Transgender Sparta Twp. candidate fights for support

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Gidget Groendyk, right, enjoys a cup of coffee with her mother, Bonnie Langfors. Groendyk is campaigning to become a township trustee.

Sparta Township— For Gidget Groendyk, every day seems to bring a flurry of indignities big and small.

She has been beaten, vandalized and driven out of business. Longtime friends shun her. Relatives have stopped talking to her.

Groendyk, 45, responded to the abuse in a public way, becoming one of the first transgender people to run for public office in Michigan, according to the Transgender Michigan advocacy group.

Her bid for township trustee will be decided Aug. 2. She’s one of six candidates for four seats.

“It’s not fair. It’s not right,” she said about her treatment. “I’m still a human being. I’m not an animal. I deserve dignity and respect.”

Instead of being cowed by rejection, Groendyk seems emboldened by it, said friends. She responds to perceived slights with formal complaints and lawsuits.

While she has had mixed success in past fights, her latest battle may be her toughest one yet.

After all, she’s seeking support from the same people she said discriminated against her.

“It’s not for me,” resident Gary Winslow, 48, said about Groendyk’s transition. “It’s a fad like everything else. Things can be carried too far.”

Among those opposed to Groendyk are members of her family.

Her father and sister are disgusted by her transition, said Groendyk. Her aunt told her she makes an ugly woman.

They declined comment for this story.

As for Sparta, a farm town north of Grand Rapids with 4,200 residents, it’s hard to imagine a less inviting place for a transgender political candidate, Groendyk said with a laugh. She lives there to take care of her elderly mom.

“It’s like Hazzard County,” she said, referring to the rural Georgia setting in “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show.

The farm town north of Grand Rapids harkens to a simpler time.

The whole community turns out for the Town & Country Days fair every July, enjoying the rodeo, tractor pull, hay bale toss and cattle show on a downtown youth baseball field.

They attend nine churches in a village of 4,200 residents. The welcome sign reads: “What a neighborhood should be.”

Even residents sympathetic to Groendyk struggle to grasp her transition.

“It’s hard for me to understand,” said Dale Bergman, 64, the longtime township supervisor and onetime farmer. “I understand gays and homosexuals, but not that.”

Gidget Groendyk in front of her now closed-down salon Studio G.

Groendyk grew up among these rustling cornfields and apple orchards.

Back then she was Scott Langford, an awkward teen who felt he didn’t fit in with the boys or girls.

She began her transition in 2010 and legally changed her name two years later.

Groendyk is her mom’s maiden name. Gidget was suggested by a friend looking for something alliterative.

Groendyk didn’t know about Gidget, the boy-crazy surfer girl in novels, movies and a TV series.

Now that she does, she thinks it’s a fitting name.

“She was always getting into trouble, just like me,” she said.

Groendyk has grown out her hair but muted other changes. She wears little makeup and “gender neutral” clothes like pants and sweaters.

She said she doesn’t want locals to feel uncomfortable.

Residents know about Groendyk’s transition but most still refer to her with male pronouns and her old name.

Groendyk was having coffee with her mom last week at Maxine’s restaurant, where a wall contains the Pledge of Allegiance surrounded by dozens of photos of residents who served in the military.

Bonnie Groendyk, 75, remains friendly with Gidget but doesn’t like to discuss her transition.

During their conversation, Bonnie repeatedly referred to Gidget by her old name.

“He was named Scott Langford and that’s how it’s going to stay,” she said.

Groendyk’s hardships

Having her family fail to acknowledge her transition isn’t the only way Groendyk has been hurt.

When she was living in nearby Plainfield Township last year, she left her home one morning to find a gay slur spray-painted on the hood and driver’s door of her VW Beetle, according to the Kent County Sheriff’s Office.

Also last year, when she walked out to the car to get a pack of cigarettes during dusk she was struck in the back of the head.

She lost consciousness and awoke with a concussion, a bloody head, two loosened teeth and scratches on her chest, said the sheriff’s office.

No one was arrested in the incidents.

“It’s like a curse,” she said about the abuse. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Groendyk’s transition also decimated her hairdressing businesses.

