Milwaukee Biz Blog: To attract millennials state needs to support LGBT rights

Young talent drawn to cities with tolerant, progressive values

Editor’s note: This blog was written in response to BizTimes Milwaukee editor Andrew Weiland’s recent column, “State needs more population growth.”

The common lament in the Milwaukee and Wisconsin business community is one of frustration and concern at our brain drain and inability to get young talent to stay in or move to Wisconsin (especially Milwaukee, and don’t even get me started on our inability to attract talented people of color to Milwaukee or Wisconsin), hence Wisconsin’s multi-million dollar campaign to lure millennials from Chicago.

Madison and Dane County are leaders in the game for talent. I have long held the view that if the state capital and the flagship university were in Milwaukee, and if Milwaukee had the land mass size of Dane County (which would fit all of Milwaukee, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties combined), Milwaukee too would be an intellectual and economic powerhouse just as Minneapolis is, but alas that is not our situation.

So what can we do to improve our prospects? I would suggest that we look at the low hanging fruit of progressive social policies that make cities such as Madison, Austin, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle and Denver (among others) desirable places to live for those talented individuals who can choose to live where ever they wish.

We can end the discussion about the negatives of our cold winters by looking at the success of Minneapolis, winter is clearly a limited deterrent and just an excuse for our lack of competitiveness. But when we look at progressive social policies, such as LGBT protections, which I would argue cost no money but send huge messages of inclusion and tolerance, factors millennials embrace, it is clear Wisconsin could do more.

The recent attempt to pass AB 748 and SB 634 to, among other things, “establish clear, consistent and uniform employment regulations in our state by preempting local governments from enacting their own employment regulations” was seen as a direct assault on the LGBT community (because it was) similar to the disastrous HB2 efforts in North Carolina to strip local government from protecting its LGBT citizens unless the state already did so, which of course the state did not. Fortunately the “preempting local governments” part of AB 748 and SB 634 was removed after efforts to explain the harmful impact, despite the mistruths put forth by some, including the WMC who made the following false public statements to their membership in an attempt to silence our expressed concerns:

“Sexual orientation and gender identity are also protected from discrimination under federal law. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) aggressively enforces against employers who discriminate based upon gender identity or sexual orientation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.”

“As such, it will continue to be unlawful for Wisconsin employers to discriminate on the basis of gender identity if either of these bills becomes law and claims that they open the door to employer discrimination is simply false.” 

The WMC letter ended with this: “It’s unfortunate that people who disagree with this legislation have resorted to spreading false information and fear mongering. That is often a sign of having weak arguments on the policy’s merits.” 

There was a weak argument, but it was not ours.

I responded to the WMC with the following:

“There are in fact no Wisconsin or federal protections covering gender identity. While sexual orientation is covered under Wisconsin law, gender identity is not. Sexual orientation and gender identity are also NOT protected from discrimination under federal law. 

“Those of us concerned about this legislation have no desire to spread false information, we simply wish to protect our transgender friends, family, neighbors and co-workers from the discrimination they too often experience. Hardworking transgender citizens in municipalities that now have gender identity protection would lose that protection by preempting local governments.

“A means to accomplish some of your goal for uniform employment regulations are Assembly Bill 418 and Senate Bill 328 which would update and modernize our statewide law to include gender identity and expression, as some other states have in place. If AB 418 and SB 328 were to pass, your comments about Wisconsin’s protection on the basis of gender identity would be true, and the goal of clear, consistent and uniform employment regulations in our state would be met.”

This is just one example of wasted energy fighting proposed harmful legislation when we could all be working together to make Wisconsin a more desirable place to live. Our business and political leaders could do the right thing now by supporting AB 418 and SB 328 which would cost absolutely no money, but would broadcast that Wisconsin is on the right side of history. Only the continued animosity to LGB and especially trans people prevents the addition of gender identity and expression to our statewide law.

Until the business and political communities fully support the things millennials want, quality public transportation, a clean and healthy environment, and legal equality for all of its citizens, the people we hope will move or stay here will continue to seek other cities and states that better reflect the more tolerant and progressive values of the millennials.

Gerry Coon is the president and chief executive officer of Diverse & Resilient in Milwaukee.

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