Michigan Is a Queer Sanctuary, But These Michigan Communities Missed the Memo

While the state moves forward, a few areas lurch backward

Sarah Bricker Hunt

After the Democrat sweep that saw the party wrest control from Republican lawmakers last November, Michigan has become the center of new hope for a rebirth of a Midwestern “blue wall,” garnering enthusiastic national attention… and a healthy dose of scorn from within. 

The backlash against the dramatic Democratic takeover of both chambers of the State House has been particularly pointed, and in some Michigan communities, far-right leaders are fighting back against long-standing support (or at least, tolerance) for LGBTQ+ community members. The current state of affairs in Michigan has left queer community members feeling more affirmed and supported in larger urban areas while those living within smaller communities are facing a groundswell of anti-queer sentiment that hasn’t been this ardent and widespread in decades. 

By and large, Michigan voters sent a loud, clear message in 2022 about the kind of inclusive, welcoming state they want to live in. At the local level, however, activist city councils and community organizations and boards are keeping hope alive for anti-LGBTQ+ adherents. 

Emme Zanotti, advocacy and outreach director for Equality Michigan Action Network, points to a link between national and local attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. “The effort we are seeing across the country, to politicize LGBTQ+ and especially trans and non-binary people, is both abhorrent and unfounded,” she said. “It’s plainly evident that some local leaders and politicians in Michigan have been susceptible to letting these outside actors and conspiratorialists dictate an extremist agenda that erodes community-trust, inflicts harm on their constituents, and pushes dangerous and fictitious narratives about LGBTQ+ people.”

Traverse City hairstylist misinterprets Supreme Court decision, tells trans people to go to a pet groomer

When Traverse City salon owner Christine Geiger heard the news about the Supreme Court’s 303 Creative decision in July, which delivered a narrow ruling in favor of LGBTQ+ discrimination by a website creator, she was thrilled to finally feel free to express her real feelings about the transgender community. Geiger gleefully took to Facebook to declare, “If a human identifies as anything other than a man/woman please seek services at a local pet groomer. You are not welcome at this salon. Period.” 

While Geiger took the post and the studio’s social media accounts down when things didn’t go her way (to the tune of hundreds of super angry responses and angry-face emojis), we all know everything on the internet is potentially immortal. Like so much Canadian wildfire, screenshots of the post spread quickly, and a would-be localized story about a single anti-trans hair stylist in a quiet Michigan town soon had an international scope.

In the aftermath, a wide range of legal experts agree that the case doesn’t actually give carte blanche to every business in America to openly discriminate against the LGBTQ+ population. In this case, the local government was quick to weigh in on the side of inclusion. Traverse City issued a public statement denouncing Studio 8’s anti-trans stance and promised to investigate the business. Sadly, a few Michigan cities seem to side with the likes of Geiger. 

Hamtramck bans Pride flags

One safe haven for brazenly anti-queer Michiganders has emerged along Detroit’s northern border in Hamtramck, a city of 28,000 residents run by a newly elected, unanimously conservative city council. Hamtramck made national headlines this summer when the council voted to ban the LGBTQ+ Pride flag from city property during Pride Month in June. When two members of Hamtramck’s Human Relations Commission defied the ban by flying the flag above the sidewalk outside City Hall, the Council promptly removed the commissioners from their positions. 

Michigan Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, the first woman of Palestinian descent to serve in the U.S. Congress and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress (along with Ilhan Omar (D-MN)), responded to the situation in Hamtramck on Twitter.  “I can’t imagine how it feels for our LGBTQ+ neighbors in Hamtramck to watch their own elected reps decide their existence doesn’t matter,” she wrote. “This is painful to see in a city that has always fought for equal justice for all. This action divides our communities.”

Hamtramck Mayor Amer Ghalib responded to Tlaib in a statement addressed to “politicians who don’t understand the situation in Hamtramck.” He said those politicians “do not know our city more than we do, and you will not know the consequences of opening the door for every group to fly their flag on city properties. Our residents are all equally important to us, and we will continue to serve them equally without discrimination, favoritism or preferential treatment to any group. The city government will stay NEUTRAL and IMPARTIAL toward its residents.”

Metro Detroit resident Gracie Cadieux told American Independent that Hamtramck’s stance is far from surprising. “It’s been a known fact that the city government is not queer-friendly in the slightest,” Cadieux told the outlet. “There have been multiple instances of the city government, as far as Council members themselves, saying inappropriate things about the queer community, the mayor agreeing with people about inappropriate things about the queer community, and just very open about their hatred of us. So this has just been brewing for a minute.” 

Pride resolution fails in Eastpointe

When Eastpointe, a bedroom community located in the heart of Macomb County, passed its first Pride resolution in 2019, the only thing unsurprising was that it took so long. The city has been solidly blue for decades, turning out a 3 to 1 Clinton vs. Trump vote in 2016 and backing Biden and Gov. Whitmer by a similar margin in 2020. Fast forward to 2023, however, and it appears something has changed. Somehow, Eastpointe’s city council refused to issue a Pride proclamation in 2023 in a 2-2 vote. 

Tiebreaker and Eastpointe Mayor Monique Owens was notably absent from the vote, but her refusal to support the 2019 measure and her milquetoast response to criticism around that decision made it clear that the 2023 resolution was doomed to fail. Owens told Pride Source in 2019, “When this was put on the agenda, I didn’t sleep for a couple days because I didn’t know that we did not accept the LGBTQ community. Because as a family town, we’ve always accepted everybody. I didn’t know we had to make a distinction on what that is.”

After Eastpointe failed to pass a Pride resolution this year, Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott told Pride Source that the decision sent “a clear message that LGBTQ+ people are not welcome, valued and safe in their community. This comes at a time when many LGBTQ+ individuals and families, including queer and trans youth, have been hearing nothing but legislative violence across the country and here in Michigan,” she said. “They are undoubtedly feeling very scared and alone. This is not leadership. This is bigotry and coldness, and it has no place anywhere in Michigan.”

