Fighting anti-gay bigotry to boost the Michigan economy

In 2009, a gay couple in Flint claims they encountered a work place environment that could charitably be called unpleasant.

A lawsuit states that while working at a Rochester adult foster care facility, Gilbert and Jeremy Hall received phone calls from employees of the facility  “that sounded like gunshots.” In November, the suit claims, Gilbert Hall discovered feces smeared on a desk with a note that said employees “were not taking orders from faggots.”

After reporting the incidents to law enforcement and to an employee of the facility, the suit alleges, Gilbert Hall was fired on December 29 that year. About two weeks later,  Jeremy Hall was fired.

The firings, the lawsuit alleges, were retaliation for their reporting of the incidents. The lawsuit was settled with undisclosed terms in January 2011.

Yvonne Siferd of Equality Michigan, a Detroit-based gay rights advocacy organization, said the Halls’ experience, is by no means isolated in a state where private employers can fire employees because they are gay.

“It happens more than people realize. The majority of calls we get are for some form of discrimination,” said Siferd, director of victim services.

Bigotry as an economic anchor

It remains legal for employers throughout Michigan to deny hiring a gay job candidate or fire employees on the basis of sexual orientation. Similarly, it can be legal to refuse rental housing to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals or to refuse to serve them in stores and restaurants.

Increasingly, Michigan employers, state government agencies and municipalities see this not only as an unresolved civil rights issue, but also as a drag on growing the Michigan economy.

“What you need is the ability to attract and keep talent and that talent is going to go where it's valued,” said Dean Whittaker, owner of Whittaker Associates, a Holland-area business consulting firm.

Whittaker believes that many young professionals today first choose a place where they want to live, then seek the job they want. That decision favors communities that embrace diversity and equal rights for gays and lesbians, he asserts.

“The companies that are going to become globally successful are going to have to be able to attract talent. The work is going to be done where there is talent to do the work.”

Are anti-gay discrimination cases under-reported?

Equality Michigan recorded 17 complaints of employment discrimination the first six months of 2013, Siferd said. They include a bisexual woman who quit her job at a health club after harassment by the owner of the club. In another case, a young gay man quit a fast-food job after receiving harassing text messages and pornographic photos by a relative of the manager.

Other organizations, including the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union, report similar findings.

In 2012, the ACLU said it had received 40 discrimination complaints in Michigan over three years, most related to employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and  transgender workers. Complaints included reports of individuals being fired, harassed, suspended and denied promotions.

In 2007, the Michigan Fair Housing Centers documented “widespread” housing discrimination when it compared treatment of 120 same-sex couples with 120 couples posing as heterosexual married couples.

Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's LGBT Legal Project, which lobbies for equal protection for the LGBT community, believes the number of complaints represents just a fraction of actual discrimination.

“If you know the law doesn't  cover you, why would you complain?” Kaplan said. “A lot of times I have to tell people there's no remedy.”

Policymakers ponder solutions – but haven’t yet acted

Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 bars discrimination on the basis of religion, race, color or national origin. But it is silent on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Legislation introduced in 2012 by Democratic state Sen. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor to expand its protections to include sexual orientation remains stalled.

Gov. Rick Snyder has thus far sidestepped the issue. In June, for example, when asked if he favors including gays and lesbians under the civil rights law: “I'm staying focused on jobs and kids and seniors at this point. I appreciate legislators looking at lots of issues and if they want to address that, I will be happy to work with them,” Snyder told Lansing TV station WLNS.

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, a Democratic candidate for governor, is positioning to claim a more aggressive approach.

“Absolutely we should not discriminate against a class of people because of their sexual orientation or who they love,” Schauer told WLNS.

Some influential Republicans are moving off traditional social conservative messages on the issue. In June, state Rep. Frank Foster, R-Petoskey, moved close to outright endorsement of expanding the civil rights act.

“There's been a lot of talk lately about LGBT legislation, but hate and discrimination aren't just gay or lesbian issues; they are human rights issues,” he said in a statement.

Ari Adler, spokesman for GOP House Speaker Jase Bolger, said Bolger “believes it is wrong for anyone to be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.”

He added that Bolger is “struggling with how to balance individual protection against discrimination with the need to respect religious liberty.”

