By Paulette Niemiec
An ordinance to amend the city code in Sterling Heights to protect the rights of citizens, including those who are gay, lesbian and transgender, was introduced June 3. A heated debate took place, and attendees were given more than three hours to present both support as well as opposition to the proposed ordinance. Arguments for sending the ordinance on persuaded the council, as it voted 4-3 in favor of a continuance at the next meeting June 17.
The ordinance to amend Chapter 25 of the (Sterling Heights) City Code to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations of LGBT people was presented by Assistant City Attorney Donald P. DeNault Jr.
"This ordinance, if approved, will protect people from discrimination including sexual orientation, gender identity and age," DeNault explained as the discussion began. "If discrimination occurs, the city can work with businesses to improve the situation and if not, a fine could be issued. Also these citizens could go to court if necessary to enforce the law."
An ordinance supporter included Julie Bondy, a Sterling Heights resident who gave several examples of discrimination in the workplace. "I have come out at work as gay. A few years ago, I couldn't let people know I was gay. Many organizations would not give someone a promotion or would even fire them for being gay. My partner couldn't be here tonight out of fear her employer will discover the truth regarding her sexual orientation," Bondy said.
She explained that some have argued there's no need for inclusion of gays, lesbians and transgender people because there's no discrimination taking place or they are somehow already included in these laws. "If you're racial, ethnic, religious or even overweight, these things are obvious to people. If you are gay or lesbian, you can hide. We can hide. We have to hide because there's no law to protect us," she explained.
Others gave emotionally charged arguments on both sides. None was more profound than that of Lisa Schultz, a Sterling Heights firefighter who identified herself as being "a member of the LGBT community" and Joanne Hill, a transgender woman.
Shultz read from a prepared written statement explaining her feelings of pride in the city and in the Fire Department. "It is exciting to me that we in Sterling Heights can be the first city in Macomb County to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity," Schultz said. "Not only do I believe it would help our city, but frankly it's simply the right thing to do."
Hill described her life accomplishments as a transgender woman, which includes three patents as a result of her work as an electrical engineer. "Why do I tell you this? " she asked rhetorically. "I tell you this to make the point that transgender people have value," she said, voice cracking with held back tears.
"I am a transgender woman," said Hill, "I lived stealthly. I lived my life in secret for many years. A few years ago, it became necessary for me to transition."
Hill went on to describe the accomplishments of many transgender people who have worked at prestigious jobs, earned graduate degrees and have had other major life accomplishments: "There are many transgender persons who have made a generous contribution to their communities…why do I speak of these things? Because right here at our company where I work, we have openings that can't be filled because the college graduates perceive southeast Michigan as not a nice place to live. We need to change that. Most college students today recognize the LGBT community and they don't want to live in a place that discriminates against the LGBT community and so they are taking jobs elsewhere. This has to change… by passing this ordinance you can make that change happen."
Not all were in favor of passing the ordinance. More than a dozen opponents spoke out against it. Their views sounded contradictory and confusing. Some made statements describing how they didn't believe in prejudice and discrimination, while seeming to contradict themselves by saying they opposed the proposed legislation that would fight discrimination.
"You are so correct when you say LGBT people have value," said Sonya Elias, a Sterling Heights resident of 24 years. "But that doesn't mean you should have special rights to protect you from discrimination. When you have special rights for minority people, you strip away the constitutional rights of others, myself included."
Elias and many others made similar statements, fearing that passing the ordinance would attack and discriminate against Christians who oppose homosexuality. Mayor Pro Tem, Mike Taylor, addressed these fears. "For those of you who are concerned that your ability to practice religion is being taken away, that is not the case," Taylor said. "We can argue and debate many things but this is not one of them."
Now it's up to the council to decide on the ordinance. If passed, Sterling Heights will be added to the group of 33 cities and counties who have already passed such ordinances.