by Jessica Carreras
TRAVERSE CITY – A decade-old battle has been resurrected in Traverse City to pass a human rights ordinance protecting LGBT people from discrimination in the northern Michigan summer vacation hot spot.
A draft of the ordinance, which reads similarly to versions passed in close to 20 other Michigan cities, was brought before the City Commission Aug. 9, stirring up old arguments that, during similar talks about diversity and equality in 2000-2001, divided the community. But efforts to complete the ordinance and bring it to a vote, say Human Rights Commission and City Commission members, have been silently underway for over six months.
A quiet battle for equality
Openly gay City Commissioner Jim Carruthers presented his intent to pass the ordinance to the city’s Human Rights Commission in early 2010. Carruthers, who is serving his first term on the commission, saw it as a chance to promote equality in the city for his community. “People are going to start arguing that I’m pushing my gay agenda,” he admits. “Well, of course I’m pushing my gay agenda while I’m in office. That’s part of who I am.”
Carruthers and the Human Rights Commission decided to draft the ordinance based off of what they saw as a successful, competent campaign in Kalamazoo, which passed its anti-discrimination law in 2009 – first by the City Commission and then, after being forced to the ballot, by voters.
“We liked what they did in Kalamazoo,” says Human Rights Commission member Marshall Pensky, a lifelong Traverse City vacationer and two-year full time resident who is leading the march as an ally. “It seemed to make a lot of sense. It was a good ordinance and so we started with that as our template.”
The Human Rights Commission, adds Pensky, has already met several times over the past few months to discuss and tweak ordinance language. Their meeting with the City Commission, however, produced even more obstacles – the most difficult of which is how violations of the ordinance will be enforced and paid for. Several commissioners, including the most outspoken opponent, Michael Gillman, voiced concerns that the city had neither the money, nor the time, to prosecute ordinance violations.
Pensky said the Human Rights Commission is willing to bend on that, and will consider changing the language to stipulate that violations must be prosecuted by attorneys hired by those who were discriminated against.
But despite receiving flack at the meeting, both Pensky and Carruthers believe that they have secured the four votes necessary on the seven-member City Commission to pass the ordinance, which Pensky insists is on the fast track to becoming law.
This isn’t the first time Traverse City LGBT and allied residents have made a push for diversity and equality, nor is it Carruthers’ first swing at things.
Talks about a possible ordinance in early 2000 spurred the American Family Association and its Michigan-based leader Gary Glenn to push for a referendum on the ballot that would prohibit creation of any law in Traverse City aiming to provide what the AFA considered “special protections” for LGBT citizens and visitors to the area. The ballot initiative failed at first, but eventually made it onto the ballot and was struck down in 2001 by 60 percent of voters.
Chaos erupted in late 2000 when then-City Commissioner and eventual Mayor Margaret Dodd proposed and successfully got approved a rainbow bumper sticker that read “We are T.C.” The sticker was an LGBT-supportive move spurred by a hate crime committed against an employee of the city’s only gay bar, Sidetraxx, in September of that year.
On Jan. 2, 2001, under pressure from city residents, the City Commission voted to nix the stickers, although they can still be found on some cars.
Carruthers, who worked for HIV/AIDS Wellness Networks at the time, helped in the fight to put the stickers on city and personal vehicles, as well as to prevent the anti-gay charter amendment. Though the battles of the past were equally won and lost and fought voraciously by local and national anti-gay forces, he insists that this time will be more successful – but not without obstacles.
“I think Traverse City has grown and gotten more progressive and more open to everyone’s rights,” Carruthers notes. “I think we want to carve the message out that it’s about civil protections and civil rights.”
But in the current ordinance effort, there have been signs pointing both ways. Both Mayor Chris Bzdok and Commissioners Barbara Budros and Mary Ann Moore openly support the ordinance. Mayor Bzdok even wrote about it in his blog, www.planfortc.com, urging residents to lend their support as well and explaining how it will benefit the city.
“Traverse City is already a fairly open and tolerant city,” he wrote. “The ordinance will codify into law values that I believe already predominate here.”
However, anti-gay residents – many of them the same outspoken voices heard a decade ago – have already begun sounding the alarm.
An e-mail was forwarded Aug. 10 to City Manager Ben Bifoss with the subject line “Proposed Homosexual Rights Protection Ordinance” from resident Paul Napote – a known opponent of gay rights – urging recipients to voice their opinions against the ordinance to city commissioners, and to Bifoss as well.
Bifoss says he has only received two phone calls so far, but Carruthers is expecting more of a backlash soon.
Pensky is equally pensive about how Traverse City residents will react. “I think it is a good city and people here are trying to be more progressive,” he said. “I feel like it’s changing in its attitudes, but we’ll see.”
Moving toward equality
Despite the outspoken anti-gay presence known to still lurk in Traverse City, Carruthers and Pensky agree that the overall view of residents is more inclusive than ever before.
Their evidence? A history of gay Pride festivals and events, the most recent being a “Gay and Lesbian life in Traverse City” conference held last year. The willingness of city commissioners to be public allies is another indicator. The survival of gay bar Sidetraxx in a downtown overrun with pubs, clubs and watering holes shows that the community still exists. A surprising history of several out city officials, including former Commissioner and Mayor Peter Taylor, who came out after resigning, and former Commissioner and current Director of Downtown Development Brian Crowe, who even held his wedding in Traverse City.
But Carruthers remarked that the real test will probably come down to voters. Napote has already threatened to do a ballot referendum, and is likely to succeed. And what do gay rights supporters say to that? Bring it on.