Michigan House panel to debate LGBT anti-bias bills

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A coalition of business executives will converge on Lansing on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to extend anti-discrimination protections to gay, lesbian and transgender residents.

Allan D. Gilmour, a retired Ford executive and former Wayne State University president, plans to testify before a House committee on why he believes Michigan needs the same civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity as are afforded for a person's skin color and religion.

"You can't fire someone based on their religion, you can't fire someone based on race but you can on sexual orientation," said Gilmour, 80, who was one of the only openly gay auto executives during his second tour at Ford from 2002-05.

The House Commerce Committee will hold a long-anticipated hearing at 10:30 a.m. over competing proposals to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976.

Gilmour and other business leaders who are part of the Freedom Michigan coalition plan to testify in favor of a Democrat-sponsored bill that bans discrimination against transgender individuals in employment, housing and public accommodations.

A Republican bill backed by House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, does not include gender identity and expression as protected classes like age and weight — a sticking point that has left the legislative effort on rocky ground.

In an exclusive interview Tuesday with The Detroit News, Gilmour offered his take on why lawmakers should pass a fully inclusive Elliott-Larsen bill during the three-week lame duck session that ends Dec. 18.

"This is good business," he said. "Businesses are worried about talent. Increasingly with the younger generation, more and more of the gay and lesbian people are out and those who are not are paying more attention to how they are treated."

Gilmour spent his career at Ford in the closet through his first retirement in 1995 as vice chairman of the Dearborn automaker. But the next year, he came out publicly in a newspaper article. When he rejoined Ford in 2002 for another stint as vice chairman, the automaker had adopted non-discrimination policies to make gays, lesbians and transgender employees welcome.

"Diversity and inclusion are a competitive issue as well. People make their decisions on where they're going to live, where they're going to work on an array of matters," said Gilmour, who lives in Birmingham with his partner, Eric Jirgens. "I think this is a good time to act."

Rep. Frank Foster's bill expanding the Elliott-Larsen act does not include protections for discrimination based on gender identity and expression.

Foster, R-Petoskey, has said the law's current protection for "sex" should cover transgender people without giving them their own classification.

"There's no reason to leave out a group like transgender people," said Gilmour, who was Wayne State's president from 2010 to August 2013. "Leaving them out I think indicates that people, in their own minds, are concerned about what's happened to those people."

"We can never know what's going on inside a person, even if we're married to them for 50 years," Gilmour added. "There will be some elements of life we'll never understand."

House Democrats appear united against Foster's bill unless it is changed. They are backing the competing bill sponsored by Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing.

That bill has the backing of Equality Michigan, an advocacy group for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Emily Dievendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan, said legal protections for gender identity and expression also are needed for gays, lesbians and bisexuals who face everyday discrimination based on their physical appearance, hairstyle, wardrobe or outward appearance.

Dievendorf and others have suggested the LGBT community would rather torpedo the Foster legislation and try to put the issue on the 2016 ballot than get a bill that's not fully inclusive.

"The watered-down proposal that's being floated, it doesn't really have any support on the Republican or Democratic side," said Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids. "It just seems like the writing's on the wall that this isn't going to pass through the House."

Former state Rep. Mel Larsen, one of the original authors of the 1976 civil rights law, said he hopes all sides can find a compromise.

"I know there's an all-or-nothing mentality out there and that the LGBT community says they'll go to the ballot proposal in 2016," Larsen said, "but I just hope they can avert that."

The Commerce Committee will meet in Room 519 of the House Office Building on Capitol Avenue in downtown Lansing.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood