BY AJ TRAGER
FERNDALE – Over the past four years city employees in over 400 municipalities nationwide have gone through and reported their list of policies and regulations that extend discrimination protections for LGBT individuals to the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Municipal Equality Index.
Each city is given a rank between 0-100 based on 41 criteria that fall into five broad categories:
– nondiscrimination laws
– municipal employment policies, including transgender-inclusive insurance coverage and nondiscrimination requirements for contractors
– inclusiveness of city services
– law enforcement including hate crimes reporting
– municipal leadership on matters of equality.
Heading up the MEI report for Ferndale is Michael C. Lary, director of special events and projects for the city.
“I think what the MEI does is it brings attention to, makes a focal point of and validates the important consideration of LGBT issues. Because you have communities that probably don’t know a thing about it. But if you have even the slightest hope of any kind of progressive mentality on your council or your city government, they’re willing to take on some of these initiatives.”
Since MEI started, HRC has made changes in how it grades municipalities each year. Those cities that previously did not allow for same-sex marriage are now given a pass since marriage equality is legal nationwide, but some new cities may be under fire for issues surrounding public access.
The 2015 scorecard deducts three points for nondiscrimination protections in public accommodations that contain carve-outs prohibiting individuals from using facilities consistent with their gender identity. It adds bonus points for cities who provide services specifically to the trans community. The MEI score reflects up to 100 standard points and 20 bonus points.
“We’re Ferndale. Everything is cool and groovy. But when you start looking at what HRC is looking at regarding their index, we just assumed that we were all OK,” Lary explained.
After the 2014 MEI report scored Ferndale at 67, Lary was on a mission to improve the city’s score. In 2015 the city scored 97 points.
They were able to raise the score by providing spousal healthcare to LGBT city employees and adding LGBT protection clauses to the city: a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting city contractors and LGBT protections for city of Ferndale employees. The city of Ferndale already provided LGBT protections to its citizens.
Lary says it was a matter of having a simple conversation and then getting the city council to approve each measure. He and his partner were the first to apply for domestic partner benefits.
“There’s not a lot that we have to do; it’s just maintaining what we’ve already accomplished. A community can say they’re doing one thing, but then by the next year that policy could be all but gone,” Lary explained.
The one thing that Ferndale does not have is trans-inclusive health benefits for its employees.
“I think that it’s really the insurance company that we have just doesn’t offer it,” Lary said. “And we don’t have any trans employees — that we know of.”
The police department now has a task force where Lary serves as the LGBT liaison. He also represents the city manager’s office as the official LGBT liaison.
“Ferndale as a body, as a government, is actively working for equality. It’s not only because we have two openly gay council members, but we also have a progressive, welcoming council all together, who wants to do right by everybody and wants to give back a message to everyone that it’s a welcoming community,” he explained.
The city of Ferndale has a partnership with Affirmations and sees the community center as a leading resource for LGBT affairs in the area. Lary met with Affirmations last year to discuss how the city can better support and understand concerns surrounding LGBT homeless youth, LGBT older adults, HIV/AIDS and transgender men and women.
Pride in Michigan, LGBT Film Festival
Lary is no stranger to LGBT politics and is a bit of a legend in the local LGBT community. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s he was integral in the creation of the LGBT Film Festival, Comedy Fest (now produced by Equality Michigan) and what was known as PrideFest. He also owned Just 4 Us in Ferndale before it was sold to Kevin Rogers in 2004.
The current Motor City Pride, which takes place in Hart Plaza June 11 and 12 this year, went though significant changes before it would turn into the largest Pride festival in the state. In 1985 the Michigan Organization for Human Rights hired Craig Covey to begin organizing a Pride parade. A year later “Forward Together,” a statewide pride/civil rights parade, debuted in downtown Detroit. Three years later the parade moved to Lansing in hopes of attracting more statewide participation and news coverage for the event.
The same year, the Detroit Area Gay and Lesbian Council led by Frank Colasonti, Jr. held PrideFest at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Not long after that, PrideFest moved into the Oakland Community College Campus in Royal Oak.
Lary assumed the role as coordinator of PrideFest in 1992. In 1993, Lary and a number of others formed Southeast Michigan Pride, a group focused on producing an annual Pride festival. A year later they renamed the event PrideFest Celebration, “A Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Pride Celebration.”
In addition to organizing Pride, Lary also designed and organized the Reel Pride Michigan: LGBT Film Festival which lasted for seven years. The film festival was a hit for LGBT moviegoers and had extremely successful opening and closing nights.
“Having the film festival was a struggle because it didn’t really make money to sustain itself. That’s why I started the gay and lesbian comedy festival. It was always successful and raised $10-15,000 profit to help sustain PrideFest. People really like laughing,” Lary said.
By 2002 the celebration was getting too big for Royal Oak. Lary met with the city manager of Ferndale, and PrideFest was moved there. With the move complete and after a decade of organizing Pride, Lary stepped down. Later that year PrideFest became a project of the Triangle Foundation, now known as Equality Michigan.
“The joke was, I stepped down because I was getting too gay,” Lary said. “But I didn’t want to be ‘gay Michael Lary.’ I wanted to be Michael Lary who is gay. And to be quite honest with you, I was getting fed up with drama within our community, the infighting and what some people define as leadership.”
Doing Pride festivals for Lary was the first avenue to feeling good about who he was. That energy prompted him to share more of himself and his energy with other people, to bring the LGBT community together in a way where members could share as well as enjoy entertainment — with events that were for LGBT people, by LGBT people, that weren’t solely centered around a fundraiser or political advocacy.
In spite of “stepping down” from some important projects over the years, he has never stepped down from doing the right thing when it comes to advocating for LGBT equality and his most recent efforts have elevated Ferndale and provided much needed additional protections in a state that still needs to amend its civil rights law to protect its LGBT citizens.