By Jim Larkin
Those for and against discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people showed up in almost equal numbers to a June 26 Michigan Department of Civil Rights hearing in Holland, almost mirroring year-old hearings when the Holland City Council considered but rejected measures that would have provided local protections for LGBT people.
Only this time, discrimination opponents brought something they were criticized for not bringing a year ago: Specific examples of discrimination.
Steven Snider, who said he came out as a gay man when he was 15, said a Holland company that makes rear view mirrors fired three people, including himself, because he is gay, despite his being "a model employee."
"They said it was because I didn't get along with my co-workers," Snyder said. "It wasn't that I didn't get along with them – they didn't get along with me."
Emily West of Holland said she had a job in Holland where her boss regularly made discriminatory remarks, including tossing out the resume of a job-seeker she thought was gay and saying "I don't hire those people." West said when an apparently gay person walked by, her boss quipped to her, "I just wish those people would stay in Saugatuck."
Don Bergman, a teacher for 30 years, said he was fired from one job because he tried to stop harassment of gay students. And he said his own gay son left Holland because of the harassment he experienced here and continues to experience when he returns to visit, including nearly being shoved off a pier at Holland State Park.
Donald Martin, treasurer of Holland is Ready, which has led local efforts to make the area a better place to live for LGBT people, said he spoke for people who couldn't attend the meeting because of fear of retribution. He referred to transgender people who fear they could lose their jobs, a male couple that was denied a lease and a lesbian whose job was terminated because she brought her partner to a Christmas party.
Martin said it was "absurd" that LGBT people even had to debate whether they should be granted the same protections against discrimination as everyone else and called providing such protections the "fundamental truth of economic survival" for communities.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights is conducting the hearings as part of a social research project objectively examining the impact anti-discrimination policies have on LGBT people, as well as the economy and social well-being of Michigan communities. It asked for personal narratives about discrimination and how changes would impact individuals, families, the community and businesses – not whether someone supported or didn't support anti-discrimination measures.
But that's what many people provided, with most of those in favor of continuing discrimination against LGBT people doing so on moral grounds.
"I don't want to see this morally forced on myself and my children," said Michael Mabie, who said the next step would be to protect pedophiles and those practicing bestiality.
Jeff Johnston said if LGBT people were protected against discrimination, schools could be forced to teach their lifestyle is perfectly acceptable, "even if a parent has moral objections.
"If this passes, religious organizations will lose the right to hire people who agree with them and pastors will lose the right to preach what they believe," Johnston contended.
Jim Chiodo said Christians could be put in jail for speaking their beliefs and Angela Mabie said it would open a "Pandora's box" where pedophiles and transgender people could "get to the younger generation."
But H. Bin Lim, of Holland, called such comments unfounded fears and called fear "the big elephant in this room."
"They (LGBT people) just want to be happy and to have peace," said Lim, who noted that he once also opposed such measures until he educated himself on the topic. "They're not asking anyone to change the way they think."
That's exactly what Elizabeth Spreitzer, of Grand Rapids, said she wanted for herself, her wife, and her daughter.
"So our family wouldn't have to worry about health insurance, so we wouldn't have to worry about losing our home because someone didn't like having us as a neighbor," said Spreitzer, a fair housing specialist.
"Please take a look at our family," she continued, pointing to her daughter. "We hope she will never have to face the pain of discrimination and this would take us one step closer to realizing that hope."