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.”