Royal Oak— Supporters of Royal Oak’s human rights ordinance hope the growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people can be translated into a win at the polls next week, 12 years after city voters decisively rejected a similar measure.
Opponents say the proposal actually promotes discrimination against non-LGBT individuals, and they contend Royal Oak does not need an additional law protecting human rights.
The human rights ordinance, which will appear on the general election ballot as Proposal A, is one of the most contentious issues up for a vote in Metro Detroit on Nov. 5.
The ordinance, which features broad-ranging language and includes many groups in addition to the LGBT community, was approved in March by a city commission vote of 6-1. However, opponents collected enough petition signatures to keep the ordinance from taking effect, forcing it onto the ballot.
City Commissioner David Poulton, the lone dissenting vote in March, said he is glad voters will decide the issue.
“When we did a survey of city residents, people overwhelmingly said we are a tolerant, diverse, cosmopolitan city,” said Poulton. “I don’t think by enacting an ordinance it’s going to do anything, because we are already a welcoming city.”
The ballot language asks voters whether or not they wish to amend the city code to “prohibit discrimination based upon actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, height, weight, condition of pregnancy, marital status, physical or mental limitation, source of income, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.”
The new law also would provide for penalties against violators.
Mayor Jim Ellison, who supports Proposal A, said the city needs the ordinance to protect the rights of all individuals and provide an avenue for relief if someone feels they’ve been unfairly targeted.
“Royal Oak has gotten a reputation as a tolerant city,” said Ellison. “If we pass this ordinance, we are showing we are tolerant by civil action.”
The ordinance is similar to those adopted in Birmingham, Ferndale, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. In all, 29 communities in Michigan have similar laws. State and federal laws prohibit discrimination based on race, age, gender and disability, but do not specifically include those in the LGBT community.
The group Just Royal Oak, led by Fadwa Gillanders, says there is no need for the ordinance.
“This ordinance is a solution to create a problem that’s not already there,” said Gillanders, a pharmacist. “When they use the word discrimination, they are using the definition of hate, but if we stick with that definition, then this ordinance would be reverse discrimination.”
Gillanders said the group is focusing on five key issues that members believe the ordinance would affect: safety and privacy, freedom of speech, property rights for people who don’t want to rent to certain individuals, the use of the word “perceived” in the ordinance language and how that can be interpreted, and whether HIV-positive people would be able to donate blood.
“You can’t take transsexual rights and put those ahead of the rest of the community,” said Gillanders.
Ordinance opponents have been sending mailers and going door-to-door to pass out fliers. They’ve stopped talking with neighbors after several instances where fights nearly broke out and they feared being assaulted, said Gillanders.
David Sims, a Royal Oak resident for 27 years, said he believes the ordinance is an overstep.
“There isn’t a problem, it’s just an agenda that’s not necessary for the function of the local government,” he said.
A group that supports the ordinance, One Royal Oak, has said Just Royal Oak is using scare tactics to spread false information about what the ordinance would do.
As a city commissioner from 1999 to 2003, Jeanne Sarnacki witnessed what happened in 2001, when city residents defeated a similar human rights proposal 2-to-1 in a low-turnout election.
“Our nation has evolved since then,” said Sarnacki, a volunteer with One Royal Oak. “Our gay, lesbian and transgender friends, neighbors, relatives have made themselves known and we realize they are a part of our community.”
Attitudes toward the LGBT community appear to be changing, with Maine, Maryland and Washington state voters legalizing gay marriage last November.
Ordinance supporters have been making phone calls to residents, passing out lawn signs and canvassing neighborhoods on weekends.
Royal Oak resident and volunteer Preston Van Vliet, 23, said the push to pass the ordinance has become personal.
“Knowing that there are some folks in Royal Oak who are holding their partner’s hand in a restaurant and getting kicked out, it demonstrates that there is an issue here,” said Van Vliet, a transgender individual who identifies as a man. “There should be consequences when certain groups of people are discriminated against.”