We’d like to think all people are treated equally in America.
In fact, we think our system is set up to make sure that happens. There are, though, people who are not protected.
If the pollsters are right, here’s something you probably don’t know:
It’s perfectly legal to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
A Gallup poll reported nearly nine out of ten people think LGBT people are already protected.
They are not.
And, according to the pollsters, three out of four people believe they should be protected.
Leslee Fritz is with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
“There is no federal law to prevent discrimination against the LGBT community and there is no law in Michigan that prevents it. So, there’s a gap between what people believe is right and what they believe is real and what is actual reality.”
The Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act is Michigan’s law to prohibit discrimination. It includes protections for religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, family status, and marital status.
But, if you’re gay, you’re just out of luck.
“If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered in Michigan, you can be fired because of it, in fact, you can be fired because you are perceived to be whether you are in reality or not. You can be denied a place to live or kicked out of where you do live. You can be denied a public accommodation. For example, you can be turned away from a restaurant or a hotel,” Fritz explained.
And since most people have no idea that’s Michigan’s law, the groups working for protections for LGBT people say the challenge is educating people in the state. Emily Dievendorf is Director of Public Policy for Equality Michigan.
“I think that the general populace wants to assume that Michigan’s further ahead than we are because they see the progress that the rest of the country is making on equality issues. The sad fact is that Michigan is way behind when it comes to civil rights and is embarrassingly behind when it comes to sticking up for all Michiganders, especially the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.”
Part of the misperception about whether gay people are protected is the ongoing efforts at the local level. Twenty-two municipalities have approved protections for LGBT people through local ordinances. But, those local laws vary widely in the protections offered. And even the strongest ordinances have problems.
“If you contact the City of Ann Arbor to file a complaint, the division that handled those complaints has been closed due to budget cuts...” explains Leslee Fritz with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, adding, “...and the recorded message refers you to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.”
Here's what the recorded message says:
"For investigation of human rights complaints including discrimination, contact the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has both investigative and enforcement authority."
But, for LGBT cases, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights does not have enforcement authority because, again, there’s nothing in the state’s civil rights act to protect them.
"So, those ordinances are a first step, but do not offer much in the way of real and meaningful protection,” Fritz says.
The members of the Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission are frustrated because the ordinance is on the books, but it’s a paper tiger. Leslie Stambaugh chairs the Commission.
“Well, the enforcement, of course, is the difficulty. The ordinance assigns enforcement to the Director of Human Rights and there has not been a Director of Human Rights for six years. There has not even been a Department of Human Rights in Ann Arbor for six years. And when it was eliminated, it left complaints to go to the City Attorney, not a clear process at all which is probably the reason not many people pursued it.”
Plus that telephone message directs people to the state.
Michigan Watch reviewed documents from some other cities with LGBT protections and found very few formal complaints had been filed and most of them were not resolved. Often the people filing complaints were residents of the city, but the workplace accused of discrimination was outside of city limits, outside of local jurisdiction.
Gary Glenn is with the anti-gay rights group American Family Association – Michigan. He says the lack of documented complaints just shows there’s no need for protections for gays and lesbians.
“Homosexual advocacy groups have never been able to present one case, documentably, of somebody who lost a job or who was denied service or housing on the basis of who they have sex with. So, in that respect, it is a solution in search of a problem.”
Advocates for the LGBT community say that’s a bit of a Catch 22.
Not very many people know they can file complaints and often complaints aren’t pursued because the ordinances are so limited.
In addition, Michigan is a so-called “at will” state where businesses can fire a worker without cause and without explanation.
So, you really can’t document those cases.
But LGBT groups and some of their allies forwarded to Michigan Watch messages and descriptions of phone calls from dozens of people who have asked for help - wanting to know who to contact about alleged discrimination in their lives.
Gary Glenn, with American Family Association Michigan, dismisses those examples.
“They always have anecdotal stuff, but nothing you can document.”
Advocates also say many people in the LGBT community don’t come forward because they’re afraid to come out of the closet. They’re afraid of backlash if more people find out they’re gay.
Glenn says he does not believe that.
“People are not afraid to stand up and advocate based on their sexual activity. In fact, it’s everywhere. So, I don’t buy the notion that in a state of ten million people you couldn’t find even one example because people are afraid. I mean, you’ve got multiple groups that are made up of people who talk openly about their sexual activity and want public policy to be changed on that basis. So, I don’t think people are shy.”
Glenn adds the small number of formal complaints in a state this big just bolsters his argument that there’s no need for protections under the state’s civil rights act.
LGBT advocates say when even one person is discriminated against in our society, we all suffer.
Antonio David Garcia with the LGBT advocacy group Affirmations says really it comes down to straight people standing up for the rights of their gay friends and neighbors, asking for the laws to be changed if gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people are to be protected from discrimination.
“It’s not enough to say you’ve got a gay friend. What have you done? Have you called your state representative? Have you called and said, ‘As a straight person, I’m for gay marriage. My neighbor should be able to adopt. My neighbor shouldn’t be fired for being gay- my son, my daughter, you name it.’ The straight community has to come out of the closet and as soon as they do, we will win.”
But gay rights opponents are concerned that granting civil rights protections for gay people eventually will lead to same-sex marriage.
They say voters already amended the State Constitution in 2004 to limit marriage to one man and one woman.