Eastpointe’s Pride resolution may live to see another day, however, as Owens lost Eastpointe’s mayoral primary Aug. 8. In addition to her unpopular moves on the Pride resolution and other right-of-center measures, the outgoing official has been charged with misuse of COVID-19 relief funds. Instead, nearly 60% of voters selected Michael Klinefelt, a Wayne County assistant prosecutor and former Eastpointe councilmember who lost to Owens by only 19 votes in the November 2019 election. He also served as mayor pro tem from 2015-2019. Klinefelt will face off against Mary Hall-Rayford, who received 16.8% of the primary votes.

Livingston County rails against Pride

As Pride Source reported in June, the Livingston County Board of Commissioners ushered in a new policy restricting the promotion of events. Meanwhile, in the nearby Hartland Consolidated School District, the board of education implemented a policy restricting content that can be displayed in classrooms. Both governing bodies were careful not to include language specific to the LGBTQ+ communities, but the coordinated pushback occurred during Pride Month and was immediately applied to LGBTQ+ events and displays. 

The county resolution was brought forward by Commissioner Wes Nakagiri in response to advertisements in the Human Services Collaborative Body’s (HSCB) summer newsletter promoting a June 4 Pride Rally in Brighton and a June 10 Pride March in Howell. The events were not sponsored by the county. Nakagiri claimed the resolution was not discriminatory and was only intended to define the scope of HSCB’s mission to coordinate health and human services. 

Livingston County citizens spoke out forcefully at the contentious meeting. As Pride Source reported, Yvonne Mackle of Hartland called the resolution a “petty abuse of power,” while Connie Conklin, the director of Livingston County’s Community Mental Health and a member of the HSCB, said she was disappointed in the board’s decision, explaining that as a resident of this county, she is “in a position to advocate that this is a great place to work and live, but resolutions like this make it harder to recruit and maintain staff.”

“I didn’t think it would be appropriate for the county to promote Pride events,” Nakagirl said in response, “just like I wouldn’t be supportive of the county promoting NRA events, or the county promoting or supporting the Proud Boys’ events.”

Unsurprisingly, the comparison to a neo-fascist group that promotes political violence and is classed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center did not go over well. One resident noted that the LGBTQ+ community is a “historically and currently oppressed group,” while the Proud Boys is an “outwardly oppressive group.” 

Dearborn site of massive anti-LGBTQ+ rally

Somehow, news of a large, angry rally held in Dearborn last September to protest pro-LGBTQ+ books in Dearborn libraries and high schools failed to garner much national attention, but the event was one of the more egregious displays of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in recent memory. 

As Pride Source reported at the time, a crowd of nearly 400 Arab Americans gathered as an angry mob and descended on the pavilion in front of Dearborn’s Centennial Library on Michigan Avenue on a Sunday afternoon to protest the inclusion of pro-LGBTQ+ books in libraries in Dearborn high schools. Though organizers claimed the event was not about homophobia or an effort to infringe on the rights of LGBTQ+ students, those claims from the stage rang shallow as standing right next to it was a man holding a sign reading, “Stop grooming students, you sexually perverted animals.” At one point, several men surrounded a young adult trans man, shouting “faggot” in his face as police stood by.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the city of Dearborn is onsidering a restriction on flags similar to Hamtramck’s decision. No action has been taken at this time. 

Ottawa County emerges as anti-LGBTQ+ stronghold

In one of the more brazen acts of coordinated anti-LGBTQ+ activity at the governmental level, several of Ottawa County’s county boards have been taken over by activist figures intent on dismantling LGBTQ+ protections and recognition. One such effort involved queer-centered books at Patmos Library in Hudsonville. A group known as Jamestown Conservatives led the charge to defund the library, which is set to close in early 2025. The library issue, which received international attention and private donations from far and wide, including from author Nora Roberts, was only the beginning. 

An influx of far-right county commissioners, sponsored by the group Ottawa Impact, would soon take over county government, immediately dissolving the county Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Office when the new legislative session began in January. Three Ottawa Impact-endorsed candidates took seats on the Patmos Library board and several joined local school boards. Kate Leighton-Colburn, executive director of Out on the Lakeshore, told Pride Source that people in Ottawa County are “scared.” “I think folks are scared, and rightfully so,” Leighton-Colburn said. “I think we’re waiting to see what happens. But as we do, Out on the Lakeshore is trying to provide a space for folks to grieve any changes that are being made and to come together in a place of safety, to support each other through this time. I think folks are just scared about the future.”

Ultimately, under the leadership of new Ottawa County Administrator John Gibbs, the incoming commissioners changed the county motto to “Where Freedom Rings” from the original, “Where You Belong.” The problem, the new board proclaimed, was that the original motto promoted “the divisive, Marxist ideology of the race equity movement.” 

Looking ahead

While sobering, it’s important to remember that these headline-grabbing incidents represent small pockets within an increasingly blue Michigan. Even as far-right ideology has made alarming inroads in some smaller communities, on the whole, the state has emerged as a leader on LGBTQ+ rights issues thanks to a new legislature that has been working methodically on a progressive agenda since January. Not only did Gov. Whitmer enshrine LGBTQ+ civil rights into Michigan’s constitution in March, but the legislature has made moves to eliminate state-supported conversion therapy and to protect same-sex parental rights. 

“As hard as these groups and politicians may try to hurt us and erase us, the simple fact remains that our community has always existed and made significant contributions to our society, and we always will,” Zanotti said. “Now is a time for LGBTQ+ people and allies alike to be there for each other, embrace our differences, and push back against this hostility.”