By LANE BLACKMER
Capital News Service
LANSING—For the past decade, activists have failed to persuade the Legislature to outlaw sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the state’s Civil Rights Act.
Now they plan to launch an educational campaign to finally get action.
August Gitschlag, field director for Unity Michigan, said he believes once the public is better educated, the fight will be easier to win.
Most people don’t know it’s legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation, he said.
Unity Michigan is a coalition of five organizations – Triangle Foundation, Equality Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Sistahs Providing Intelligence Creativity and Empowerment and Affirmations.
“People are shocked when they hear this,” Gitschlag said. “When I first heard this just a few months ago, I thought we were past this.”
Gitschlag said he was asked at a job interview whether he is gay and became furious, not only because he isn’t gay, but because the question was asked.
Gitschlag said a plan to pass the legislation will be hashed out after getting an idea how incoming House and Senate members feel about it.
It will be Gitschlag’s job to lead education efforts based on findings about legislators’ views.
“We’re going to start visiting different organizations statewide, starting with ground-level community centers,” he said.
Jay Kaplan, an attorney for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) project at the ACLU in Detroit, said legislation to amend the anti-discrimination law has been brought up in committees but hasn’t made it any further.
Michigan is one of 29 states where it’s legal to discriminate in employment and housing on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identification, according to the ACLU.
Currently, the law prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, color, nationality, age, sex, height, weight, family status and marital status.
Gitschlag said 18 cities have adopted rights ordinances banning gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination. They include East Lansing, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Saugatuck, Traverse City and Grand Ledge.
“With the exception of Ann Arbor, none of them give the right to sue over them,” said Kaplan.
Nusrat Ventimiglia, director of victim services at Equality Michigan in Detroit, said there is in underreporting of incidents, but 40 percent of complaints her organization received claimed employment discrimination.
Harold Core, director of public affairs at the Department of Civil Rights said, “A particular group has been singled out to not be protected by our state’s laws.”
“Our position is that this is a protection that our state law should offer,” he said.
Kaplan said the state’s conservative political climate will make it tough to broaden civil rights protection.
“It’s going to take more than just gay people to try to get this passed,” said Kaplan. “It’s going to have to be a coalition.”
Gitschlag also noted that no federal law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.