Courts, corporations, cities add new protections

On June 28, a federal judge blocked the State of Michigan from enforcing a new law that bans public employers from offering benefits to same-sex couples, concluding the law is discriminatory toward gays. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman allowed a lawsuit to overturn the state's 2004 ban on same-sex marriage to proceed and scheduled oral arguments for October. The lawsuit by two Detroit-area women also seeks to overturn a ban on joint adoptions by same-sex couples.

The rulings follow watershed U.S. Supreme Court decisions on June 26, one that ruled married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits and another clearing the way for same-sex marriage in California.

Meantime, Michigan corporations have moved on their own to afford protections. According to the Human Rights Campaign, Chrysler Group, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Herman Miller Inc., Dow Chemical Co., Kellogg Co. and Whirlpool Corp., have robust non-discrimination hiring policies to protect gender identity or expression and sexual orientation and provide partner health benefits equivalent of spouse health benefits.

More than a dozen cities, including Grand Rapids, East Lansing, Flint, Detroit and Traverse City, have passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. About 20 states have laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The economic argument – and the test case of one teenager

Such policies simply make good economic sense, according to gay-rights advocates.

In 2010, Jeff Padnos, president of Louis Padnos Iron & Metal in Holland, spoke out in favor of a proposal in that city to extend equal protection to gay and lesbians. The proposal was defeated 5-4 by the city council.

“As we try to grow and diversity our economy, this is going to be a factor that people are looking at in terms of where they choose to be,” he told the Grand Rapids Press. “It's symbolic of what kind of place we want to be. Do we want to be inclusive or understanding or not?”

Echoing that assertion, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in January issued findings based on public forums, surveys and archival research that lack of employment and other protection for gay workers prompts professionals and college students to leave the state for more welcome environments.

That may include Brighton High School graduate Lauren Jasenak.

In July 2012, Jasenak was working as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp east of Flint when she  was summoned into the office of the camp manager. After repeatedly being pressed, she recalled, she acknowledged she is gay. She was asked to sign a letter stating she had violated Scout policy and was told to leave that night.

The Boy Scouts of America has since voted to lift a policy banning gay children and teens from joining the organization. But openly gay adults are still banned from participating as leaders.

“If anything, this taught me to keep fighting,” said Jasenak, 19, who found work this summer as a camp counselor for another organization.

But Jasenak, 19, a student at Washtenaw Community College with plans for a teaching career, doubts she will remain in her home state unless things change.

“I'm not going to limit myself to this state when it comes to finding a job. I will especially be looking for jobs in states where it isn't legal to fire me for my sexual orientation.”

