By Dawn Wolfe
Even with all of the disappointment about the passage of Proposal 2, one fact stands out – the overwhelming number of volunteers, LGBT and ally alike, that came together to support equal marriage rights in Michigan. Nowhere was this support for our cause more evident than in the huge number of volunteers who stood outside for hours in the chilly rain, braving flu season and potential harassment to educate voters about Proposal 2’s harmful effects on both the gay and straight communities.
According to Ethan Roeder, field director for the Coalition for a Fair Michigan, approximately 1,000 volunteers worked at 400 polling places statewide. Volunteers were in a diverse array of Michigan cities – not just Ann Arbor and Detroit, but Traverse City, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids as well.
Jeers, confusion, cheers
Unfortunately, the potential for abuse of volunteers by anti-gay voters – and precinct workers – became a reality in far too many places.
“We had reports of harassment from all over the state – [but] none in Detroit,” said Roeder.
In Kalamazoo, poll volunteer coordinator Mays Henderson reported, “One of my workers actually left in tears because people were calling her ‘pervert.'” Henderson said that her volunteers experienced harassment from precinct workers and some voters alike, including one voter who threatened to punch Henderson in the nose.
Some of Henderson’s harassers pretended Christian kindness, according to Henderson.
“I had ‘good Christians’ come up and put their arm around my shoulder saying, ‘I could never support you, but I’ll love you anyway,'” Henderson said. However, “None of them wanted to pray with me, though I offered, and I’m a minister.”
In Grand Rapids, poll volunteer coordinator Sara Mieras told BTL that election workers were the predominant source of harassment, primarily at the Yankee Clipper Library and Westminster Presbyterian Church. Mieras said that precinct workers destroyed anti-Prop. 2 signs and repeatedly attempted to force volunteers to move outside of the 100-foot line that is mandated by state law. None of the Grand Rapids-area elections officials contacted by BTL were aware of signs being destroyed, and countered by saying that anti-Prop. 2 volunteers were overly aggressive, even blocking traffic on the street by Yankee Clipper. Grand Rapids police confirm that they were called to the Yankee Clipper site, but were unable to confirm details of the call as the officers who responded were unavailable for comment.
According to Lt. Warwick, “[Our officers] were told to enforce the 100 foot limit. We were told to ask people to cooperate and that’s what we did. All we did was explain the 100 foot limit to anyone involved.” Warwick was unaware of any allegation that election volunteers were blocking traffic at Yankee Clipper. However, all sides agree that there were tensions between anti-Prop. 2 volunteers, some voters and some elections workers.
According to Mieras, those tensions rose pretty high.
“I was called ‘dyke’ by a precinct worker more than once,” she said. “Almost all of the volunteers were threatened with arrest by precinct workers throughout the day. I had a voter take the lit out of my hand and destroy it – and [tell] me that even Jesus couldn’t love a dyke like me.”
Despite cold weather and harassment, both Roeder and his volunteer coordinators said that the majority of the response from voters was positive.
Roeder reported hearing from his volunteers that, “A lot of voters expressed gratitude about the opportunity to learn more about it [Proposal 2] and said they would vote ‘no’ because of our engagement there at the polls.”
Mieras and Henderson agree that the volunteers’ presence at the polls helped educate voters, and that voters did appreciate the volunteers’ efforts.
“I have to say that we were thanked by many of the people, especially at Westminster, … who had come to vote,” Mieras said.
Henderson called her volunteers’ efforts successful as well, and added, “All in all, even though we lost, the important thing – I didn’t expect that we were going to win this – the most important thing that we could do is get the word out and raise public awareness so that things can change for the better.”
Henderson, who told BTL that nine of her volunteers were at the polls for nearly fourteen straight hours, was thankful for their perseverance and patience.
“I feel very proud of my volunteers and how they dealt with [the harassment] without being [like] the angry, crazy people that were opposing us,” she said.