By Sharon Gittleman
– Ferndale residents who support equality got some good news when last week’s election results were posted.
The city’s human rights ordinance passed by a landslide, with 5,428 residents voting in favor of the law and 2,897 rejecting the measure.
The new ordinance bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors, in employment, housing, public accommodations and public services.
Violators face a $500 fine.
“We were totally gratified and we feel vindicated after literally 15 years of working on this effort to finally have it pass by such a tremendous margin,” said ordinance proponent Craig Covey, a member of Ferndale’s city council.
The first step on the path began in 1991, when several residents approached the Ferndale city council asking them to approve a human rights law. When the council refused, residents petitioned to place the measure on the ballot. The proposal failed by a 2-1 margin.
That process was reversed nearly a decade later, when the council approved the ordinance, but opponents convinced voters to turn it down. While they were successful, anti-rights advocates’ support slipped, with the difference between victory and defeat measured by just 117 votes.
Supporters of the human rights ordinance tried a new approach.
“We decided to strategize,” Covey said. “We spent five years doing good work and educating the community.”
This time, religious leaders, business owners and political officials spoke out in support of the proposal.
“We worked hard for a long time and did our homework and built quite a coalition,” said Covey. “We had grassroots volunteers and lots of straight allies.”
Ann Heler was one of the ordinance’s original proponents.
“I am smiling,” said Heler, who helped lead Ferndale Alliance Valuing Our Residents (FAVOR).
Lesbian and gay people’s active participation in their hometown helped turn the tide, Heler said.
“The GLBT community became a social group and then a group committed to civic projects – joining city organizations, like the chamber of commerce, the Elks and the gardening club,” she said. “People slowly began to know us.”
Heler said the city’s new residents were another factor behind the turnaround in the vote.
“People who moved into Ferndale have moved here because it has a diverse population,” she said. “There’s African-American people, people with accented English and people with religions other than Christian.”
When the vote totals rolled in last Tuesday, ordinance supporters gathered at a local club and started toasting their fellow residents with champagne, she said.
“It was such a good feeling,” she said. “We hugged. We were walking three feet off the floor.”
While discrimination against gays and lesbians is not a big problem in Ferndale, passing a human rights ordinance makes people in other communities think about the issue, Heler said.
“Across the state we do have hate-based incidents, but more and more people are aware that this is no longer acceptable,” she said. “There’s so much publicity when cities like ours pass these ordinances. I think people read and see and sense the positions and values. Acting out and violence is not as OK as it was.”
Heler’s fellow FAVOR member Sean Drate, was ecstatic when he heard the final voter tally.
“They can’t take this away from us,” he said. “We did it. We won every precinct handily.”
FAVOR members mounted a campaign to convince their neighbors to vote for the human rights ordinance. They visited nearly 5,000 homes in the community.
“We had a list of all the registered voters in town,” he said. “We used it to go walking door to door, do mailings and make phone calls. ”
Their campaign began in August and lasted up to Election Day, he said.
“It’s not a symbolic thing. It’s really important as kids grow up that they don’t feel they’re not as good as somebody else because they are a minority of some type,” he said. “They need to know that it shouldn’t be a big deal. As long as people are allowed to discriminate, then you still live with the fear you can be intimidated by your boss at work or you could be blackmailed.”
Ferndale’s future is unlimited, thanks in part to this new law, Drate said.
“It sets in place in society a belief that holding these prejudices and bigotries and discriminating against people for these reasons is unacceptable,” he said. “It might still be that way but it will be like the Klan where they have to wear a hood.”
By Sharon Gittleman