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Royal Oak LGBT vote could be nail-biter

Kate Wells
Michigan Radio
Supporters of the proposal in an election war room in Royal Oak

On Tuesday, Royal Oak will be the latest city in Michigan to decide whether discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people should be illegal.

Both sides say it’s going to be thisclose, with voters split just about down the middle.

Opponents of the proposal are plenty motivated – just the fact that Royal Oak is having this vote is because of their hustle.

It’s their ability to collect more than the required 746 petitions that put this on the ballot in the first place.

Group says vote “no” to protect Royal Oak’s businesses

Royal Oak’s proposal includes exceptions for churches and religious organizations.

But that’s not enough, says Dr. Fadwa Gillanders. She’s a pharmacist who heads up justroyaloak.org, a site dedicated to defeating the proposal.  

“There are hundreds of businesses being sued where these ordinances are in place,” she says.

"[Discrimination] is one or two cases, or no cases, where somebody had a bad story about their job or didn't get their job."

Gillanders says the amendment to the civil rights law would bring a tidal wave of lawsuits to Royal Oak – a worry she says far outweighs any housing or employment discrimination the LGBT community may be facing.

“[Discrimination] is one or two cases, or no cases, where somebody had a bad story about their job or didn’t get their job.”

While there’s no evidence of “hundreds” of such lawsuits against businesses, they do exist.

An Iowa wedding venue and a photographer in New Mexico are both being sued for declining to serve same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Both states have protections for the LGBT community on the books.

And just last year, Eastern Michigan University settled a suit with a graduate student the school expelled from their counseling program because she didn’t want to counsel a gay client.  

Does protecting “gender identity” lead to sex crimes?

Gillanders’ organization is also fearful of adding “gender identity” to Royal Oak’s anti-discrimination law.

She says it would force schools to allow boys to use girls’ bathrooms, even if it results in harassment.  

"There are a lot...of men coming in and taking pictures under the stalls, of masturbating in front of little girls."

“There are a lot of bathroom cases of men coming in and taking pictures under the stalls, of masturbating in front of little girls,” says Gillanders, when asked why she opposes the proposal’s protections against discrimination based on “gender identity.”

The brunt of that argument seems to be based on one debunked story that came from a school in Colorado.

Meanwhile, California and Massachusetts have statewide laws allowing for accommodations to be made for transgender students.

Those laws do not appear to have resulted in legitimate harassment complaints.

Nor does Royal Oak’s proposal make sexual harassment legal.

LGBT tolerance is “already very high,” so why force changes?

Gillanders allows that there may be times when gay, lesbian or transgender people are being unfairly fired or denied housing because of their sexual orientation.

But she says it’s becoming a thing of the past.

“I didn’t say [discrimination] is not existing. The tolerance level of the LGBT is very high,” she says.

“[But] the only way you can prevent discrimination is allow free association and allow businesses to adjust to their employee’s needs.”

But supporters say the LGBT community is being denied their civil rights, and should have the same legal protections as other communities.

Yet Gillanders says it’s not an issue of civil rights.

“No, I don’t believe it should be a civil right, [The LGBT community] is already protected on the basis of their sex, their gender,” she says.

"And how can it be an immutable right, when there are tons of cases of people not being gay any more?"

“And how can it be an immutable right, when there are tons of cases of people not being gay any more? How can it be [a civil right] when we have cases of homosexuals showing that they’ve changed?”

From downtown war room, supporters rush to get out the “yes” vote

Tucked behind a tiny craft shop on a downtown corner, supporters of the proposal are huddled in a drafty warehouse that’s serving as a makeshift war room.

Space heaters are on full blast as volunteers hunch over glowing laptop screens. They’re cranking out cold calls and living off take-out deliveries.

Emily Dievendorf is leading up the charge.

“None of the terrible things our opposition is claiming will happen has happened in any of the places that we have had these non-discrimination polices in place,” she says, referring to the couple dozen other Michigan cities who’ve already passed identical proposals.

Dievendorf is the managing director of Equality Michigan.

As the public face of the state’s only major LGBT advocacy group, she rattles off statistics and talking points with a practiced patter.

"None of the terrible things our opposition is claiming will happen has happened."

Scare tactics, she says, are all too common in the debate over Royal Oak’s anti-discrimination proposal.

“Those terrible things will remain illegal,” says Dievendorf.  “And transgender citizens will merely be able to express their gender in the way that they have always expressed their gender. And just be who they are. And that is not something that we should be afraid of, and it violates no laws.”

National LGBT groups send reinforcements to Royal Oak

A small handful of young 30-something staffers from national organizations like the Gay Straight Alliance Network have flown in this past weekend to offer their political expertise to the Royal Oak campaign.

“It isn’t so much that Royal Oak is bigger deal [than other cities that have considered this proposal],” says Diefendorf.

But the stakes are higher here, since opponents have been able to actually put the proposal on the ballot. “Not every city forces us to protect the non-discrimination proposal,” Dievendorf says. 

“There is a lot of misinformation out there. All this ordinance does is provide the same protections to the gay and transgendered residents that are already provided to the rest of Royal Oak. It doesn’t require that you change your beliefs. All it does is offer protections for all Royal Oak citizens in housing and employment and in public spaces."

With so little teeth behind it, is LGBT ordinance worth the battle?

Even if it passes on Tuesday, the proposal may not have much weight behind it.

Lawsuits citing the ordinance are rare, almost unheard of, in other Michigan cities.

At worst, violators face a $1,000 fine and a legal slap on the wrist.

But at least it’s better than nothing, says Dievendorf.

“The non-discrimination policies offer legal recourse where there are none. The state of Michigan provides no protections for the LGBT community from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. And our local governments are stepping up to the plate to protect their citizens.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story was not as clear as it should have been regarding the alleged report from a Colorado school that a transgender student was harassing female students in the restroom. That story originated in religious media and was picked up by other media outlets but was never confirmed and in fact remains in some doubt after the school investigated. According to the school superintendent it was based on the accusation of one parent. Michigan Radio regrets not being as clear in our writing as we should have been.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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