After trying her hand at selling high-end tools and working at a collision shop, she opened a beauty salon in 2010.

Hiring the most popular stylists from other shops, Studio G was an immediate hit.

All five chairs in the small, standalone brick building were full all the time, said workers. The doors sometimes stayed open until midnight.

Cars filled the parking lot, spilling onto the lots of neighboring businesses, much to their consternation.

Groendyk had told a few friends and relatives about her transition, and the news somehow spread around town.

In 2011, she received a call from the wife of longtime barber Jim Harmon.

Groendyk had earlier bought Harmon’s thriving barber shop, with Harmon continuing to work there.

Betty Harmon, 72, was furious. She told Groendyk she had heard of her transition and it was an embarrassment, not only for Groendyk’s family but for Harmon’s family as well.

The next day Jim Harmon came into work and quit.

Groendyk doesn’t have a barber’s license so she eventually closed the business in 2012.

Betty Harmon told The Detroit News recently that Groendyk had deceived the Harmons by failing to tell them about the transition.

“I had no idea what he was, how he lived,” she said.

But she denied the transition was the reason for her husband’s sudden retirement. She said he quit because of his age, 70.

She said the timing of the resignation right after the phone call was just a coincidence.

“I’m Catholic. The pope says we’re supposed to love everyone,” she said. “But I can’t say I love him. I don’t approve of him.”

Meanwhile, customers at Studio G also were hearing whispers about Groendyk.

The salon lost half its customers over several months in 2012. Stylists began quitting because their clients wouldn’t come to the salon.

Business continued to drop until a place that once had 800 customers was down to 10.

After business continued to drop, Groendyk sold the salon in January of this year.

“I never thought it would be like this,” she said about the fallout. “I never thought I would be ousted.”

Fierce pushback

After the beating and vandalism last year, Groendyk learned there were no local laws protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination.

She decided to run for township trustee so she could push for such an ordinance.

Trustee races involve little campaigning. Most candidates for the $1,200-a-year job just put up yard signs.

Groendyk recently erected her placards, which list her last name in large letters.

The name is well known in Sparta because her grandfather’s grocery store, Groendyk’s, was the only one in town for two decades.

But some voters feel she has brought shame to the name.

“Omg don’t corrupt our beautiful village with the big city (blank)!!!” Gail Allcock wrote on Groendyk’s Facebook page below a news story about her candidacy.

Gail Allcock, 46, who went to high school with Groendyk, told The News there’s no need for a nondiscrimination law.

She said she had nothing personal against Groendyk.

“I don’t care what they do,” she said about transgender people. “They have to answer to God, not me. God help him.”

One of Groendyk’s opponents in the trustee race is Chad Momber, who owns a towing company.

Momber, 44, who has known Groendyk since childhood, doesn’t think she’s serious about running for office.

He also doubts she has changed genders, or experienced discrimination.

She’s running for office and pretending those things happened to her because she loves attention, he said.

“Every time I talk to him, there’s a lot of turmoil, a lot of drama,” Momber said.

Fighting for her identity

Winning an election is one thing. Making a living is another.

When business plummeted at the beauty salon, Groendyk looked around for other work.

She applied for numerous jobs as a firefighter, paralegal, car salesman, substitute teacher but was turned down.

“It’s really hard not to take some of this stuff personally,” she said.

She was finally hired in January as a group home caregiver for Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

She also got a second, part-time caregiver job for a religious health group, which she asked not be identified. When she finished training for the group last month, her employer asked her to cut her hair and retake a training class.

Like most states, Michigan requires transgender women to have sex reassignment surgery to be legally acknowledged as female. Groendyk is saving money for the $25,000 operation.

During the week before her retraining, she tried to get a haircut but couldn’t make herself do it, even driving to a hair salon but staying in her car.

Her hair, which had taken two years to grow out, was part of her identity. Cutting it would erase her transition.

When she returned for training, she combed her hair into a ponytail.

Her employer didn’t say anything. She began the job late last month.

“The stuff I’m asking for is so simple,” she said. “If other people don’t want to get a haircut, they don’t get one. If they want to wear a dress, they wear one.”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell