March 7 marks an important anniversary for the city of East Lansing that many people don’t know about. On this date 40 years ago, the city council passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
East Lansing became the first community in the nation to enact civil rights protections for gays.
Now, proponents of gay rights remember the activists who advocated for the ordinance and the issues facing gays today.
The original ordinance passed in 1972 prohibited the city of East Lansing from discriminating in its hiring practices based on sexual orientation. City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Nathan Triplett says more protections soon followed to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations and services.
“We also banned discrimination based on gender identity or expression,” says Triplett. “That makes East Lansing a different situation than you’d face in either the state of Michigan generally or the nation, since discrimination based on those two characteristics is still legal in Michigan and in the United States, unless there’s a state or local law that supersedes those regulations.”
It’s not widely known that East Lansing was the first city in the country to enact gay rights protections. In fact, many people still believe it was San Francisco.
Michael Carman is a history major at MSU. He wrote his honors thesis on the Lansing area gay rights movement.
“Yeah, I wasn’t aware of it either,” says Carman. “I started doing research, looking at local archives that I could find, trying to formulate a question, because I didn’t even know what my topic was yet. Then I came across this wealth of knowledge in the MSU Library Special Collections resources, and I thought I can’t believe all this happened here. This is a story that needs to be told.”
What Carman found was that Lansing and East Lansing were centers of gay and lesbian culture in the 1970’s. In his thesis, he writes about a student group called the Gay Liberation Movement.
“This was actually a relatively small group,” says Carman. “They only had ten to twenty members who regularly came to meetings, and a few of the officers were the most active members. But they were able to accomplish a lot, partially because the city was smaller, but also because in local activism, a few committed individuals can really make a difference.”
In the fall of 1971, students from that group petitioned the City Council to pass an anti-discrimination measure for hiring practices. The council passed the ordinance on March 7, 1972, by a vote of 3 to 2 and made history.
William Sawyer-Todd chairs the East Lansing Human Relations Commission. That’s where people can go who need help with civil rights and discrimination complaints.
Sawyer-Todd says as a gay man, he’s proud that that his home town was the first city to address gay rights.
“It’s a milestone,” says Sawyer-Todd. “It’s a huge milestone. Little town, quiet, nobody remembers it except a few people. But it started here. It’s a giving thing, because it gives an oppressed people a chance to own their piece of history, as well as be part of the bigger history. That’s really important to a minority.”
Today, 18 cities in Michigan have ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. But anywhere else in the state, it would be legal to fire someone because they’re gay. And the state legislature is considering a bill that, if passed, would void all 18 of those ordinances.
Nathan Triplett says the legislation would re-legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“And in East Lansing’s case, it would also legalize discrimination based on gender identity and expression, as well as student status,” says Triplett. “The bill bans communities from adopting ordinances that are more inclusive than the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, and none of those categories, sexual orientation, gender identity, and student status, none of them are covered by the Elliot-Larsen Act.”
Last night, the East Lansing City Council passed a resolution commemorating the anniversary of the gay rights ordinance. They presented it to former council member George Griffiths, who voted for the ordinance 40 years ago, and to Mark Doebler, head of the MSU Alliance of Queer and Ally Students.
So, as East Lansing marks this historic event, just down the street at the state Capital, the legislature is considering a bill that would roll back the policy that the city is celebrating.
Carmen will send an electronic copy of his thesis to anyone who emails a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.