Local ordinaces provide only legal portections for trans community
So what rights and protections exist if you're transgender in the state of Michigan?
At the state level there are no laws on the books protecting anyone in the LGBTQ community from housing or employment discrimination.
Jay Kaplan is an Attorney for the ACLU’s LGBTQ project.
“State civil rights laws do not cover gender identity. So I guess the general rule could be said that it’s legal for transgender people to be discriminated against in employment, in housing, and in various forms of public accommodation.”
Kaplan said although their project oversees legal cases across the LGBTQ spectrum, they often find themselves helping transgender people.
“An employer doesn’t seem to have any problem firing someone and saying ‘it’s because you are transgender.’ Or for someone being denied housing, or services in a restaurant, or a restroom. Other types of public accommodations because of the fact that they are transgender.”
Kaplan said what protections exist in the state are largely located in local and city ordinances, which some cities across the state do have.
Traverse City outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in 2011, Mount Pleasant passed a similar ordinance in 2012.
Saginaw has had protections for sexual orientation since 1984 but voted against expanding those protections in 2014.
But outside those ordinances, said Kaplan, there just isn’t much protecting people from firings, evictions, or even denial of basic services on the basis of gender identity.
Other services, like healthcare, have seen shifts. Kaplan said the Affordable Care Act allowed healthcare for transgender persons.
“Thank goodness for the Affordable Care Act because for so many years insurance companies had blanket exclusions for any transgender related healthcare. But due to the Obama administration they came out with these non discrimination regulations and made it clear that transgender people were protected under the category of sex and that insurance companies couldn’t do these blanket denials.”
Kaplan said despite improvements, the transgender rights movement could be as much as fifteen to twenty years behind where those rights are for sexual orientation.
“The way we have things set up in so many areas of the law and policies we make it so difficult for people to be and live their authentic selves.”
And living in a state without protections can have consequences.
In May, the largest survey of Transgender people in America was released by the National Center for Transgender Equality. The survey found that in 2015 roughly 30% of transgender people were living in poverty, nearly twice Michigan’s rate of 16 percent (according to US. Census data).
43 percent of transgender persons in the state reported feeling some kind of ‘psychological distress.’
Kaplan said some people have worked to amend Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen civil rights act, but those attempts have largely failed. In 2014 Kaplan said there was an effort to alter the civil rights act to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“And the legislative majority, the Republican majority, at the last minute said ‘we will not support this unless it only includes sexual orientation.’ In other words you have to leave out gender identity. And so the LGBT community said ‘no we’re not going to say it’s okay to discriminate against one part of our community.’ And of course the bill never went anywhere and it never became law.”
Bills making changes to the Elliot-Larsen civil rights act continue to be submitted, but so far have not made much headway.
Democratic State Representative Jon Hoadley is a co-sponsor on one such bill. He said the mindset on transgender issues needs to change.
“We’ve seen a conversation happening in some places across the country that has effectively said ‘some people shouldn’t be discriminated against but some folks we still may want to allow discrimination against those people.’”
Hoadley said he re-submits the bill every year, despite not even getting a hearing on it.
“People have been trying to expand the Elliot-Larsen act to include some portion of the LGBTQ community for as long as I’ve been alive now. This is a baton that I wish I did not inherit.”
Hoadley said every year he submits a bill, he sees a few more people privately talk to him about the importance of the legislation.
“In the current session the number of folks who have quietly said to myself that if this was up for a vote on the board it would pass keeps going up. So that means privately the decision makers on the Republican side of the aisle think that this is probably the right thing to do, but for political reasons they’re just not moving on it yet.”
But Hoadley believes until districts across the state start putting pressure on their lawmakers to make a change, it isn’t going to happen.
“Conversations have to happen in districts so lawmakers understand why the policy proposal is important. When LGBTQ issues are seen only through the partisan lens it makes it harder for Republicans to come over and vote the right way.”
Jay Kaplan of the ACLU agrees the statewide call for increased protections still isn’t loud enough yet - despite shifts in public opinion.
“When you do polling on the issue a vast majority of Michigan residents think this is the right thing to do but our legislators don’t seem to be listening, the legislative majority is not listening.”
Hoadley said it could also be that most Michiganders just don’t understand how dangerous it can be for a transgender person in the state..
“A lot of people in Michigan don’t know that except if you lived in a handful of these cities that have these protections from discrimination you could be fired from your job or denied the ability to get an apartment.”
Both Kaplan and Hoadley agree it’s a change that can’t come soon enough.