By Jim Larkin
HOLLAND – It’s been known as one of the happiest places in the country, one of the best areas to retire and is the biggest city in a county known as one of America’s most conservative.
Now a newly-formed group of about 100-150 residents want to make Holland known for one more thing: a city that is inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.
And that’s a tall task for the group Holland Is Ready.
Holland may be located just north of Saugatuck, a gay tourist destination on the Lake Michigan shoreline, but it also is staunchly Republican, was referred to as “the bastion of religious conservatism in West Michigan” on the website turnleft.com, and is known as the “City of Churches.”
“People here ask two questions when they first meet you,” said Holland Public Schools Superintendent Brian Davis. “‘Where do you work?’ and ‘What church do you go to?'”
But when Hope College, a private conservative college in the core of Holland’s downtown, banned screenwriter Dustin Lance Black from talking about gay issues and showing his Oscar-winning movie “Milk” on campus late last year, some Holland residents had had enough. Grace Episcopal Church rector Jennifer Adams e-mailed about 25 colleagues and friends in January, asking them to meet to figure out how to respond to the snub.
She expected a few to respond. About 150 people showed up, surprising both Adams and others attending that first session.
“I was surprised and incredibly moved,” said Adams, who has been at Grace Episcopal Church for 15 years. “It was a powerful experience.”
“It was encouraging and an amazing, amazing experience,” added Arin Fisher, a senior at Hope College.
The makeup of the people comprising Holland Is Ready may also be surprising to many. Its age range is from teenagers to an 80-year-old grandfather, straights may outnumber gay members, and many – if not most – belong to area churches. They have formed seven subcommittees designed to help meet the ultimate goal of making the city more inclusive, including education, publicity, community action, providing public safe spaces for LGBT residents and supporting the like-minded efforts of Hope Is Ready, a college student-based effort to open dialogue on the campus.
The group’s first event was hosting Catholic priest James Alison, who disagrees with the church’s teachings on homosexuality, in late March. It is also circulating petitions urging Hope College to drop a 1995 institutional statement on homosexuality that says the college “will not provide recognition, financial or logistical support for groups whose purposes include the advocacy or moral legitimization of homosexual behavior.” And it hopes to eventually propose that the City of Holland adopt a policy prohibiting discrimination against LGBT residents.
Holland Is Ready is not alone in urging Hope College to drop the statement on homosexuality, either. A group of influential alumni petitioned the college to do so earlier this year and some Hope College professors have issued a similar petition.
The strong backlash against the college for its treatment of Black, which led many to discover the 1995 statement, have led some to believe the area may be ready to squarely tackle the issue of homosexuality. Or at the very least have an open and honest discussion about it.
Indeed, some are perplexed by the college identifying itself as “a place of open inquiry, acceptance of intellectual challenge, rigorous engagement with hard questions, and vigorous but civil discussion of different beliefs and understandings,” on a Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association website, but then banning Black’s discussion of homosexual issues. The college’s explanation: Hope College Dean of Students Richard Frost said that from past experience, “strongly-opinionated speakers usually don’t further academic discussions about gay, lesbian or transgender issues.”
David Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College who wrote a book subtitled “The Christian Case for Gay Marriage,” said his experience with the college has been one of academic freedom.
“Hope is a place where scholars are welcome to contribute their information and insights into the free marketplace of ideas, while welcoming others with different views doing the same,” Myers said. “Our idea of a college, which is rooted in a spirit of Christian humility, is that out of this exchange and dialogue greater wisdom will ultimately emerge.”
Yet in 2005, Dr. Miguel De LaTorre said he felt forced to resign his position as a theology professor at Hope College after publishing an editorial in the Holland Sentinel that was critical of Dr. James Dobson, founder of the anti-gay group Focus on the Family. And while the college has indicated it will discuss the petition presented by alumni, including two former presidents, it has given no indication that it will act on the issue.
That Holland residents would object to that runs contrary to its roots. The U.S. Census indicates that only 0.2 percent of the households in Holland contain “likely homosexuals.” And Adams said most of those who are homosexual are extremely private, out of fear of losing their jobs. While agreeing that Holland’s gay population is “very closeted,” Fisher said his sense is that the number of gay and lesbians is “larger than we know.”
And Adams looks not at the number of local gay people, but the sense it makes to make them feel welcomed.
“I’ve seen a lot of hurt with this issue and it’s a hurt that doesn’t need to happen,” she said. “To not be inclusive misses out on all the gifts LGBT residents have to offer.”
Adams noted there is a strong and genuine desire of Holland residents “to be good people” and Fisher, who after graduation will spend a year in Rome working for gypsy and African immigration rights through the Reformed Church of America, said the large number of people at the first Holland Is Ready meeting indicates there is a “deep yearning for social justice for the LGBT community.”
But both Adams and Fisher hesitate when trying to answer the question of whether Holland is really ready.
“I think that’s the big question,” Adams said. “But if you wait until everyone is ready it will never happen.”
“I think it’s ready for at least the conversation,” said Fisher, who after Rome will seek a master’s in divinity and public policy at Princeton University. “I don’t think it’s ready for two men to walk down the street arm in arm or anything like that.”
Regardless of whether Holland is ready now, Myers said it is just a matter of time before acceptance and inclusion becomes a way of life. He points to an annual “American Freshman” survey last fall that indicates changing attitudes for young adults. When asked whether same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status, 65 percent of this year’s new collegians answered yes.
“Such rapidly changing attitudes, combined with growing knowledge about the realities of sexual orientation and with an enormous generation gap, allow us to foresee the future on this issue,” Myers said. “And we’ll get through it, as we have past controversies over biblical interpretations pertinent to interracial marriage, divorce and women’s ordination. Generational succession is our destiny.”
Until then, leaders of Holland Is Ready will keep working.
“There is tremendous potential to move forward,” Adams said. “We want to do it in the most compassionate, loving way possible.”
Added Fisher, “We come in peace. We’re not here to destroy churches. We just want to be regarded equally and be embraced as much as any other part of the population. If there’s an agenda it’s just wanting to be loved equally.”
About the city of Holland:
* A Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey, released in February, ranked Holland as having the second happiest and healthiest people in the country.
* In 2006 Money magazine listed Holland as one of the top five places in the country to retire.
* Ottawa County, of which Holland is the largest city, was ranked among the most conservative-friendly counties in the country by The Daily Caller in March. It ranked 51st in the top 100.
* According to the U.S. Census, Holland has a population of 34,245, of which 22 percent is Hispanic and 30 percent are of Dutch ancestry. It has a higher percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees, Hispanic-owned firms, and Asian people than the state average.