Should I stay or should I go? The question LGBT families are asking in Lansing and across Michigan

I am not originally from Michigan. At the time, Michigan wasn't a freedom to marry state, didn't have a comprehensive nondiscrimination law, and had no comprehensive hate crimes laws on the books. The state's spotty track record on laws and policies impacting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community gave me pause, but at that point, there were only a handful of states with marriage equality, and a bill amending the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act had been proposed. The city my partner and I were moving to had nondiscrimination protections and we were quickly falling in love with the area. Seven years later, we still #lovelansing but our relationship with the state has been tested by some of the more draconian policies.

The Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group, recently blasted Michigan in its State Equality Index. The state was criticized for its lack of workplace protections for LGBT individuals, marriage equality, and a hate crimes law. This report comes only two years after Michigan's own Department of Civil Rights released a report that concluded the lack of LGBT inclusive policies has negatively impacted the economy.

Family Matters

Aimee Shapiro, a former resident who recently moved to California, stressed how hard it can be for LGBT families in Michigan. Aimee and her spouse were one of the 323 couples who were married during the brief window when same-sex marriage was legal last March following a positive from the federal district court. Same-sex couples with children face significant challenges and Aimee worried about the fact that her spouse wasn’t recognized as her child’s parent.

"I felt that the state did not care about or protect my family," she says. "Our kids have loving and committed parents — we care about them and we about each other — we deserve to be protected by the law. I miss things about Lansing, but I feel like my family has all the rights they deserve here in California."

Shapiro is not alone. The MDCR report concluded that "out-migration is perhaps the most substantial effect of the state’s lack of LGBT inclusive policies." The report was peppered with stories of families, professionals, and students who either planned to leave or had already left the state because they didn't feel that Michigan appreciated all of its citizens.

A more welcoming region

Where the state has failed to protect its residents, local communities have stepped up to fill some of the gaps, creating regional pockets of welcoming and acceptance. Greater Lansing is one area that has a long history of doing just that. The Capital region's willingness to go an extra step has helped make a positive impression on LGBT community members.

When William Sawyer-Todd first moved from the deep south to East Lansing in the 1970s, he felt that he had found 'paradise.' At that time, the city had just passed the nation's first nondiscrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation. East Lansing later expanded the ordinance to include gender identity and gender expression, ensuring that all people in the city enjoy protection from workplace, housing, and public accommodations discrimination. That first step toward protection made a significant difference.

"I've stayed loyal to East Lansing -- the community has made me feel valued,” he says.

In 2000, William met Michael and the couple recently celebrated their fourteenth anniversary. Michael echoes William's sentiments about the region but concedes that the lack of protections for the LGBT community is sometimes hard to experience.

"We want Michigan to be a welcoming state. When it doesn't happen, the setbacks are disappointing and that takes an emotional toll," says Michael.

Still, the couple remains hopeful about the progress they are seeing in the area and notes that in addition to local communities passing inclusive laws, businesses are also striving to create a more welcoming environment for their employees and patrons.

Good for Business

At the end of last year's legislative session, a diverse group of Michigan residents joined together to call on the state to amend the state's civil rights act. The coalition of citizens that formed included Democrats and Republicans, LGBT people and straight allies, faith leaders, and business owners and employers.

"Having business leaders say that we want an inclusive environment not only helps the economy, but it also helps for lawmakers to see that it's not going to hurt business to implement these policies," says Sommer Foster of Equality Michigan.

Business owners are aware of the positive impact inclusive policies have on their bottom line and employee retention. Major employers throughout the region including Sparrow Health Systems, Michigan State University, and General Motors have all instituted policies to benefit their LGBT employees.

Individuals are also eager to support welcoming businesses. Emily Brozovic created the People Like Me app to bring awareness to those businesses that are supportive of the LGBT population. The app was created as part of Emily’s master’s thesis at MSU.

"I didn't want to create something in theory. I wanted to create and build something of value."

People Like Me allows users to rate and search businesses. If a business has a good reputation with the LGBT community, it’ll get a 5 triangle rating. Brozovic's app has met with excitement from the community because it allows people to find supportive environments ahead of time. Users can browse for businesses near their location categorically (food, medical, nightlife, etc.), or search for a business directly by name.

The fight continues

Although businesses, elected officials, and community activists in the Greater Lansing region have worked to create a welcoming environment, the fact remains that the state as a whole still has a lot of work to do to attract and retain the LGBT community. There seems to be no shortage of people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work to make that happen.

There's already talk of amending the state civil rights act in 2016 through a ballot initiative. In the meantime, organizations like Equality Michigan, the Lansing Association for Human Rights, and Michigan for Marriage have worked to change policy through both advocacy and public education.

William is focused on the "long game." Although Michigan feels inhospitable at times, he’s not going anywhere.

"Progress is never in a straight line and we’re not ones to flee," he says. "We just don’t see why we would back down. This is our home, why would we leave our home?"


Regina Calcagno is the Public Education Campaign Director with Michigan for Marriage

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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