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U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib visited the Ruth Ellis Center Feb. 21 for the second time, to hear from faith leaders and LGBTQ youth about the importance of LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. The visit, which drew an invited crowd of about 20, was sponsored by Inclusive Justice, a statewide Michigan faith organization dedicated to addressing LGBTQ inclusion issues within the faith community. Tlaib received a warm welcome.
“We celebrate your victory,” said Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church – Detroit and a board member of Inclusive Justice. “We are so grateful to have a champion for human rights representing us. We wanted to share some of our stories with you so as you continue to be that champion, you have some real-life examples.”
The afternoon’s first speaker, Frank Love, who first started attending REC activities as a youth some 10 years ago and now sits on the Ruth Ellis Center board, recounted a story of discrimination and the impact it had upon him.
“I was walking to school and there were a group of football players,” he said. “We were right in front of the school and they robbed me. The school said they couldn’t do anything because technically, we were not on school property. [We had a]feeling of that’s just not right [and] nothing ever happened. That’s the kind of discrimination that we still face in high school now.”
Blair Keys spoke, too. He now works at the center as a peer leader, but said that when he first came to the center he was in a lot of pain.
“I used to be ashamed for being gay,” Keys recalled. “I used to hate myself for it. But once I found Ruth Ellis though, I learned to accept myself for who I am.”
REC Executive Director Jerry Peterson shared thoughts, too, about the current political climate and its perceived impact on the Ruth Ellis Center’s work. He said that people have approached him recently, mistakenly thinking that the youth attending REC’s programming have been especially affected negatively by the nation’s current political discourse.
“The reality is, what I think it’s important to realize, is that many of the gains that have been made by the LGBT community in general have largely affected white, middle class, mainstream people. The truth is, things are bad for the people here and it’s worse because people feel more emboldened,” Peterson said. “But they have never improved in the ways that the general populace thinks that they have improved for people who are oppressed in so many aspects of their identity.”
During Tlaib’s address, she emphasized that she’s looking for ways to answer, “How do I bring your voices to D.C. with me? Because that seems to be the disconnect sometimes. I repeat a lot of your stories.”
She then elaborated on that thought with a written statement.
“I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with young people and members of the clergy to discuss the discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people face all too often here in Michigan and across the country,” the statement read. “Today, I heard from my constituents loud and clear: Discrimination or fear of discrimination from a lack of protections disadvantages LGBT Michiganders every day and impacts their lives in so many areas.”
Faith leaders in attendance included Rabbi Alana Alpert of Detroit Jews for Justice, who spoke briefly; Pastor Lindsey Anderson, Detroit Cooperative Church; Pastor Matthew Bode, Zion Lutheran Church of Ferndale; Rev. Michael V. Johnson; Linda and Tom Karle Nelson, from Fortunate Families Detroit; and Pastor Jeffrey Ognowski, from Iroquois Avenue Lutheran Church in Detroit.
“This conversation was part of a broader, year-long effort across Michigan and the United States to raise awareness about anti-LGBT discrimination and demand urgent action,” Stringfellow said. “For far too long LGBT Michiganders have endured discrimination without the guarantee of explicit federal and state protections, and that needs to change. We’re thankful for lawmakers like Rep. Rashida Tlaib and are hopeful that LGBT people nationwide will share their stories and ask for action from other policy-makers.”