The High Cost of Michigan’s Anti-Gay Culture

Men and women are growing up in this state, being expected to manage the trauma of being attacked, bullied, discriminated.
Publish date:
January 21, 2015
politics, free speech, lgbtq, sexuality, Anti-gay Culture, Michigan

Several days ago, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to pursue a definitive decision on marriage equality across the land. Finally this, after 36 of 50 states have already passed marriage equality into law. It’s a move that would be inarguably wonderful: We take a giant step away from hate and, in the process, create a brand new way to make money to pay for basic services.

Same-sex marriage is not the last domino we need to topple in the fight for LGBTQ equality and protections in the U.S.—but it is one of the big ones.Tip this domino over and the others will fall a lot easier.

In the past, “LGBTQ equality” has never been synonymous with “Michigan”—and I’m not sure why, because it’s easy money for a state that is expected to come up $289M short of its revenue projections.

No Innovation without Progress

Open up a copy of the Detroit Free Press, listen to people talking at a local deli, or attend panels held by an area chamber of commerce, and the rhetoric is familiar, yet hollow: Michigan lawmakers want to make the Great Lakes State more seductive to job-seekers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and multinational companies shopping for a new place to call home. They’ve been wanting this for like, five years.

Michigan is supposed to be the great hope of the 21st century, a place for millennials to shuck their self-centeredness and become productive drivers of the Motor City economy; it’s supposed to be the great new destination for tourists (have you seen the beaches on the west side of the state? They’re magnificent!) and creatives who’ve been priced out of New York, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, and so on.

Yet, not so much.

Hollow, because the rhetoric is present, but the actions seem counterintuitive to the implied goal.

In 2014, the Supreme Court struck down the state’s small-minded same-sex marriage ban from a decade earlier—and Attorney General Bill Schuette bent over backwards to make sure that same-sex couples still remained unable to get legally wed in this state. Working this hard to prevent people from spending obscene amounts of money to get married, make homes, and raise families in Michigan, is the quintessence of anti-recovery.

It is a desperate gesture that appeases only a segment of baby boomers—those who cling to medieval principles (anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-everything, it seems) that will prevent more money from flowing into the state.

I mean at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about: monetizing a large group of individuals who have only known marginalization. Michigan’s next course of action should probably be finding a way to transform the majority of the state into a safe space for LGBTQ individuals. We only feel safe in gay bars, community centers, or our friends’ houses—there’s always the specter of minding your public displays of affection when you’re out at the movies or a restaurant.

The rigors of such self-censorship also means we’re probably not out there spending our money at certain businesses, in certain neighborhoods, in particular parts of the state, because we are scared for our very lives.

I refuse to be scared anymore and to let that fear dictate how and where I spend my money. Having spent my formative years in New York City, I’ve learned that it’s very possible to be a successful, proud queer individual without having to hide who you are.

It is the same reality that I want for LGBTQ folks here as well.

A friend was telling me about how he and his boyfriend were walking through the Corktown section of Detroit, which is arguably one of the more progressive slices of the state (Gawker recently equated it to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg—a stretch, but you get the idea.) He was holding his boyfriend’s hand as they walked past an apartment complex when they felt some kind of metal object miss them by inches. Someone from above decided to throw it out of their window.

It is hard not to feel targeted in this state where our lawmakers have told us:

You can get fired for being gay.

You cannot get married.

You cannot adopt one another’s kids.

You cannot kiss, hold hands, or hug in public.

You cannot visit your loved one if they are in critical condition in a hospital.

And as of last month, this is what’s at stake: You may not necessarily have the right to be treated by an EMT if your life is in grave danger and the EMT feels it is against his or her moral principles to assist you; you may not necessarily have the right to get served in a restaurant; you may not necessarily have the right to have a cashier accept your money at a pharmacy.

You may not. Moral principles.

These attitudes not only keep away talented queer men and women, they keep away most people who want the pride of living in a progressive part of the world, too. To tell men and women that their friends are not entitled to basic services and rights on account of their biology is the kind of thinking that’ll have them seek opportunities elsewhere.

Homes for All Families

It is easy, with the unrest around the country and the rest of the world, not to notice the Mississippization of Michigan choking the state’s potential.

It is a troubling branding crisis when the Big Three automakers have pro-LGBTQ policies and the state that mints its reputation on them do not. There is a dire disconnect. Maybe it’s the kind of decision that inspired GM to spinoff Cadillac and move it from Detroit to New York City.

This is the kind of branding crisis that makes many job-seekers and innovators and people with money take a drive down I-94 to Chicago and find a friendlier neighbor, one that says, “Be whoever you want, as long as you’re willing to pull your weight,” or even several hundred miles east to New York, to feel more “relevant.”


I hate the “If you don’t like it here, move somewhere else” mentality. It is unproductive; it is not rooted in solutions.

I love Michigan.

