Grand Rapids LGBT History: Equal Rights and the Religious Right in West MI
It has become clear over the past 9 months while working on this People’s History of the LGBTQ community in Grand Rapids, that one of the main obstacles to achieving equality and justice has been the deeply conservative religious forces in West Michigan.
In looking through the archives of the Network News, we came across an article in 1988 during the early organized efforts to gain legal rights for the LGBTQ community. The article was a re-print from the September 1988 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine, which reflected the views of one of the most visible voices from the religious right in West Michigan.
The article cites Jeff Swanson as saying, “Gay people receive all the equal rights they’re entitled to unless someone knows they’re Gay.” Network President Gwen DeJong echoes those sentiments and adds that for Lesbian women it is even more risky to be out and a woman.
To counter these notions, the article then cites Richard DeVos Sr. (then CEO of Amway). “If you are out of it (the mainstream), you’re out of it because you choose to be out of it. I don’t think it’s because you are legislated out of it. You get active, get your gang together, and you’ll be heard.”
It seems that DeVos’ understanding of civil rights were a bit simplistic in 1988. However, even after people from the LGBTQ community got active, got their “gang together” and fought for equal rights DeVos and his fellow religious conservatives were not content to let these gains go by without a challenge.
One section of the film to be screened on November 17 is based on people’s response to the reality of having a very powerful religious right in West Michigan. Numerous people we interviewed acknowledged the power that these religious conservatives have in this community. They have used their influence to pressure politicians one everything from local ordinances to state and national legislation. We learned that when LGBT faculty and staff at GVSU organized for domestic partner benefits in the mid-90s their efforts were defeated because wealthy men like Peter Cook threatened to withhold funding (based on those we interviewed for this history project) for the new medical school being proposed from Grand Rapids if domestic partner benefits were granted.
In addition to what people had to say about their experiences of the backlash from the religious right we did some additional research by looking at the 990s of some of the most powerful anti-gay sectors in West Michigan to see who they were giving money to during the 1990s when lots of LGBT organizing was happening locally. We discovered that several influential families (DeVos and Prince) were giving millions to groups that had an anti-gay agenda and were financing campaigns in the state and around the country to defeat efforts for greater equality.
This kind of financing of anti-gay efforts continues in the present with the DeVos family providing money to defeat an effort of marriage equality in Michigan in 2004 and Florida in 2008.
It seems clear that the fight for greater equality in the LGBTQ community has and continues to be met with serious resistance from the religious right. This is not only and important part of the local LGBTQ history, but should inform any current organizing efforts to achieve justice and equality.
Join us for the premier screening of A People’s History of the LGBTQ community in Grand Rapids, on Thursday, November 17 beginning at 6:30PM in the Loosemore auditorium of GVSU’s downtown campus.