By: Adam Hollier and Eli Savit
No one can deny that the state of Michigan is making strides in ensuring equality for all communities.
The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) was passed in 1976 to protect Michiganders against discrimination on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status. ELCRA, however it does not explicitly list sexual orientation or gender identity as categories protected from discrimination.
But in 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) adopted an interpretive statement that stated the term “sex,” as used in the ELCRA, protected individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. This major milestone was achieved due to significant efforts made by groups such as Equality Michigan, as well as a courageous stance by then- MCRC chair Alma Wheeler Smith and her fellow MCRC commissioners. The Court of Claims affirmed MCRC’s interpretation in 2020 as it relates to gender identity. And this March, the Michigan Supreme Court heard argument in a case that would clarify, expressly, the ELCRA also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Yes, Michigan is moving in the right direction. But more must be done to protect the LGBTQ community—especially trans women of color—from physical violence.
Transgender women of color are often threatened, harassed, or even killed for simply being themselves. In the City of Highland Park, several transgender women of color were murdered with a few miles of the Ruth Ellis Center, a safe haven for people identifying as LGBTQ+. Last month, Naomi Skinner, a 25-year-old transgender woman of color was killed at an apartment complex in Highland Park. She was shot in the neck and her body was dragged out into the hallway and left there. In 2018, another transgender woman of color, Kelly Stough, was found shot to death. A Detroit pastor was arrested for her murder.
Both victims were young, and in the prime of their lives. Their deaths are an unspeakable tragedy.
Of course, any physical violence is unacceptable. But especially heinous are crimes that target people because of who they are. Such crimes—whether on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity—cause lasting fear and trauma among victims. Compounding matters, those crimes can make entire communities feel unsafe and insecure.
For these reasons, Michigan maintains a “hate crimes” law which imposes additional criminal penalties if a person assaults, intimidates, or harasses a victim “because of that person’s race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” But lamentably, Michigan law does not expressly prohibit crimes targeting people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That omission is particularly troubling given the prevalence of crimes targeting the LGBTQ+ community. According to the FBI, hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ victims are the third-largest category of hate crimes nationwide—trailing only race and religion. Gender-identity-based crimes, in particular, are on the uptick.
It is long past time for Michigan’s hate-crimes law to be amended to expressly prohibit crimes targeting a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In March, Senator Adam Hollier introduced legislation that would do just that—allowing law-enforcement and prosecutors across the state to treat those crimes with the seriousness they deserve.
To be sure, Michigan’s hate-crimes law, like the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, could well be interpreted by courts to encompass crimes that target LGBTQ victims. Last year, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office issued legal guidance directing prosecutors to charge LGBTQ-targeted crimes as hate crimes, under the theory that such crimes inescapably target victims because of their gender. In August, the Michigan Court of Appeals embraced that theory, though litigation is still pending before the Michigan Supreme Court.
Case law interpretations, however, are no substitute for expressly amending state law to extend protections to LGBTQ+ communities. Far too frequently, crimes against the LGBTQ+ population go unreported, largely due to fear that they will not be taken seriously. But when states recognize LGBTQ-targeted violence as hate crimes, reporting rates increase. And amending Michigan’s hate-crimes law would send an unmistakable message that crimes targeting LGBTQ+ populations will not be tolerated.
In enacting its hate-crimes law, Michigan has recognized that nobody should be targeted for violence because of who they are. Those legal protections must be extended to our LGBTQ+ communities. And those protections should be enacted in the law itself, so that there can be no doubt that hate crimes will be charged and prosecuted statewide.