The city of Sterling Heights is socially conservative by almost anyone's account, including the mayor's.
It was only seven years ago when the city unanimously adopted — and then rescinded — an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance that recognized sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.
Current Sterling Heights Mayor Michael C. Taylor was not only one of the original supporters of the ordinance, he's at the forefront of current efforts to revive the issue this year, spurred on by a growing number of like-minded residents in Michigan's fourth-largest city.
Pride Source recently spoke with Taylor to learn more about what happened seven years ago and what he hopes will happen soon.
Passing (and then repealing) the 2014 non-discrimination ordinance
The original ordinance was not proposed on a whim. Newly elected to city council in 2013, Taylor was approached by council member Doug Skrzniarz, who was in favor of adopting an ordinance and sought support among his colleagues. Based on the makeup of the city council, Taylor knew it would be an uphill battle.
"We met with an advocacy group; we met with [gay former state rep] Jon Hoadley from the Kalamazoo area…and Jon had some really good advice," Taylor said. "So we sat down with him and kind of got a game plan."
Taylor said he and other supporters reviewed existing ordinances and proposed something similar to the mayor at the time, Richard Notte. The idea was immediately met with resistance. Taylor said Notte's reaction "was like, 'No. Why would we do this? This is controversial.'"
"I'll never forget this," Taylor added. "He said to me, 'Taylor, you go out looking for issues. I just let the issues come to me.'"
Taylor appealed to the mayor by suggesting the benefits of being more welcoming and inclusive. Not only that, Sterling Heights had an opportunity to become the first community in Macomb County to have such an ordinance on the books. Taylor and Skrzniarz proceeded. And, not surprisingly, "there was really a groundswell of both support and opposition" at the meeting where the ordinance was introduced.
At the next meeting, two weeks later, the ordinance passed 7-0.
What happened next is related to a provision in Sterling Heights' charter that allows citizens to repeal an ordinance by collecting the valid signatures of a certain percentage of voters. If successful, this action would force the city council to either rescind the ordinance or put it to a citizens' vote.
Soon enough, a group of Sterling Heights residents launched a signature drive. Taylor said he was unaware whether the detractors had outside help. There is some evidence, however, that local affiliates of the American Family Association and Mass Resistance were summoned by city residents for not only this issue, but also for a recent controversy involving city attempts to elevate diversity and inclusion. Taylor said he knew some church groups and perhaps the local Republican Party were involved.
As the deadline for the petitions approached, Taylor said, "Some of us on Council started to organize an 'anti-signature' rally." At one event, Taylor said a resident approached him and said, "'Hey, I want to let you know I signed that petition at the library the other day to support the ordinance.' And I said, 'What do you mean? You signed that petition to rescind the ordinance.'"
Taylor discovered that some signature collectors were telling people it was a petition drive to put the ordinance before the people for a vote. Therefore, some voters may have been misled to believe that they were signing a petition so they could show support at the ballot box, forgetting or not realizing it was already law.
Ultimately, enough signatures were collected to force the city council to make a decision. "By that time it was late 2014, and what we were told, by a couple different leaders in the LGBTQ community, and leaders for the advocacy groups, was that 'If you put this on the ballot, it's going to require us to spend a lot of money, because we don't want to have a public loss in the city of Sterling Heights,'" Taylor said.
Taylor said they were also told that including the Sterling Heights issue on the ballot could distract from a statewide effort to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act through a citizen's vote. However, that initiative, Fair Michigan, didn't get off the ground.
Three months after its passage, the Sterling Heights City Council chose to rescind the ordinance and the issue was not included as a ballot initiative.
Throughout the battle over the ordinance, he said anti-ordinance groups were pushing messages akin to "If you want your daughter to be raped by a man, vote yes on this ordinance." Taylor said, "It gets me on edge just thinking about it. It makes my blood boil, frankly, that that's what it turned into."
Renewed hope in a new era
"I think [the city] would be more receptive to it now," Taylor said.
In the years since the ordinance debacle, efforts to extend equity to the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups in Sterling Heights have been a mixed bag. Some, like issuing a Pride Month proclamation and hiring an LGBTQ+ police liaison have been positive steps.
Others, like attempts to create a Diversity and Inclusion Commission (reformulated as the CommUNITY Alliance) and to diversify city boards and commissions, continue to be met with resistance. Sterling Heights' ranking on the Human Rights Campaign's latest Municipal Equality Index was 39 out of 100 points.
There's been talk of resurrecting the nondiscrimination ordinance by residents who've attended recent council meetings. Taylor said he thinks it's time; a lot has happened in the past seven years. Even Taylor's own political background has shifted significantly. He said he identified as a Republican until recently and voted for President Biden in the last election.
Taylor pointed to two signs that political winds may have shifted since 2014: the legalization of same sex marriage and the increasing visibility of transgender people. In addition, Taylor said the city is trying to attract younger families who may be more accepting. And of seven council members, three are new since 2014 — Taylor thinks all would support an ordinance.
"I think now, even in Sterling Heights, a city that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, in Macomb County, a county with a reputation as not being the most progressive and forward-thinking, I think there's an opportunity now to show the rest of the state that hey, if we can do it in Sterling Heights, then there's no excuse in Lansing," Taylor said. "It can be done anywhere in the state."
The 2014 ordinance included a "religious carve out," which would exempt individuals from following the law according to their personal religious or moral beliefs. While these provisions can be written in a narrow way — for example, to focus only on religious institutions — the carve out included in the 2014 ordinance was quite broad in that it extended to individuals.
Taylor said he would not likely support a religious carve out in a new ordinance that would allow religious people operating a non-religious business to discriminate based on religion. "That would defeat the entire purpose of the ordinance," he said.
Taylor took a parting shot at those who might try to derail a nondiscrimination ordinance again. He pointed out that the three months of signature collection in 2014 began in June, which he called the best three months in Michigan to be outside collecting signatures.
"The one thing I said publicly, multiple times, is if we bring this up again, I am not going to bring it up until the winter. Because it's a hell of a lot harder to collect 5-, 6-, 7,000 signatures in a Michigan winter than it is in a Michigan summer. So if they're gonna be collecting signatures, their asses are gonna be freezing outside doing it."