By Tim Retzloff
In recent months, the group Fair Michigan launched an effort to guarantee protections for sexual orientation and gender identity within the Michigan constitution by means of a statewide initiative slated for the November 2016 ballot. A number of critics have asserted that whenever LGBT rights are put before voters, such measures always fail. This claim is not only inaccurate, it also masks a complicated, and perhaps promising, history of past referendum battles.
Ballot campaigns in the U.S. have seen mixed success for supporters of LGBT rights.
Anita Bryant set a toxic tone nationally back in 1977 when her “Save Our Children” campaign instigated the repeal of a new gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, followed in rapid succession by repeals in Wichita, St. Paul and Eugene. Californians arrested the wave of anti-gay electoral defeats in 1978, when, thanks to a major education campaign led by Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart, voters turned back the Briggs Initiative, a ballot proposal to ban homosexual teachers.
The repeal of Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance in the odd-year election of 2015 should be understood not only in the context of its own particular circumstances, but also in the context of voter support in 2014 of LGBT protections in the city constitution in Dallas and voter approval in 2012 of same-sex marriage in the states of Maine, Maryland and Washington.
The mixed historical bag of national failures and successes has its counterpart in our own state.
During the early years of gay liberation in the 1970s, Michiganders were on the vanguard of pursuing rights for gay, lesbian and transgender citizens. As early as 1971, a coalition of activists refused to endorse the Traxler Amendment, which would have repealed state sodomy and gross indecency statutes, unless the proposal also eliminated laws against crossdressing.
On March 7, 1972, East Lansing became the first municipality in the U.S. to ban discrimination against homosexuals in city hiring. On July 10, Ann Arbor’s city council enacted a civil rights ordinance that included “sexual preference” as a protected category — another national first — though not before a slim majority of council members stripped the words “transvestism” and “trans-sexuality” from its language. (“Gender identity” would not be included in the Ann Arbor ordinance until 1999.)
In November 1972, Detroit voters considered a new city charter with provisions to protect citizens from discrimination based on sexual preference. In a year when Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide and state voters decisively rejected legalizing abortion, the proposed charter went down to defeat. One year later, on the same day Detroit voters elected Coleman Young as the city’s first black mayor, voters also approved the charter they had rebuffed just one year before.
Voters in Ypsilanti in 1975 rejected by 64 percent to 36 percent an ordinance proposed by the Human Rights Party that would have prohibited discrimination based on “sexual preference,” a harbinger of how difficult it would be to advance gay rights in Michigan.
In 1977, in response to fears that Anita Bryant would bring her anti-gay campaign to the Great Lakes State, activists from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, East Lansing, Flint, and elsewhere gathered in Lansing to establish the Michigan Organization for Human Rights. MOHR members proved to be instrumental in securing passage of Detroit’s strong Omnibus Human Rights Ordinance, enacted in 1979 to enforce the charter provision.
By the early 1980s, MOHR was pushing House Bill 5000, also known as the Dressel Amendment, in order to add “sexual orientation” to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. A conservative challenger targeted and defeated moderate Republican James Dressel of Holland in the August 1984 House primary race in response to Dressel’s sponsorship the bill. For the next decade or more, support for LGBT rights became seen as poisonous for many local elected officials.
In the mid-1990s, even with no state law and few city ordinances yet on the books, a Saginaw fish farmer sought to advance a ballot initiative to prevent any nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Michiganders. The highly mobilized Michigan Campaign for Human Dignity stymied his efforts.
Then in 2004, by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, voters statewide adopted a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. Yet a closer analysis yielded signs of hope. Not surprisingly, Ann Arbor and East Lansing voters spurned the discriminatory amendment. But so did 17 suburbs in the Republican stronghold of Oakland County, including Berkley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Clawson, Hazel Park, Keego Harbor, Lathrup Village, Oak Park, Southfield Township, Sylvan Lake, and West Bloomfield Township. Half of the suburbs that rejected the amendment supported George W. Bush at the top of the ticket.
Over the years, several communities have faced prolonged battles for local LGBT rights protections that took many attempts to succeed. After failed efforts in the 1980s to secure an ordinance in Lansing over the opposition of anti-gay Mayor Terry McKane, the Lansing City Council under pro-gay Mayor David Hollister approved an ordinance on March 18, 1996.
A group called Majority Opposing Special Treatment (MOST) quickly garnered enough signatures to place the question on the fall ballot. Despite exit polls that showed Lansing’s nondiscrimination ordinance winning by 30 percent, the measure lost by 4 percent.
In December 2006, the Lansing council enacted a new ordinance. Despite threats from the American Family Association of Michigan, a ballot challenge to the law did not materialize.
In December 1997, after months of deliberation, and 22 years after the largely forgotten 1975 vote, Ypsilanti lawmakers unanimously passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that included protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. I attended some of the packed council sessions as a reporter for Between The Lines. The vicious attacks I witnessed from opponents were among the worst anti-gay slurs I’d ever heard.
Foes of the Ypsilanti ordinance, under the banner Citizens Opposing Special Treatment (COST), forced the question onto the ballot in May 1998. Contrary to local and national expectations, residents of Ypsilanti upheld the ordinance in a landmark victory.
Hardly dissuaded, opponents calling themselves “Ypsilanti Citizens Voting YES for Equal Rights Not Special Rights” put forward a charter amendment to deny LGBT protections in the November 2002 election. The group followed a familiar homophobic and transphobic playbook, which included mailers that raised the specter of transgender predators endangering children in women’s restrooms. Once again, however, Ypsilanti residents voted to uphold the city’s human rights ordinance.
Ferndale voters first considered and ultimately turned down a nondiscrimination ordinance in 1991. Ferndale’s council made a second attempt to pass such an ordinance in September 1999, only to have voters repeal it in February 2000 by a tally of 2,406 to 2,288.
Six years later, in 2006, Ferndale voters okayed a similar human rights ordinance 5,428 to 2,897.
Voters in Royal Oak rescinded a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2001, the same year that, by a 2-to-1 margin, residents of neighboring Huntington Woods approved a similar ordinance covering sexual orientation and gender identity.
Royal Oak revisited the issue again in 2013, when its council approved an ordinance in March. That November, the new law survived a referendum challenge despite attack ads that raised what opponents termed “the Bathroom Issue.”
Past battles have been bruising, expensive, exhausting and sometimes heartbreaking, but they have not been uniformly lost. Yes, Hamtramck voters turned back the city’s new ordinance in 2008. Keep in mind, however, that 65 percent of Kalamazoo voters resoundingly endorsed their city’s new ordinance in 2009.
Like Jim Dressel 30 years prior, in 2014 Republican Frank Foster of Petoskey lost his seat in a primary challenge because he sponsored a bill to amend Elliott-Larsen. Maybe, in a GOP-controlled Legislature, support for LGBT rights remains, at least for some, as politically suicidal in 2016 as in 1984. However, a fuller grasp of past battles over LGBT rights suggests that we are in changing times.
A Fair Michigan ballot question to amend the state constitution may or may not be won. Many supporters of LGBT rights may have solid reasons to oppose their push, but inaccurate history should not be among them. History shows that LGBT rights do not always lose at the ballot box. History also shows that any push forward — win or lose — is never wasted.