By Sharon Gittleman
FERNDALE – Ferndale may soon join a handful of cities that have added gays and lesbians to the list of groups protected against discrimination in their communities.
In a matter of weeks, a human rights ordinance may be on the agenda of the Ferndale City Council.
It can’t come too soon for Jon Piechota.
“I think it’s very important,” said Piechota, who works in Ferndale. “People can be themselves, express themselves and talk about their lives with their co-workers, without the fear of any discrimination.”
Piechota said some of his blue color gay and lesbian friends have had to deal with name-calling on the job from co-workers – with no help in sight.
“They don’t say anything because of their fear of repercussions,” he said.
That fear is something Triangle Foundation Executive Director Jeff Montgomery has heard about all too often.
“Verbal harassment can be as damaging to someone as getting hit in the face,” said Montgomery.
City human rights ordinances play an important role, said Montgomery. They protect LGBTs from discrimination in housing and in the workplace when state government chooses to look the other way.
“Basically, once people realize that anti-GLBT discrimination is not against the law in Michigan, it should become obvious to people we have to get this kind of protection on a city-by-city and town-by-town basis,” he said. “After enough cities, towns and municipalities get these in place we hope it will become more obvious to the legislature what a ridiculous hole there is in the law.”
While several efforts to pass a human rights ordinance in Ferndale have failed over a number of years, Montgomery believes times have changed.
“Ferndale is a much different city than the last time it came around,” he said. “Hopefully there won’t be a challenge if it passes and if there is, I’m confident the challenge will be met.”
Human rights ordinances are important even when discrimination is a rarity in a city, said Montgomery.
“The community through its people and its representatives can make a statement that no discrimination will be tolerated,” he said. “That often has the effect of making sure discrimination doesn’t happen. The mechanism is there for those things to be reported and talked about.”
Symbolic expressions opposing discrimination are valuable, agreed Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the LGBT Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
“It sends an important message that a community is safe and welcoming,” he said. “Let’s face it. Most communities that have human rights ordinances that include sexual orientation and gender identity are progressive. It shows a community values diversity.”
The Ferndale City Council might not have the final say on the issue.
Unhappy residents could petition to repeal a human rights ordinance, placing it on the city ballot after the Council’s decision.
The last time the community was asked if they approved of a human rights ordinance, they voted it down, said City Councilman Craig Covey.
Covey said he believes hate literature distributed by anti-gay activists in one quadrant of his community influenced some residents.
“There were inflammatory flyers invoking fear and homophobia,” he said.
Today, Covey sounds more hopeful about his fellow residents’ reception of an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting the rights of everyone – gay or straight.
The idea that a human rights ordinance guaranteeing equal treatment for gays and lesbians could be considered controversial is a shocking thought to Piechota.
“It enrages me. It should be a non-issue,” he said. “People’s lifestyles are their own issues. People just need to get over it.”