Berkley, Out of the Closet
"Where you want to be" is the motto of Berkley, Michigan, and now more than ever, "you" is directed toward the LGBTQ community. Just since December, the city council enacted a conversion therapy ban, issued a resolution in support of adopting an updated nondiscrimination policy and renewed its declaration of June as Pride Month. All three initiatives received unanimous support by the council.
Jacob Robinson and his partner, Jesus Suarez, moved to the southeast Oakland County community with a population of around 15,000 less than a year ago. They settled on Berkley after some bids in Ferndale didn't pan out when they were house hunting, and the couple couldn't be more pleased. Robinson said he appreciated the outpouring of support at the recent city council meeting via Zoom videoconference where numerous residents spoke during public comment in support of the Pride Month proclamation and the nondiscrimination policy which were on the agenda.
"I think what was most inspiring for me on that call was–only moving here less than a year ago– having so many people on that call that we had met in the community," Robinson said. "Specifically, there were three of our neighbors, specifically people who live on our street that I spoke with directly…and asked them if they would jump on the Zoom call and express support, and they were on there as well."
One of the individuals who spoke in favor of the nondiscrimination policy was a resident of 16 years named Jess, who described the formation of a recently established Facebook group comprising Berkley residents who are LGBTQ and allies.
"Through a series of events we began to see the need to organize our community beyond a simple picnic and simple rainbow flags," Jess said during public comment. "Our community, we were to find, was in dire need of attention to establish laws and ordinances that prevent discrimination and promote equality and inclusiveness for all of its citizens, including the LGBTQ community. Today I'm happy to see that we are going in the right direction to finally make real change and to bring Berkley out of the closet. Our needs stretch far beyond this ordinance, however, and it is our goal with this initial ordinance to bring awareness and real change that promotes visibility and acceptance in Berkley of the LGBTQIA residents."
Model for the Region
For Robinson, LGBTQ protections are "essential and definitely something that I think should be expected in any city," he said. "When we moved, and we were part of the Facebook group that started discussing having a Berkley Pride, a big component of that was ensuring we had specific policies within the city that spoke to our rights as people. [Councilmember] Natalie Price has really stuck to what she said she would help us do: ensuring that we have rights within our city."
Price, who is serving her first term on the council, said that LGBTQ rights were an important part of her platform as a candidate. And while the conversion therapy ban was in the works prior to the election, she said she was proud to voice her support for the ban at her first meeting in December.
"Part of my campaign when I ran for council was that I wanted to contribute to Berkley being an intentionally inclusive and welcoming community," Price said. "I feel like Berkley has so much potential. The neighbors, the people that I've gotten to know — I've really seen how welcoming and caring they are. And to make sure our policies and our laws reflect that … and potential residents and businesses and visitors know that about us, I felt like that was very important. So ever since I was elected, I was pushing for a more comprehensive nondiscrimination policy in Berkley. [I'm] very grateful that Oakland County expanded theirs, kind of paved the way and created a great model for me to make that pitch to the city.
"I think we have a lot going for us: a small-town community where everyone seems to know each other, but the benefit is you form such genuine, positive relationships with the neighbors, the councilmembers, city staff — especially with COVID, 'we're all in this together' has taken on new meaning in Berkley," Price continued. "I think that's always been true in Berkley, but you definitely feel that now. That's been a really positive thing for me and my family and I think for many members of the LGBTQIA+ community here in Berkley as well."
Price said she uses the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index as a guide for her goal toward creating a more "intentionally inclusive and safe community."
"I'm looking forward to what's next," Price said. "What can Berkley do to make it clearer that we are safe and supportive to everyone? What aren't we doing yet? What can we do better? The unanimous support of council and all of the initiatives makes me very confident that even though there's work to do, we're gonna get it done. We're gonna be a model for the region for this kind of work to make sure that we are safe, inclusive and welcoming."
Engaging the Residents
In terms of "what's next," Price noted that several members of the LGBTQ community contacted her after the city council meeting with that very question. She said she told them all the same thing: stay involved; let your voice be heard by joining any of the various city boards and commissions or by running for office. In addition, the city is beginning its master plan process, and she's encouraging people to partake in one of the focus groups to truly have a say in the future direction of Berkley.
"There's so many opportunities to volunteer to shape the city," Price said. "The city will benefit if members of the LGBTQIA+ community are involved."
Robinson, who has experience in event planning, said he is looking forward to helping organize a Pride event in Berkley in the future. Price, whose children have experienced Drag Queen Storytime at the Huntington Woods Library and whose family regularly attends Pride events each summer, said she can't wait to see such an event in the city she represents, too.
"I'm sure there will be a Pride event in Berkley in years to come," Price said. "I'm sure that when that event is put before council, it'll receive absolute support from us. Can't wait to see it happen and come participate and celebrate all that Pride stands for."