By Jim Larkin
What a difference 30 miles – and a different political climate – makes!
Nine months after Holland, its Lake Michigan shoreline neighbor to the south, rejected a proposal to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-discrimination ordinance, Muskegon appears primed to approve the same issue.
On March 12, the Muskegon City Commission directed City Manager Bryon Mazade to work with the city attorney to draft language that would include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender in the city’s anti-discrimination policies. And unlike Holland, where five council members rejected an identical proposal, there was no opposition in Muskegon.
“I’d like to think it’s because we’re progressive,” said city resident Roberta King, who wrote a letter to the commission a few months ago proposing the change and requested it Monday at the commission meeting. “I think it could be because Muskegon has always been very racially diverse and it’s easier for us to accept change.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she added. “A lot of cities are moving this legislation forward right now.”
Indeed, Muskegon would become Michigan’s 19th city or township with anti-discrimination protections for gay people and 10th in the 2000s to enact either policies or ordinances providing such protections. The issue is also currently being discussed in several Michigan cities.
It was Holland’s battle over the issue that prompted King to propose it for Muskegon. The two, after all, have some similarities: Both are on the Lake Michigan shoreline, both cities have populations in the 30,000s (Muskegon, about 38,000; Holland, about 33,000). And they are only 33 miles apart.
Mazade described Muskegon as “very diverse, socially and economically.”
But the two cities also have stark differences. Muskegon is Democratic, Holland Republican; Muskegon has a sizeable Black population, Holland a sizeable Hispanic population. And while Muskegon may be progressive, Holland is considered one of the most conservative areas in the state.
“I have been observing what was going on in Holland and I wanted to see if Muskegon could move it forward,” said King, who works in Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s public relations and marketing department. “I believe it’s important people are protected against discrimination.”
Still, she admits she was surprised no one objected to the measure at Monday’s meeting. Three people, all in favor, spoke from the audience. And the matter was on the commission’s agenda and written about Monday morning on mlive.com. Even the responses on that Muskegon Chronicle’s website contained little opposition.
In contrast, King said, about 80 people showed up recently when a proposal was made to build a road through a sand dune.
But she thinks it may not remain that way, especially when the City Commission considers approving the language at a future meeting.
“I suspect there may be some people who will come out and oppose it,” King said.
Mazade said it’s likely the city will add an amendment to the city’s existing policy but added he wasn’t sure when the issue would come back to the City Commission. He said he wasn’t sure how residents would respond once they are informed of the commission’s movement toward adding LGBT people to those protected by the policy.
“It’s too early to tell,” he said.