I do just want to note that a few months ago. I was prohibited from even making that statement in this chamber. And I’m grateful that the landscape has shifted dramatically.”

Following November’s election, Democrats now control the Michigan House, Senate and governorship for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Those who also spoke in support of the bill Wednesday were state Reps. Mike McFall (D-Hazel Park), Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield), Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor) and Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield), who are all openly gay.

Hoskins is the main sponsor of House Bill 4003, the House version of SB 4. State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), the main sponsor of SB 4, confirmed to the Advance Wednesday that only his bill will be heading to Whitmer’s desk.

Voting with Democratic lawmakers in SB 4’s final House passage were eight Republicans: State Reps. Timmy Beson (R-Bay City), Matthew Bierlein (R-Vassar), Graham Filler (R-St. Johns), Mike Mueller (R-Linden), Kathy Schmaltz (R-Jackson), Bill Schuette (R-Midland), Mark Tisdel (R-Rochester Hills) and Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet).

But more than a dozen GOP lawmakers offered amendments that would have watered down or otherwise limited the scope of LGBTQ+ protections in the bills, including Schmaltz, Schuette, Tisdel and state Reps. Brad Paquette (R-Niles), Nancy De Boer (R-Holland), Thomas Kuhn (R-Troy), Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville), Bradley Slagh (R-Zeeland), Rachelle Smit (R-Shelbyville), Donni Steele (R-Orion), Greg VanWoerkom (R-Norton Shores), Joseph Fox (R-Fremont) and Jaime Greene (R-Richmond).

Paquette, Steele, Greene, Schuette, Fox and Smit spoke on the floor in protest of SB 4 and HB 4003 while invoking religious freedom, “discrimination” against unvaccinated individuals and anti-transgender rhetoric about athletes and restrooms.

“I can’t tell you how degrading it is, after 20 years of working on this — fighting for my own life and the equal access and opportunity for others in my lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender communities — to sit while my colleagues introduce amendment after amendment after amendment in order to ensure that I continue not to have rights, in order to ensure that I, in particular, am excluded,” said state Rep. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing), who is the Michigan Legislature’s first openly nonbinary member and one of its first openly bisexual legislators.

Dievendorf shared that since leaving their executive post at Equality Michigan, they have “lived in poverty” after being shot down for jobs due to their identity.

“When you vote today against this, you vote against me,” they said in their floor speech Wednesday.

Arbit, who is the youngest openly gay state lawmaker in Michigan history, also spoke directly to GOP opponents of the bill who invoked religious freedom concerns in their no-vote explanations.

“To all those who had invoked the word of the Lord to deny us these rights, I remind you: The Lord created us in His own image. Can you not see the Lord in me?” Arbit asked. “Can you not see the Lord in the honorable member from Hazel Park, from Southfield, from Ann Arbor, from Livonia, from Lansing? Can you not see the Lord in your gay sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews? Can you not see the Lord in us?

“ … Tomorrow when the sun rises, to be openly proudly LGBT in the state of Michigan will still be a revolutionary act. But no longer will it be a threat to our civil rights. It’s about damn time,” Arbit said.

Efforts to protect sexual orientation and gender identity and expression under ELCRA have been ongoing since the act was enacted in 1976.

“To those making the argument for religious liberty, Madam Chair: Bigotry under a veneer of morality is still bigotry,” Morgan said. “Discrimination masked by concern for children is still discrimination. And hate born out of religion is still hate.”

A number of political figures and groups in Michigan released statements in support of the long-sought-after ELCRA expansion Wednesday, including Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is the state’s first openly gay official elected to statewide office in Michigan.

Nessel joined legislators on the House floor Wednesday to celebrate after the vote.

“For LGBTQ+ people, today is a day of triumph and a day of relief,” said Equality Michigan’s executive director Erin Knott.

“The Michigan House of Representatives sent a loud and clear bipartisan message — LGBTQ+ people are entitled to the same dignity, rights and protections as all Michiganders,” Knott continued. “Equality Michigan and its predecessors have fought for decades to bring the LGBTQ+ community under the protection of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

“Generations of courageous community leaders and grassroots organizing created the path forward, and I am proud that today, history has been made.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist also praised Democratic leaders for passing SB 4.