Across the country, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities celebrated two big victories. First, Illinois became the 15th state to recognize same-sex marriages. Then, the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
On Election Day, the LGBTQ population of Southeast Michigan was celebrating their own victory. The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak voted in favor of a human rights ordinance to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation. Now, there are 30 cities in Michigan with similar ordinances.
Without an organized right-wing opposition, the protections would have gone into effect in March. The City Commission passed the ordinance with a 5-1 vote. Its implementation was only stayed when opponents collected enough signatures to put the measure to a vote. They deceptively asked voters to help put a human rights ordinance on the ballot, not telling voters that the ordinance was already part of city law and that they intended to overturn it.
Undaunted, LGBTQ activists and allies formed “One Royal Oak” to campaign for a victory at the polls.
This was not an easy fight, despite Royal Oak’s liberal reputation and large LGBTQ community. The opposition recycled the tired argument that merely protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination was establishing “special rights” — just as opponents of affirmative action raise the ludicrous charge of “reverse racism.” Their lawn signs claimed a “no” vote on the ordinance — Proposal A on the ballot — was “against discrimination.”
Right-wing libertarian arguments that the ordinance was a violation of property rights were advanced — in other words, would-be discriminators were being denied the “right” to fire LGBTQ people from their jobs, evict them from their homes or kick them out of a restaurant.
Most of all, the bigots played their trump card of appealing to anti-trans bigotry, claiming that “men dressed as women” would be going into women’s bathrooms and preying on young girls.
Hundreds of volunteers signed up to counter the lies and slander and secure a “yes” vote. Local small businesses, unions and progressive churches made donations. The Detroit Metro AFL-CIO, Michigan AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers and rank-and-file unionists assisted in the campaign. Equality Michigan, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and other LGBTQ advocacy groups provided staff. They understood that a loss in Royal Oak would set back efforts to win statewide anti-discrimination protections here, where it is legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
A large percentage of the volunteers were youth — high school and college students as well as young workers — of all races, nationalities and sexual/gender identities.
Night after night and on every weekend, all the way up to the hour that the polls closed, the tedious work of phone-banking and knocking on doors went on. Volunteers explained to supportive voters that this would be a close election — due to the aggressive and misleading opposition campaign — and their “yes” vote was crucial. Other times, callers successfully convinced voters on the fence that they needed to vote “yes” to protect their LGBTQ neighbors from mistreatment.
On Nov. 5, with the polls closed and the final results in, we drank a toast to victory when we learned that Proposal A had won by almost 1,000 votes.
Martha Grevatt was a labor volunteer with One Royal Oak.