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Unlikely Advocates Fight For Gay Rights In Mich. City

The Rev. Bill Freeman reads from a copy of the U.S. Constitution during a public hearing before the Holland City Council in June. Despite appeals from Freeman and others, the council decided not to expand its anti-discrimination laws to include gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Lindsey Smith
The Rev. Bill Freeman reads from a copy of the U.S. Constitution during a public hearing before the Holland City Council in June. Despite appeals from Freeman and others, the council decided not to expand its anti-discrimination laws to include gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Last June, the city council in Holland, Mich., voted against adding sexual orientation and gender identity to its local anti-discrimination laws. Now an unlikely coalition is pressuring the city council to change that vote.

On Wednesday nights, Pastor Bill Freeman turns the podium of the city council meeting into a pulpit. He wants Holland to adopt local laws that would protect people from getting fired or kicked out of their homes because they are gay, bisexual or transgender.

Federal and Michigan laws protect residents from discrimination in housing and employment, but not based on a person's sexuality or gender identity, and Holland's city council rejected modifying the local anti-discrimination law with those specifications. Freeman, married and a father of two, has appeared before the council several times since, urging the council to revisit that decision.

"I think the only thing that might get [the council members] to change their mind is national attention. Not the kind of attention that the City of Holland would like to have when holidays come up and Tulip Time comes up," Freeman says, referring to the city's annual tulip festival.

Holland is a summer tourist town on the shores of Lake Michigan. It's a community known for having a church on almost every corner and sending some of the most conservative lawmakers to Washington. Yet it's some of the town's religious leaders and conservatives who are leading the fight for gay rights.

Whose Right To Decide?

A number of the council members who voted against the changes back in June explain the vote by saying the controversial decision shouldn't rest with the council.

"We can do that with resurfacing, or bridges, but this is really a social issue," says council member Nancy DeBoer, who voted no. "It really involves differences in faith, business ownership, property ownership ... and the social norms."

In the debates leading up to the vote, DeBoer says, she heard compelling, passionate stories and perspectives she would have never otherwise heard.

"This has been a very hard journey for me," she says. "The last thing I want to see in a community that I love is a community that fights with itself."

Several Holland business owners have said they don't want to hire someone who is gay or transgender, much the same as they wouldn't want to hire someone covered with tattoos.

"The fact of the matter is, as a land owner, as a business owner, you also have rights," says Polly Cohen, a landlord in Holland. "I have the right to say, 'I don't want a smoker living in my duplex.' "

Shifting The Town's Image

Cohen's sentiment doesn't surprise Pat Eldean. She and her husband have lived in Holland for close to 40 years. She's a Republican and a business owner — and she's put up a sign in front of her restaurant showing her support for changing the anti-discrimination law. She's not worried about driving away customers.

"I think we lose business for various reasons, and if I did, so be it," she says, "but this is how I believe. This is my core value, is equality."

The Piper Restaurant even hosted a fundraising gala in October for a new organization that's pushing city council members to change their vote. The group, known as Until Love Is Equal, was founded by Erin Wilson. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three kids.

"There are economic concerns for West Michigan, like attracting and retaining youth, customers coming here and feeling good about spending their money here," he says. "So we've got an image problem, and it traces back to a very small number of people who've got loud voices, who are clouding and murking up the water for the rest of us, and that's why we're here."

Coalition Building

Western Michigan could be considered the Bible Belt of the Midwest, but Wilson points out that Grand Rapids — 30 miles east of Holland — passed the same anti-discrimination laws back in 1994, the same year as San Francisco. Plus, Saugatuck, Douglas and Kalamazoo — all cities less than an hour away from Holland — have passed them, too.

Until Love Is Equal is compiling a list of businesses like The Piper Restaurant that support the anti-discrimination law. The list includes some of Holland's top employers, like furniture makers Haworth and Herman Miller.

Meanwhile, Freeman faces a $500 fine and up to 90 days in the county jail because he refused to leave Holland City Hall after a council meeting in October.

"I'm an eternal optimist. I mean, I stay around to the end of these meetings hoping somebody will say, 'You know, Freeman makes a good point. I'll change my vote,'" he says. "Whether I'll be giving up more than just my Wednesday evenings will be up to the judge, I suppose."

Freeman's attorney advised him against saying whether he plans to hold another sit-in at Holland City Hall. He says if he does, this time he won't be alone.

Copyright 2011 Michigan Radio

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