Ann Arborites heading to state Capitol today to protest Michigan's domestic partner benefits ban
Sandi Smith says she'll be among the crowd of gay rights activists demonstrating on the steps of the state Capitol today in protest of Michigan's new domestic partner benefits ban.
The openly gay Ann Arbor City Council member is expecting allies from across the state to join her and several dozen others from Washtenaw County in expressing opposition to the recent signing of House Bill 4770 by Gov. Rick Snyder.
The law bans public employers in Michigan from offering health insurance and other benefits to the live-in partners of their employees.
Representatives of the Jim Toy Community Center, an Ann Arbor-based resource for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, are mobilizing demonstrators.
Smith, the group's communications chair, said there are a number of people attending the rally from the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor as well.
Despite assurances the ban doesn't apply to state universities — an issue still being debated — those planning to protest today say the legislation still hurts many Michigan families by denying benefits to the family members of school teachers and state and local government employees, including a number of city of Ann Arbor employees.
"They really feel like they've been betrayed by the governor," Smith said of people who are losing their benefits.
Smith said she personally doesn't have any benefits in jeopardy.
"In some ways, it very much is about the benefits, but really it's a message of hate," she said of her reasons for protesting. "And if we're going to go forward in Michigan, we need to stop doing this. We're going to lose talented people because of this and we can't afford to do that."
Also going to the rally is Ypsilanti resident Gail Wolkoff, a former teacher who a year and half ago started a company called Dedicated to Make a Change, which works with youth in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. She also serves on the board of the Jim Toy Community Center.
"To me, giving a message from the government that different family structures and different groups of people are not welcome in our state promotes a lack of respect and a lack of confidence in youth that potentially come from same-sex or different family structures," she said. "The message is we don't accept you and we don't want you and your parents."
In an interview last week with AnnArbor.com, Snyder commented on his motivations for signing the ban into law, blaming the Michigan Civil Service Commission for "starting an economic argument during the budget crisis" by adding domestic partner benefits for some employees.
Asked whether he is concerned the ban could hurt cities' ability to recruit talent, Snyder said "it would really be more in the university context that would be the area of greatest concern — and also they're autonomous, so they’re supposed to be able to make their own decision."
Smith said she has tried to reach out to Snyder by phone and email several times over the past several months and all she got was an automated response saying he's busy.
"I find him disrespectful about the whole thing," she said.
Also expected to attend today's rally is 81-year-old Jim Toy, who is considered the first openly gay man in Michigan and also the co-author of Ann Arbor's non-discrimination policy in regard to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
He's also co-founder of the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front and the first office at any university in the world devoted to sexual orientation concerns, the Lesbian-Gay Male Programs Office at the University of Michigan, which is now known as the Spectrum Center.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.