Michigan currently has no LGBT representation in its state legislature, but a quartet of gay candidates running for office is seeking to change that in the upcoming election.
The four out candidates running for seats in both the State House and Senate say their election would help enact pro-LGBT laws in a state that lacks any substantive protections for LGBT residents.
Rudy Serra, who serves as a district judge in Michigan and is running to represent District 27 in the State House, said it’ll take openly gay legislators like himself to advance non-discrimination protections — in addition to getting rid of bad laws.
“It’s my understanding that there has never been a state that has added sexual orientation to its civil rights statute without at least one openly LGBT person in the legislature — ever,” Serra said. “To the extent that that’s true, Michigan still has a sodomy felony. We still have a gross indecent felony. We have all kinds of laws that were declared unconstitutional. We know they’re obsolete, and the folks in the legislature still won’t repeal them.”
The four candidates spoke to the Washington Blade during a roundtable this week at the offices of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which has endorsed each of the contenders.
In addition to Serra, the other openly gay candidates running for office are Jon Hoadley, a gay Democratic activist and candidate to represent District 60 in the Michigan State House; Garnet Lewis, a board member for Northern Michigan University and candidate to represent District 32 in the Michigan State Senate; and Jeremy Moss, a Southfield City Council member who’s running to represent District 35 in the Michigan State House.
If even one of the candidates were elected, it would bring LGBT representation to the Michigan Legislature for the first time in seven years since former Rep. Chris Kolb was term-limited out of office.
On the agenda for the candidates is amending the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, which prohibits discrimination based on employment, housing and public accommodations in Michigan, so that it includes protections for LGBT people.
Hoadley, former head of the now-defunct National Stonewall Democrats, said adding the voices of LGBT people to the legislation would be key in efforts to change the law.
“Folks, I think, have been really smart over the last few years at building a base of support in the faith community, at building the support at the local level, at having allies working with LGBT folks to tell stories about ordinances,” Hoadley said. “Having LGBT folks in the legislature could be the final asset actually to get over the finish line.”
Hoadley led efforts in 2009 to legalize at the ballot a LGBT non-discrimation ordinance in the City of Kalamazoo. Since that time, an additional 16 municipalities have added similar protections, making for a total of 33 in the state and extending protections to more than 368,000 people, he said.
Just this week, efforts to amend Elliot-Larsen to include LGBT people got a boost when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder encouraged the state legislature take up such a proposal before the year’s end.
“I don’t believe in discrimination,” Snyder told Crain’s Detroit Business during the Mackinac Policy Conference in northern Michigan. “I hope that’s something the legislature will take up sometime this year.”
Still, Snyder assumes this new position as he and Attorney General Bill Schuette continue to defend Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage in court. They appealed a court decision that briefly granted marriage equality in Michigan to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and won’t grant benefits to the more than 300 same-sex couples who wed in the state, even though the state recognizes them as legally married.
For Lewis, the administration’s continued defense of the marriage law demonstrates Snyder and Schuette are out of touch with Michigan and acting out of concern of the far right.
“It’s really a moot point, in my opinion,” Lewis said. “It’s ridiculous for them to be wasting their time and energy to be appealing this. I strongly believe, and I know that we have the data to show, the majority of the folks in Michigan are supporting marriage equality now, so I see it as this kind of this nagging fear that some of these folks on the right have.”
But it’s not just LGBT issues that are of concern to the candidates. Other issues include raising the minimum wage and labor issues.
Moss, who served as LGBT director for an initiative to enshrine collective bargaining rights into the state constitution before legislation was passed making Michigan a “Right to Work” state, said labor and LGBT issues go hand-in-hand in the state.
“The only protections that the LGBT community does have because it’s not enshrined in the constitution has been through collective bargaining,” Moss said. “So we’ve been seeing a really growing coalition between the LGBT community and labor, which obviously has a huge historic significance in Michigan in building the middle class. It’s important to know that labor has partners in us, and vice-versa.”
For Hoadley, it’s important for everyone to be on board with rights for the LGBT community because those who remain opposed will be left behind as time goes on.
“For the generation that is as large as Baby Boomers, and will be the largest element of the consumer economy in 2015, being anti-gay just isn’t cool,” Hoadley said. “There are real consequences. People pay attention to that. For politicians staying on the wrong side of equality, there will be consequences to pay for that at the ballot box.”