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Lansing and Kalamazoo Clash over Gay Rights

The state government in Michigan is getting small enough to fit inside City Hall. A bill introduced in the State House in early October challenges a Kalamazoo ordinance protecting LBGT individuals from discriminatory housing and hiring practices.
 
Not long ago Kalamazoo was the sight of national attention. A political action group, OneKalamazoo, faced off against nation-wide religiously-based anti-gay groups like Focus on the Family over Kalamzoo’s ballot initiative, Kalamazoo Ordinance 1856. There were television commercials, flyers, and people calling and knocking to get as many people to vote their way as possible. At the end of the months of energized campaigning, Kalamazoo citizens voted an overwhelming 62 percent in favor of extending anti-discrimination laws within the city to cover sexual orientation and gender identify.
 

A month ago, State Representative Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) introduced House Bill 5039. The bill, introduced October 5, would prohibit school districts, community colleges and cities in Michigan from identifying LBGT individuals as protected classes; any city to have done so already (such as Kalamazoo and several others) would have the law overridden by this bill. Meaning all that time, that effort and those votes would be for nothing.
 
Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell called the bill short-sighted. “It doesn’t create jobs, it doesn’t pave roads, it doesn’t accomplish anything,” said Hopewell.
 
Some other commissioners commented on the importance of Kalamazoo’s non-discrimination ordinance as well; “I think that its young people, talented people, artistic people, weird people, gay people, we’re made up of people who choose to live together,” Vice-Mayor Hannah McKinney remarked during the City Commission Forum last week, “I think we have to be a really welcoming place.”
 
Even Michael Perrin, a candidate unfamiliar with the 1856 Ordinance, expressed his support for it at the forum, saying “You have the right to be who you are, that’s what makes us beautiful, that’s what makes this community beautiful.”
 
Robert Cinabro, who was appointed to the City Commission following the passing of Kalamazoo’s first openly gay commissioner, called the civil rights ordinance in Lansing’s crosshairs the legacy of the commissioner he replaced, and of Kalamazoo.
 
A forthcoming resolution in the Western Student Association opposes this bill and encourages the other fourteen public universities in Michigan to do the same, saying the bill is in direct contrast to the votes of the people of Kalamazoo, and “to the essential morality and common conscience of the students of Western Michigan University”.
 
The issues aren’t only related to the rights of LBGT-identified citizens, however. Michigan respects a concept known as “Municipal Home Rule”, a philosophy of law that states that a city is responsible for all municipal issues, and can govern on those issues. The proposed bill, 5039, calls the Michigan’s relationship with the notion of municipal home rule into question.
 
As of this publication, Representative McMillin declined to comment.
 

OUTspoken President Matthew Vargo put House Bill 5039 in a larger context. He called attention to House Bills 4770 and 4771, which would restrict the right to same-sex partner benefits in Michigan and would prevent teachers from bargaining for those benefits. Where it can be argued that these initiatives save money, no such argument can be made for 5039.
 
Vargo argues that 5039, 4770, 4771 and other acts of the Michigan House illustrate a cuttingly anti-gay agenda in Lansing, one that simply does not speak to the youth population of the state, whom he believes to be far more attuned to the concerns of LBGT-identified individuals.
 
Even more concerning for LBGT youth is Senate Bill 137 which would require schools adopt a bullying policy that would “not prohibit statements of sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction”, a bill that Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer called a “blueprint for bullying”.
                                                                                                                                                                                      
Even if the Western Student Association succeeds in its efforts to unite the public universities against this proposed legislation, Vargo remains concerned about the other acts of the Michigan legislature that target the LBGT community.
 
This marks the third time Kalamazoo’s recognition of LBGT rights will be a question voted upon. The ordinance was initially passed by the City Commission in 2009, but a coalition of opponents (Kalamazoo Citizens Voting No on Special Rights Discrimination) generated 2,088 signatures well surpassing the 1,273 needed to refer something to a popular vote.
 
This initial opposition led to a campaign between those in favor of the expansion of non-discrimination and those against that drew in national supporters from both sides. In the several months between the ballot referral and the vote, television advertisements flyers and yard signs flooded the city as the campaign rolled forward. After an intense fight, Kalamazoo passed its ordinance for a second time.
 
Now, with the Michigan legislature poised to again take away Kalamazoo’s protections of LBGT individuals, Kalamazoo again is on the precipice of a challenge to its stance on what civil rights are and who they belong to, along with cities like Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and East Lansing.
 
In one of the commercials from two years ago, Kalamazoo schoolteacher Narda Beauchamp lamented that two of her daughters, lesbians, felt a need to leave the city and state because of a lack of civil rights protections. She said her family was heartbroken, but, she added, “My husband and I will continue to fight for fairness and equality.” A statement echoed by the OneKalamazoo campaign when all the votes were in.
 
Over a chanting crowd some weeks later, John Hoadley, manager of the OneKalamazoo campaign said “We’re thrilled that the people of Kalamazoo decided to send an overwhelming message of fairness and equality for everybody.”
 
Now, two years later, Michigan might see things go the other way as the ideological pendulum is set in motion once more, and one more time the sides prepare to square off on Kalamazoo’s non-discrimination ordinance. 

Katelyn Kivel is a senior at Western Michigan University studying Public Law with minors in Communications and Women's Studies. Kate took over WMU's branch of Her Campus in large part due to her background in journalism, having spent a year as Production Editor of St. Clair County Community College's Erie Square Gazette. Kate speaks English and Japanese and her WMU involvement includes being a Senator and former Senior Justice of the Western Student Association as well as President of WMU Anime Addicts and former Secretary of WMU's LBGT organization OUTspoken, and she is currently establishing the RSO President's Summit of Western Michigan University, an group composed of student organization presidents for cross-promotion and collaboration purposes. Her interests include reading and writing, both creative and not, as well as the more nerdy fringes of popular culture.
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