Many of us are proud to call Michigan home; the nature, the stupid sports fervor, the generous spread of Indian buffets throughout The Thumb, the epic expanse of Woodward Avenue—they are all hallmarks of a lifestyle unique to Michiganders.

I also hate that mentality because I think of LGBTQ kids who do not have a voice in Michigan—who are taught that in order to be whole, complete individuals, they need to relocate. I think of LGBTQ adults—myself, included—who are raised to believe that to feel happy and safe, we need to seek out “gayborhoods” in regressive communities. It teaches us that bigotry is an unfixable problem—one to which the only solution is finding the closest thing to utopia.

We should feel that safe spaces are open to us—and our families—wherever we go.

When I think about kids who are growing up and unable to leave, and adults who have already grown up and do not want to give up the state they call home, I think about generations of men and women who have internalized not only self-loathing, but a degree of PTSD. Michael Friedman writes in Psychology Today:

Discrimination against LGBT people is commonplace. Gay, lesbian or bisexual people are 10 times more likely to experience discrimination based on sexual orientation as compared to heterosexual people. Mistreatment comes in many forms, from seemingly benign jokes, to verbal insults, unequal treatment and in the most extreme cases, physical violence. Further, for many LGBT people, the bias is everywhere and lasts their lifetime: at home, school, work and in the community.

It is telling that Friedman’s conclusions are based in findings around Russia’s anti-gay culture—yet, they aptly summarize Michigan’s culture, too.

Examine how the state of Michigan has set up an infrastructure of hate against queer men and women and it is no wonder that so many of us are quick to flee.

It is no coincidence that the verb I used is “flee”—we seek safer havens. I left Michigan for New York in 2006 because I needed space to explore my identity, unpack my emotional baggage, and begin maturing. It is not a choice many people can afford to make—at least not without some kind of heavy or unrealistic investment. It is just as bizarre to think that New York is safer than Michigan, but here we are. I feel safer walking arm-in-arm with a date down a street in Williamsburg than my friend felt when he walked through Corktown with his boyfriend.

LGBTQ Kids in Michigan frequently lack safe spaces to explore who they are—they may not get it at home, they may not get it at school, and many do not have access to resources to help them developmentally. In fact, here’s a Michigan lawmaker who thinks that equal rights for transgendered individuals would “violate the privacy” of cis-gendered women and children.

His small-mindedness and ineptitude could have dangerous and far-reaching consequences.

If an adult is spreading harmful misinformation like this without reprimand, then kids of every orientation will regard it as fact. A system of behaviors will start at a young age. Kids will oppress one another. The oppressed, the bullied, will retreat into their closets, they will close themselves off, they will trust the world less and less. They risk turning their story into something that echoes Leelah Alcorn’s.

Leelah Alcorn’s story—although set in Ohio—is after all, is not an anomaly, it is terrifyingly ordinary. It translates into conditions in Michigan’s culture which may precipitate future Leelahs. It is certainly not hopeless, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

Men and women are growing up in this state, being expected to manage the trauma of being attacked, bullied, discriminated—and it is the kind of trauma that stands to developmentally stunt us from being able to form reasonable relationships; it is the kind of trauma that tears families apart.

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse are two nurses whose story about trying to adopt one another’s kids has grabbed a tremendous amount of local spotlight. Despite being partnered for years, they technically don’t have guardianship of the other’s children–and the judge who was to rule on this issue encouraged them to use this fight to challenge Michigan’s same-sex ban, which is arguably the roadblock at the issue’s core. Meanwhile, Michigan Attorney General is on a maniacal crusade against marriage equality, blocking it at every pass.

This is how adults bully other adults. This is unacceptable. That there should be any debate over two adults who wish to parent their children together is an embarrassment for the state of Michigan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a summary about how negative attitudes about LGBTQ folks impact our ability to build, grow, and nurture meaningful and healthy relationships. That DeBoer and Rowse have managed to stay strong, united, and raise a family, is a feat.

Michigan’s laws and cultural values are increasingly addressing an age group that is beginning to fade away, for better or worse. They do not reflect millennials, who are now moving up corporate ladders to bigger salaries, getting married, exploring home ownership, raising families. The families of the future are not going to build and raise families in neighborhoods, cities, states, lands, where hate is law.

Making Sense of Lost Dollars

We know governments though; they really don’t care about how they’re messing up America’s queer youth. But they do care about the bottom line. So, this kind of bullying and hate—how does it tie back to money, which is what drives policy at any level of government? Well, hate is bad business. Friedman breaks it down:

Discrimination and harassment often pervade the workplace. One experimental study sent 1,769 pairs of fictitious résumés in response to job postings across seven states. One résumé in each pair was randomly assigned experience in a gay campus organization, and the other résumé was assigned a control organization. Applicants affiliated with a gay organization were 40 percent less likely to be called for an interview.

