Kalamazoo votes Tuesday on gay rights ordinance

KALAMAZOO, MI – On Tuesday, Kalamazoo voters will decide whether to keep a city ordinance protecting gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. It prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodations. It's being challenged by a group that says gay activists are seeking special rights.

It's a fight that's played in more than two dozen Michigan communities in recent years - especially since 2004, when voters approved a ban on gay marriage, civil unions, and same-sex domestic partner benefits for public employees.

Hamtramck voters rejected a gay rights ordinance last year. The Jackson city council rejected one in August. But 16 Michigan cities and townships have adopted gay rights ordinances.

In June, the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously approved the gay rights ordinance. Twenty days later, opponents turned in enough signatures to put the question to voters if the council did not rescind it. Now, it's on Tuesday's ballot.

Charles Ybenga is a leader of the Kalamazoo Citizens Voting No campaign. He says Kalamazoo's gay rights ordinances could force women to share locker and changing rooms with cross-dressing men, and allow discrimination against groups like the Boy Scouts. The Scouts don't allow gay men to be scoutmasters.

"There's the unintended consequences here that these are discriminatory, that are privacy rights issues here, that organizations around the country have experienced discrimination because of them, and individuals. So that's the other side of it," Ybenga says.

Jon Hoadley is the campaign manager of One Kalamazoo, which supports the ordinance.

"If you're supporting full equality and you're supporting gay and transgender people, then you need to vote yes," Hoadley says. "The issue just isn't that complicated. At the end of the day, it's really about what type of a city are we trying to build in Kalamazoo, and it's who are we inviting in and are there people who are saying, You're not welcome because you're gay or transgender?'"

One Kalamazoo has a clear money advantage. Campaign finance reports show One Kalamazoo has outfundraised Kalamazoo Citizens Voting No by 10 to one.

The two volumes that make One Kalamazoo's campaign fundraising and spending report stack up almost three inches tall.

The Kalamazoo Citizens Voting No report is a lot smaller.

Most of the money for both campaigns has come from Kalamazoo and the Kalamazoo area. But One Kalamazoo has also attracted financial support from across the country. Local billionaire Jon Stryker -- also a big Democratic Party donor - has plunked down at least 53 thousand dollars in direct and in-kind support.

One Kalamazoo canvasser Daryl Watson is knocking on doors in Kalamazoo. Watson, who is gay, says he is detecting a shift in attitudes. He says even the language that people use is changing.

"We're finding folks who are not afraid to say that this is what we're fighting for gay and transgendered people and then it resonates with so many people at the door and we don't have to code the language. We're saying very clearly that we're fighting for basic protections for gay folks," Watson says.

MPRN's Rick Pluta asks him, "You said code the language.' What does that mean?"

"Instead of saying maybe gender expression' or sexual orientation' - things like that that can be very academic. We want to make it very clear in words that other people are using so they know we're on the same side. That's why we say gay' and transgendered,'" Watson says.

A state lawmaker says attitudes have shifted enough that she thinks Michigan will soon be ready to re-visit the 2004 amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions.
Democratic Representative Pam Byrnes.

"What I have noticed and what people are telling me is that it's affecting people that they know, so it's not an abstract third person any more," Byrnes says. "It's a family member. It's a neighbor down the street. It's somebody that they know and they know they're not bad people."

The Kalamazoo vote will be a test of her theory.

Byrnes says she will sponsor a resolution soon to put a proposal on a statewide ballot to reverse the amendment banning gay marriage. Byrnes acknowledges getting something on next year's ballot is unlikely. But some gay rights activists think they might be able to get a question onto the ballot in 2012.

(Thanks to WMUK for assistance in preparing this report.)