Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) on Thursday expanded the state’s civil rights law to include explicit protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, signing the first statewide law in Michigan to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“It is a new day in Michigan,” Whitmer said Thursday during a signing ceremony in Lansing. “Michiganders are freer today; they are happier today and I am proud to be playing a small part of that.”
Whitmer, whose daughter, Sherry, is openly gay, said she hopes the new law will send a message to LGBTQ people and their loved ones that, “if you’re looking for a place that will respect you and protect you, it’s time to come to Michigan.”
The state legislature’s new Democratic majority earlier this month passed legislation to amend Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, expanding the landmark civil rights law that has protected Michiganders from housing, employment, education and public accommodations discrimination since the 1970s.
The law as amended will take effect in June.
Former Michigan Republican Rep. Mel Larsen, for whom the ELCRA is partially named, said during Thursday’s signing ceremony that the measure’s original intent was — and still is — to ensure that “every resident of Michigan” is protected under the law, including LGBTQ people.
Larsen sponsored the original draft of the 1976 ELCRA with former state Democratic Rep. Daisy Elliott, who died in 2015.
“We’re on this earth to move the pendulum a little bit in our lifetime,” Larsen said Thursday. “And if we do that enough, we’ve done some good.”
Republicans in the legislature this year argued that passing the proposed amendment would infringe on the freedoms of religious organizations and institutions, claims Democrats denied.
In a landmark decision in July, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the ELCRA’s definition of sex includes sexual orientation. The ruling stemmed from a 2020 case involving two businesses that had denied services to LGBTQ clients.
“That was an incredibly important win,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D), one of the only openly LGBTQ state attorneys general in the U.S., said Thursday. “But until now, at this very moment, never has Michigan passed any law to enshrine legal rights and protections for the LGBTQ community.”
“We’re all well aware that court decisions can change depending on the composition of the jurists,” Nessel said Thursday in an apparent reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to scrap federal abortion protections.
“The LGBTQ community deserves to at long last see the words sexual orientation, gender identity and expression printed in black and white in our statutes,” Nessel said. “Those words matter.”
LGBTQ advocacy groups on Thursday celebrated the new law as a history-making victory for the LGBTQ community.
“This is an incredible and historic day for LGBTQ+ people, for the people of Michigan, and for all Americans across our nation,” Kelley Robinson, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Thursday in a statement.
“The passage of the ELCRA amendment is a beacon of hope for those fighting for their rights,” Robinson said. “In states like Tennessee or Florida or Oklahoma, this is a reminder that when we come together as one we can and we will build a better future for everyone, including for LGBTQ+ people.”
Troy Stevenson, the director of state advocacy campaigns for The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization, said the new law sends a powerful message of acceptance to LGBTQ people nationwide.
“[W]e work every day to protect the lives of LGBTQ youth, and days like today prove that in generations to come, both their legal and lived equality will no longer be fodder for political debate,” Stevenson said.
The expansion of Michigan’s ELCRA comes as more than 400 bills targeting the rights of LGBTQ people — particularly transgender youth — are under consideration in state legislatures nationwide. Three anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced this year in the Michigan House, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, but stand little chance of passing.