Once in the workplace, 42 percent of LGBT adults experience workplace discrimination; the rate for openly gay adults is four times that of workers whosesexuality was hidden. Further, employees who have experienced employment discrimination have higher levels of psychological distress and health-related problems than employees who have not experienced discrimination. Higher discrimination also translates into less job satisfaction, higher rates of absenteeism and more frequent contemplation of quitting than LGBT employees who have not experienced discrimination.

That kind of employee churn costs businesses. A lot. And for what? Because someone doesn’t approve of your biology?

Also, here’s a cool sentence:

For the past six months, the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, a group of Michigan’s top business leaders, has advocated for the Michigan legislature to amend the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Most reasonable businesses are aware of what this churn costs them, too. Top business leaders are seeing the potential for big money in treating queer men and women equally as their heteronormative counterparts under Michigan law—and GOP lawmakers are still mucking about with theReligious Freedom Restoration Act.

Detroiters talk a lot about “innovation,” and downtown Detroit’s own Silicon Alley-inspired enclave—Tech Town—while sidestepping the elephant in the room: that tech giants like Google have made a concerted effort to appear pro-LGBTQ. Innovation is all about progress. Without one you cannot have the other. Without progress, “innovation” is nothing more than an overused buzzword, appearing frayed and threadbare during the North American International Auto Show and every other conference that draws talent from across the country and the world.

More confoundingly, 61% of Young Republicans actually favor marriage equality. Even future GOP torch-bearers seem to be saying, “Sure, why not.” (Not that we need their validation, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the cause.)


If you’re willing to follow the dollar signs, you can see how marriage equality is great business.

Sreekar Jasthi reasoned at NerdWallet that if marriage equality could be realized nationally, it would create a “windfall” of at least $2.5B. Jasthi’s analysis breaks everything down to a state level, factoring in consumer spending on weddings, the self-identified LGBTQ population and overall marriage rates.

Of that $2.5B windfall, at least $66M would be added to the state of Michigan’s coffers—which, again, are predicted to come up over $250M short.

It is a formula that assumes a lot of things, sure, but the logic follows—and it highlights just how vast this unactivated revenue source is for a state that’s in dire need of funds. We have cities to rebuild, roads to repair, and an education system to put back together—and the money to fund these things will not come from bigoted policies that make our “Pure Michigan” tagline seem oxymoronic.

Again, that $66M doesn’t factor in all the other money that the LGBTQ population would spend after they tie the knot: Everything from home ownership to college tuitions and beyond translate to additional revenue opportunities for a state that needs the funding.

A Holding Pattern

Then there is my story: I am in a holding pattern. I was born and raised in Metro Detroit, fled to New York, and crash-landed back here in Metro Detroit and am biding my time. Learning too well about the pitfalls of renting from my time in New York, it is not something I’m rushing into.

I am not so bothered by the bullies, by the people who might try to make jokes at my expense—my sneer and bitchy streak were perfected in New York City. I am more bothered by the fact that on almost every date, the man sitting across from me tells me how much he can’t wait to leave Michigan and go somewhere else—Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, New York, Portland. “Anywhere but here,” he tells me. These are men who have spent most of their twenties tolerating a hostile climate in Michigan—a figurative winter I avoided—and don’t have the stomach to simply tolerate life when they could be celebrating it. It means a shrinking queer community in Michigan, it means fewer possible queer leaders of tomorrow in a state that needs such people, it means hate wins, it means there are fewer chances for wonderful things to happen in my own backyard.

I am also frustrated that many of the men I date seem stuck in arrested development. Not in the way that would inspire Carrie Bradshaw to write copious meditative essays, but in the way people who have been born into and raised in a hateful culture would be.

How can men and women trying to live their best lives—but legally told they cannot—not get stuck in limbo as they try to mature?


I’m not ready to give up on Michigan yet, though.

I am cautiously hopeful. I believe that the gusts of hot air whipping through the Great Lakes State around anti-LGBTQ policies are the desperate final stabs at relevancy of elected officials that see the end of their careers on the horizon.

There are many I talk to who believe change is inevitable, but patience is necessary. The seeds are already there: We have courageous people like April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse who are putting everything on the line to make themselves the face of the Michigan marriage equality fight. Communities have formed and support systems are blooming; they may not have the scope and impact of their cosmopolitan counterparts nationally, but everything has to start somewhere.

We have the Michigan lifers who are tired of regressive legislation hindering Detroit’s comeback narrative. We have an influx of new blood in Detroit, bringing with them the progressive values necessary to lever out hate-filled politicians.

There are people who want to raise families and be left alone, people who want roads fixed, basic services restored, and to hold their heads high when people talk about Michigan.

All of these desires will drive us, as a community, to serve ultimatums to our legislators and ask: Just how long are we meant to tolerate legislated bigotry until “Pure Michigan” transcends hokey tagline status to become the quintessence of what the Mitten State stands for?

Rohin Guha adores Michigan. He is also an Executive Editor at The Aerogram. He is currently hard at work on his first book of essays and you can follow him on Twitter if you'd like.

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