Equality Michigan fights for respect, fairness

By John Minnis

Legal News

Who said the progressive movement was dead?

Not Equality Michigan, formed in 2010 with the merger of the Triangle Foundation and Michigan Equality, two lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender organizations dating back to 1983 and 1999, respectively.

"Equality Michigan is now the oldest and only LGBT organization in the state," said Interim Executive Director Denise Brogan-Kator at an Anti-Discrimination Town Hall meeting Wednesday, April 27, at the Laurel Manor in Livonia. "We have our roots in advocacy and in fighting gay violence. It is still an integral part of what we do."

Others panelists addressing the two dozen members of the LGBT/civil rights community present were Roland Leggett, field organizing director with Equality Michigan; August Gitschlag, state field director with Unity Michigan; Laura Hughes, executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit; Katie Strickfaden, legal director of the newly formed Solution Oriented Domestic Violence Prevention Court for the Third Circuit; and Emily Dievendorf, policy director with Equality Michigan.

"Equality Michigan was specifically put together to add LGBT to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in Michigan," said Gitschlag. "It's not illegal to be fired from a job for being gay in Michigan. It's not illegal to be kicked out of a restaurant if you are suspected of being gay in Michigan. It's not illegal to be denied housing in Michigan if you are gay. It's outrageous. It is a real eye-opener when we tell people this."

Brogan-Kator said the Town Hall meeting was the first of a statewide "Equality Action Tour" the organization plans over the next several years. Equality Michigan hopes to conduct 20 to 28 Town Hall meetings this year and up to 110 throughout the state within three years.

"We want to reach out to every community in every part of the state," she said.

Discrimination against the LGBT community "is not hyperbole; it is fact," she said. "For whatever reason, you can be fired." One study, she said, found that housing discrimination against same-sex couples was widespread.

Equality Michigan's mission is to achieve full equality and respect for all people in the state of Michigan regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

"Full equality means being treated the same under the law," said Brogan-Kator, an attorney. "Respect means doors are not slammed in our faces.

"Michigan, I argue, is one of the most discriminatory states in the country. We have our DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). No relationships can be recognized for any other purpose. We have no hate-crime law. We have no anti-bullying law."

Hughes, of the Ruth Ellis Center, said that four out of 10 runaway youth self-identify as LGBTQ, (lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning). In Detroit alone, up to an estimated 800 homeless LGBT youth are on the street every day.

The Ruth Ellis Center is one of only four agencies in the United States dedicated to homeless LGBT youth and young adults. It is named after Ruth Ellis, the first known LGBT activist in the country. Born in 1899 in Springfield, Ill., Ellis came out as a lesbian in 1915 as a teenager in high school.

Ellis, an African American, met Ceciline "Babe" Franklin, in the 1920s. In 1937, the couple moved to Detroit, where Ellis became the first woman to own a printing business. The Ellis-Franklin house was known in the African American community as the "gay spot" for its gay and lesbian parties and as a refuge for African American gays and lesbians. Ellis died in her sleep at her home on Oct. 5, 2000. Her life became the subject of a documentary, "Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100."

HUD describes homeless LGBT youth as "couchsurfers," Hughes said, those who move from house to house sleeping in whatever space is available. Consequently, they are not even considered "homeless."

"Our homeless young people operate in a system that doesn't even acknowledge they exist," Hughes said.

Strickfaden, legal director for Wayne County's new domestic violence court, said that as a legal aid attorney, she handled many LGBT cases.

"If you are a member of the LGBT community," she asked, "do you have marital rights? No. But domestic violence laws don't require you to be married."

"The LGBT community is the least reported among domestic violence incidents," Strickfaden added. The reason, she said, is that many, especially men, fear being "outed."

Equality Michigan policy director Dievendorf feared losing ground under the current Republican Legislature.

"In this political climate," she said, "we need to avoid backtracking in any progress we've made. We're already behind the rest of the country."

She noted that the current Legislature is very conservative.

"That doesn't mean we don't talk to them," she said. "'Social justice' (fairness) wins every argument."

Dievendorf said that progressives did not lose the last election because there are no progressives.

"The reason is progressives didn't vote," she said. "We don't need to wait until the next election. We can work with the conservatives. We can win in the political climate the conservatives have created."

She said the way to win was through organizing individuals.

"They don't have to listen to me," Dievendorf said of lawmakers. "They have to listen to the guy in the barbershop."

She pointed out that when politicians flip flop, when they change their minds and vote against the party line, it is usually due to someone they know, someone they are fighting for.

"They become their responsibility," she said.

To reach lawmakers, Equality Michigan seeks 110 leaders across the state -- and "five of their friends" -- to influence their lawmakers.

Field director Leggett, who moderated the Town Hall meeting, asked about success stories. Dievendorf pointed to state employees' successful battle for domestic partner benefits despite three legislative attempts to bar them.

Another success story is preventing discrimination against those who have been tested HIV positive, she said.

Leggett said there is "tremendous support" among Michigan residents for LGBT civil rights laws and ordinances.

Gitschlag, of Unity Michigan, discussed gay rights ordinances being sought in Grand Rapids, Inkster, Clinton and Brownstown Townships and even Holland.

"If it passes in Holland, folks, it can pass anywhere," he said.

Brogan-Kator said she was optimistic about Gov. Rick Snyder's support of anti-bullying legislation for schools, but said categories of bullying, such as perceived sexual orientation, must be included.

Dievendorf agreed.

"We are grateful for Gov. Snyder coming out for anti-bullying," she said, "but in a hurry to make law, we don't want to neglect the important language necessary to make it effective."

One attendee asked how Michigan Equality was going to engage the people-of-color community. Brogan-Kator pointed out that the annual Motor City Pride Festival was moving from Ferndale to Hart Plaza this year in part to include the people-of-color community.

Dievendorf added, "Fighting for the rights of people of color, we're not through with that yet."

Richard S. Gibson, Ed.D., project coordinator with the Michigan Project for Informed Public Policy, liked what he heard about Equality Michigan.

"It was great," he said. "It is great how these major organizations have come together as one organization to share resources and agendas."

MPIPP is an initiative of the Michigan Psychological Association Foundation to convey accurate psychological and social science information about LGBT issues based on cumulative scientific research rather than competing political ideologies.

Gibson thought Equality Michigan's strategy of seeking individuals across the state to tell their stories to lawmakers, to inform the "moveable middle," was sound.

"Personal storytelling really changes mindsets," he said. "I think the emphasis on personal stories is really important."

Published: Mon, May 9, 2011