By Melissa Preddy
Two months ago, as a bill to legalize same-sex marriage worked its way through the New York Legislature, a powerhouse group of industry leaders signed a public letter to lawmakers urging marriage equality for gays.
The signers, including the chairmen of companies such as Alcoa, General Electric and Goldman Sachs, along with chief executives and senior managers at other household-name corporations, made an economic case for legalizing same-sex marriages.
They wrote: “To remain competitive, New York must continue to contend with other world cities to attract top talent. Increasingly, in an age where talent determines the economic winners, great states and cities must demonstrate a commitment to creating an open, healthy and equitable environment in which to live and work,” they wrote.
New York lawmakers voted last week to allow gay marriage, making it the sixth state to permit same-sex marriage since a Massachusetts court ruled for it in 2004.
In Michigan, the story is much different.
In 2004, state voters easily passed a constitutional amendment banning marriage or civil union between same-sex partners. Proposal 2 drew 59 percent of the votes. In 2008, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the amendment also prohibits public employers from providing health insurance to workers’ same-sex domestic partners.
Some colleges, universities and local governments have circumvented the ban by offering benefits to “other eligible individuals” or “other qualified adults” in the worker’s household. In January the Michigan Civil Service Commission approved domestic partner benefits for some state employees.
Still, Michigan is a long way from New York, or Massachusetts in its outlook on same-sex relationships.
Two bills working their way through the state House would prohibit the state and public schools – including universities – from offering such benefits. The House also recently passed an amendment to the education budget which would penalize schools offering same-sex domestic partner benefits by imposing an extra 5 percent cut in funding. New Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed suit against the Civil Service Commission o enjoin the extension of state worker benefits, which had been slated to take effect Oct. 1.
All this has some in Michigan worried that the state’s desperate bid to shed its rust-belt image and become a new-economy player could be hamstrung by blatantly anti-gay public policies. According to some theories, such a “non-welcoming” climate may be a turnoff to workers, entrepreneurs and investors of any sexual orientation and put this state’s communities at a disadvantage compared to those with more inclusive laws and benefits.
“I’m going to call it stupid,” said Lou Glazer, co-founder and president of Michigan Future, Inc. in Ann Arbor, who has blogged extensively about ‘quality of place’ issues and Michigan’s need to attract and retain young, educated workers. “Places that are tolerant attract talent that values tolerance — even if they aren’t part of that group.”
For whatever reason, states that have approved same-sex marriage are doing better than Michigan economically right now. Five of the six with such policies were among the top 20 states for personal income in 2010, with four of them (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire) in the top 10. Michigan sits at No. 36.
On unemployment, five of the six same-sex marriage states were well below the national rate of 9.1 percent in May. Michigan was 46th, with a jobless rate of 10.3 percent.
“It seems to me that what is going on in the knowledge part of the private sector is all the evidence you need,” Glazer added. And, indeed, many of Michigan’s largest employers and landmark corporations, from Whirlpool Inc. and Dow Chemical Co. to Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, receive kudos from national groups such as the Human Rights Campaign for their progressive benefits packages and other support to same-sex employees.
“These companies are signaling pretty clearly that doing this is a competitive advantage,” Glazer said.
Kellogg Co., in 2007, expanded benefits to same-sex domestic partners in most of its U.S. locations; that and some of its other corporate policies and support of diversity earned it a 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2011 Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates companies based on policies that pertain to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.
Kellogg, like other for-profit businesses, highlights the hiring edge and open, innovative climate it believes its policies foster: “At Kellogg, we know that diversity and inclusion are essential business imperatives to succeeding in an increasingly competitive global marketplace,” the company said in a statement. “Specifically, a diverse and inclusive workforce is more adaptable to change, more innovative and more open to new ideas. It’s also reflective of our increasingly diverse consumer base.”
In Holland, the city council’s recent decision to omit sexual orientation and gender identity from its anti-discrimination policies has drawn calls for a downtown boycott and criticism from businesses, reports the Grand Rapids Press. Major area employers such as Herman Miller – a perennial designee in Fortune’s ‘100 Best Places to Work’ ranking — and Haworth had supported the change to the anti-discrimination policy; both firms offer benefits to workers’ same-sex partners.
“We live in a multicultural world and marketplace,” Herman Miller spokesman Mark Schurman told the Grand Rapids Press. “Just as our customers reflect a wider world, we believe our business has to reflect that as well in the people and talent we attract and retain to serve those customers.”
Overt statements such as Herman Miller’s are uncommon among Michigan businesses, which have been fairly mum on the state’s legal and political gyrations relative to same-sex policies — despite a good showing by the state’s for-profit employers when it comes to human resources policies concerning the LGBT communities.
“There haven’t been a whole lot of for-profit business leaders who have spoken out,’ said Michael Gregor, communications director for Equality Michigan. And, he noted, the disconnect between LGBT-friendly employment policies and lack of marriage rights for gays erodes Michigan’s appeal.
“It’s a bit of a conflict when you have corporations here that offer really good policies, but the state doesn’t recognize your relationship,” Gregor said.
Michigan residents, if not lawmakers, appear to be softening their stance against gay marriage; a January 2011 Glengarriff Group Inc. survey found that 50 percent of voters oppose it, compared to the 59 percent who passed the gay marriage ban in 2004. And more than 55 percent said they support civil unions for same-sex couples. (In May, Gallup found for the first time a majority of those polled nationally — 53 percent — in favor of recognizing same-sex marriages.)
Michigan has fewer same-sex couples than the national average – about 3.54 couples per 1,000 households compared to 5.11 couples per 1,000 nationally, said Gary Gates, a public policy expert and the Williams Distinguished Scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles law school. Gates, who specializes in the demography of the gay and lesbian population, said the reasons for the patterns are unclear.
“In general, I have found limited evidence that same-sex couples relocate specifically to take advantage of LGBT-friendly policies including anti-discrimination policies and relationship recognition,” he said. “Most people, LGBT included, move because of employment processes. My sense is that LGBT-friendly policies come into play only by way of comparison of perhaps two different possible locations. In other words, a lesbian might feel fine applying for jobs in both Michigan and Iowa. If she gets offered both jobs, only then does the fact that she can marry her partner in Iowa come into play in her decision.”
However, Gates said, a community’s stance on LGBT rights can definitely affect how it’s perceived by businesses, investors and prospective workers.
“(People) see these policies as a sign that the region is open to individuals and perspectives that are different and outside the norm. This is very attractive to entrepreneurial people and companies,” Gates said.
State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said that in past roles as a Washtenaw County commissioner he’s served on workforce development committees and worked with site-selection consultants that help companies decide where to locate.
“We learned what was on their minds in terms of locating and expanding business,” he said. “The best companies – particularly the businesses with the type of jobs we are trying to attract to Michigan – like IT, advanced manufacturing, health care, clean energy — said their No. 1 concern was a well-educated, talented work force.”
Recalling those discussions, he’s frustrated with the current climate.
“There’s been a lot of energy spent in trying to shut down the equal rights we should be giving to everyone,” Irwin said. “What’s going on in Lansing now sends the wrong message to the rest of the world and we risk turning people away.
“Michigan will be a more economically prosperous place when we try to bring the best and brightest here. Inclusiveness is a big part of that.”