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Thu, 08/08/2013 - 10:43am
Clear evidence of the lack of understanding of the nature of this problem. There are a great many people that hold the view that homosexuality, in general, and what is called gay marriage, in particular, are intrinsically wrong. Most of these people hold this view by virtue of their religious beliefs, which are constitutionally protected, as opposed to the shifting attitudes of various social engineers which lack both moral anchor and constitutional protection.
Kevin R. Cross.
Sun, 08/11/2013 - 2:16pm
Your beliefs may be constitutionally protected, but how you treat others in the workplace or in hiring and firing practices is not. There's no lack of understanding here - just bigotry and hate.
Mon, 08/12/2013 - 10:54am
I'm afraid it's you who don't understand the problem. As much as people like to scream "freedom of religion" every time the idea of anti-discrimination laws comes up, the fact of the matter is that it was long ago well established that there are constitutional limitations to that freedom. For example, when your "religious belief" causes you to discriminate against a legally protected class, you can get in trouble. It's not that you're not free to believe whatever you want about gays (or blacks or woman or whoever else) - it's that, as an employer (or landlord), there are some restrictions on your actions, regardless of whether you think they're justified by your religious belief. After all, there are people who believe, based on their religion, that married women shouldn't be allowed to hold jobs or that black people shouldn't be living with white people or that Mormons are non-Christian devil worshippers. But, regardless of whether you believe those things or not, there can be repercussions if you decide that you won't hire a well-qualified married woman because she's married or if you decide that you don't want the interracial couple living in your housing complex because they're an interracial couple or if you decide to fire the Mormon who works at your company once you find out he's a Mormon. Sorry, you may not like such laws - but they are constitutionally justified and protected. But don't worry, those laws will also protect you if, for example, you ever find yourself working with someone who really doesn't like your religion or your sex or your race. Also, dearie - trust us: Gays are more than well aware that there are a lot of people out there who think that they're evil and immoral and so on. Many of them are reminded of that fact all the time by blowhards who fool themselves into thinking that they're preaching God's word. Fortunately, there are a lot of other people - good Christian believers, even - who support gays and who realize that people like you are (thank God) becoming increasingly archaic. As for the "moral anchor" thing - it really oughta be noted that many of the people who support gay rights are far more moral (and intelligent) than you and other individuals who believe that they should be free to discriminate against real, living human beings based merely on the fact that their religion tells them that it's wrong for adult men to be attracted to other adult men. It also oughta be pointed out that "God's unchanging word" has actually changed quite a lot over the millennia - so the whole "moral anchoring" thing is grossly overrated anyways. Your beliefs are just as shaped by the times you live in as the beliefs of those darned "social engineers"(except I'd say the cause of human rights and human freedom supported by those "social engineers" are more timeless than the beliefs of your particular religious sect.) Sorry, but those are the facts.
Thu, 08/08/2013 - 1:16pm
Religious beliefs are constitutionally protected. Employment and housing discrimination is not.
Gene Markel
Thu, 08/08/2013 - 9:27pm
Dear Christians, There are gay people who are just like you. Get over it. Love God
Richard Zeile
Sun, 08/11/2013 - 6:18pm
The economic argument here is skewed. If dislike of gays is so prevalent that laws must be passed to protect them, then it is likely that talented people with such dislike will avoid taking positions in Michigan. The economic benefit to the state turns on whether you believe there are more people who are gay, or more people who dislike gays.
Mon, 08/12/2013 - 11:34am
Frankly speaking, if someone's "dislike" of gays is so strong that they wouldn't take a job in a state where gays are protected, then that person is, objectively speaking, a bad person who almost certainly has a lot of other problems that would render them a bad choice for employment. Fortunately, I'm quite positive that there aren't all that many people with such intense dislike - and even if there were, I don't think such people should be catered to anymore than we should cater to people who, say, really strongly "dislike" blacks and who wouldn't move somewhere where you can't freely fire someone for having the "wrong" skin color. The rights of gays (and other protected classes) to live and work without fear of discrimination trump the rights of those who are so full of hate that they don't want to work with gays or blacks or women or whoever else. (Your logic applied to the past: "If dislike of blacks is so prevalent that we must pass anti-lynching laws to protect them, then it is likely that talented racist murderous bigots with such dislike will avoid taking positions in Michigan. So we have to decide whether there are more blacks or more would-be lynchers, because the rights of the haters to hate and hurt are clearly just as important as the rights of the minority class to live without fear.") Also, for the record, this isn't a unique situation - there are already laws protecting a variety of protected classes. You probably wouldn't like to live in a society where people are free to discriminate in housing and employment based on gender, race, religion, marital status, age, etc. Incidentally, in making your equations, you left out people who aren't gay but who support gays and who believe that they should have the same protections as anyone else - and there are a lot more of those kinds than you'd think. Some of them may even believe that homosexuality is sinful, but they also realize that their religious beliefs are not a good basis for workplace discrimination. Some of those people may also be very talented and, given the choice between a job in a place where there are laws protecting sexual orientation and another job in a place where politicians willfully chose NOT to pass such laws, they may well choose the former. That's because they're moral people who have empathy and respect for basic human rights. As for your pet bigot whose hate is so strong that he won't even live in a state where gays are protected - well, I can't say I have any sympathy for him. Science has rather clearly shown that homosexuality is the result of a variety of complex biological and environmental factors during early childhood - disliking people who happen to be attracted to other adult members of the same sex so much that you wouldn't even want to work with them is not a rational or morally justifiable position. Because, frankly, the gender of the people they are attracted to is the only thing that distinguishes most gays. That is to say, there are as wide a variety of gays as there are of straights - some are effeminate, some are extremely masculine, and most of them are completely average. You have almost certainly known and talked to and worked with people who are gay without ever realizing that they are gay. So yeah, disliking people who are gay that much is no more reasonable than disliking anybody whose last name happens to start with the letter "T." My advice for your bigot: Since laws protecting sexual orientation are becoming increasingly common in the United States and the rest of the developed world, he may find that he's a lot more comfortable in a country like Russia or Saudi Arabia. Heck, a few years ago Ahmadinejad even declared that were NO gays in Iran - so it'd be heaven for your bigot!