By Jim Larkin
A surge in municipal anti-discrimination ordinances that protect peoples’ sexual orientation may indicate Michigan’s gay and lesbian fight for equality has momentum.
Ten Michigan cities and townships included sexual orientation in their anti discrimination ordinances in the 2000s and residents in two more cities – Holland and Jackson – are currently fighting to have it included. That compares to five in the 1990s, one in the 1980s and two in the 1970s.
Traverse City was the most recent, passing their ordinance in a unanimous city commission vote Oct. 4.
“Attitudes have changed and when you look at the polling more and more people feel people should not be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT Project. “These ordinances send a message that we value diversity and that no one should be discriminated against.”
From Ann Arbor’s ground-breaking anti-discrimination ordinance in 1978 to Kalamazoo’s overwhelming public-vote passage of one in 2009, cities across the state have increasingly demanded that its residents should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Detroit in 1979 was the first to follow Ann Arbor’s lead and was followed by Saginaw in 1984, Flint, Birmingham, Grand Rapids, Douglas and Ypsilanti in the 1990s and East Lansing, Ferndale, Dearborn Heights, Lansing, Huntington Woods, Grand Ledge, Saugatuck, Saugatuck Township and Kalamazoo in the 2000s.
Traverse City, in its hotly debated Oct. 4 vote, became the first Northern Michigan city with such protections.
Holland’s Human Relations Commission is studying whether that West Michigan city should include sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-discrimination ordinance. The commission is expected to make its recommendation to the Holland City Council in the next several months.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s City Council in August rejected a proposed ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Some of its Human Relations Commission members have vowed to refine the ordinance and bring it back to the council.
While the increasing number of local ordinances may strike a blow for equality, other signs indicate gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents have a long way to go. There is no federal law that consistently protects LGBT individuals from employment discrimination and it remains legal in 29 states to discriminate based on sexual orientation, and in 38 states to do so based on gender identity or expression, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
And even the local ordinances have their weaknesses. Five cities – Saginaw, Flint, Birmingham, Traverse City and Douglas – do not protect gender identity. Detroit, Grand Rapids, Dearborn Heights and Flint do not levy fines for violation of their ordinances and offer dispute resolution instead. Saginaw and Birmingham’s ordinances only cover housing. And only one city – Ann Arbor – allows it residents to sue because of discrimination.
Representatives of cities that do provide fines or jail time for violation of their anti-discrimination ordinances say they know of no instances when anyone has been fined or jailed for violating them.
“We don’t encourage people to file with us because they can get much more clout at the state or federal level,” said Roger Frazier, Ann Arbor’s city administrator.
The only problem with that is for gay, lesbian and transgender residents, there is no state or federal laws that protect them. And most cities do not have the funding necessary to follow up on discrimination complaints, Kaplan said.
“I don’t think anyone should be fooled into thinking (city ordinances) are the be all and end all – they will never take the place of a state civil rights law or a federal law,” Kaplan added. “Still, the more cities that adopt these ordinances, the more momentum we have to adopt a civil rights law.”
The local ordinances do apparently work in discouraging discrimination. A 2007 report on “Sexual Orientation and Housing Discrimination in Michigan,” conducted by the state’s fair housing centers, indicated housing discrimination takes place far less in cities with ordinances. The fair housing centers performed 120 tests in metropolitan Detroit, Southeast Michigan, Southwest Michigan and West Michigan and found evidence of discrimination in 27 percent of them. In areas where there was an ordinance, only 22 percent of the tests uncovered evidence of discrimination while in areas without an ordinance, 30 percent of the tests uncovered discrimination.
And those who have fought for anti-discrimination ordinances to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their hometowns say it’s the message such ordinances provide, not the fines they levy, that make such local laws important.
“You absolutely need (an ordinance) because what it does is keep in mind for everyone that when we say everyone deserves equal protection, we mean everyone,” said lesbian activist and founder of FernCare Ann Heler, who was instrumental in getting Ferndale’s ordinance passed in 2006. “It says our community doesn’t wish ill will on anyone. Everyone can think and say what they want but the right to be free of discrimination – that’s American.”
Passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Ferndale, which City Manager Bob Bruner calls “the most gay-friendly area in the state,” was a certainty. So was it in Saugatuck, Douglas and Saugatuck Township, which are also well known as gay-friendly cities.
Passage in Kalamazoo was not so certain. Yet, the Kalamazoo Alliance for Equality was able to secure an overwhelming victory at the polls by stressing the importance of demanding equality for all.
“I don’t believe in discrimination,” said City Commissioner David Anderson, a married father of four who helped pass the measure. “As a person who believes in fairness, I think it was a good thing for the city. What it did was make a big public statement. It was a confirmation of principle. It was a way for Kalamazoo to say, ‘This is what we believe.'”
Still, Anderson admitted that “a lot of nasty things were said” during the election process – a statement echoed by residents who pushed for anti-discrimination ordinances in other towns.
Jim Carruthers, an openly gay Traverse City commissioner, said he became the target of attacks after he requested an anti-discrimination ordinance there. Photos of him wearing a green feather boa, which he put on as a joke after it was given to him at a meeting, were posted on the Internet by a private citizen of the city along with warnings that a gay commissioner was pushing his gay agenda.
“It’s been a little nerve-wracking,” said Carruthers, who nonetheless enjoyed unanimous passage of the ordinance from his fellow commissioners.
Scott Klein, a former Hamtramck city councilman, said the scars from a public vote that overturned an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians are so deep that it will be a long, long time before the issue returns in his city. He said he received death threats and children yelled anti-gay epithets and threats near polling places.
“It was ugly and unnerving and way more than people bargained for,” said Klein, who lost his re-election bid after supporting the ordinance. “The bad part was I thought, ‘If this thing loses I’ll be alright, but if it wins what will happen to me?'”
Still, the process can be a positive one for a community. Heler said after human rights ordinances were rejected in Ferndale in the 1990s and in 2000, an effort was made to have open meetings in which gay and lesbian residents would answer any and all questions posed to them – a process she advocates for all cities.
“When gay people started moving here in large numbers, I think many in town loved what happened to the homes and property but weren’t so sure about the people living in them,” Heler said. “It took a while to turn that around.
“Now we try to open gay bars but we can’t because the heterosexuals keep coming to them,” she joked.
Anderson said he chaired some of the meetings held in Kalamazoo on the issue and was able to keep the conversation civil and informative.
“It was of extreme value to us because it allowed for some very public discussions,” Anderson said. “We looked at the issue, we decided and now we’re done with it and can move on.”
Hover your mouse over the stars and circles to show the names of the towns.
Ordinances in Michigan