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Holland City Council Rejects Equality for LGBT Peoples in Housing, Employment

June 18, 2011

Wednesday the Holland City Council voted 5-4 to defeat a recommendation to draft a change to the city’s Non-Discrimination Ordinances and Equal Employment Opportunity Policy, adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the categories which it is illegal to discriminate against in housing or employment.

The council meeting can be viewed, in its five plus hour entirety, here (

The measure, if drafted and passed, would have protected gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals from discrimination by landlords and employers when looking for housing or getting a job (click on the proposal here). A “yes” note by the council would have given city lawyers permission to draft the change, and official language would have been voted on at a later date. The council instead halted process early, denying any city funds go towards a measure to discourage discrimination.

The Human Relations Commission of Holland was appointed by the council to research the topic late last year, and unanimously supported and recommended they support and fund the ordinance change, which would make discrimination punishable by misdemeanor, as it already is for race, religion, creed, color, national origin, age, sex, marital status, height, weight, age, handicap, or source of income.

The vote came after over 3 hours of continuous public comment, where area residents expressed support for the measure in a four to one ratio over those opposed (25 to 6, with 3 unclear/undecided).  Of the individual comments, about 20% came from local Christian ministers and pastors supporting the change. A lawyer for the ACLU was present and spoke in favor of the changes, as did members of Holland is Ready and The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

Many members of the LGBT community emotionally testified to be harassed or discriminated against within the city limits. Several local residents expressed sadness or concern over their perception that Holland was an “unwelcoming city”, with discrimination throughout. Many citizens stated this atmosphere had caused loved ones, both gay and straight, to flee the city for more accepting locals. Jamie Coon tells her story here:

Stories of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and outright bigotry were all chronicled as having taken place locally. Those opposed insisted that giving rights to the “immoral (homosexuals)” would infringe on their own rights, and some landlords openly stated that they currently practiced discrimination against renters based on their perceived sexuality, ironically highlighting the very need for the measure at hand.

Many opposed to the changes have contended that additional protections “are not necessary”, however the perception of Holland being hostile towards the LGBT community was further supported by research conducted by The Fair Housing Center. Their research (cited by the HRC during the commission meeting) found that, “50% of those gay and lesbian couples in the study looking to buy an advertised home in West Michigan had been discriminated against by the real estate agent because of their perceived sexual orientation.” 

This is 20% higher than the state average for housing discrimination based on orientation, the highest in all of Michigan, making this ordinance especially crucial to the movement for equality. The FHC report also shows that the average city with an antidiscrimination ordinance experiences 8% less discrimination than a city without such a law.

Nineteen other Michigan communities have already adopted similar policies and laws. Grand Rapids made the change during the 1990’s, and Kalamazoo passed the issue by public vote “overwhelmingly” in 2009 (giving hope to Holland activists, as a public vote is their only recourse after this defeat, with the exception of changing state or federal law). Ann Arbor was the first to adopt the change in 1978, and Traverse City most recently in 2010 (their board voted unanimously in support). The city of Jackson is the only other community to reject such a proposal, however efforts are currently underway to change the laws there as well.

In addition to the people who spoke at the city council meeting in support of the measure, the chamber itself literally overflowed into the lobby with concerned citizens, about 250 in attendance. The HRC reportedly received feedback from over 600 persons in support of the changes through letters, public comments, emails, and petitions, with 90 persons opposed. Holland is Ready is “a group of local leaders working for the safety, rights and inclusion of GLBT persons” who organized around the council meeting and many (if not most) of those in attendance were seen wearing their buttons.

The above statistics beg the question: why did the city commission vote against the measure if the majority it’s constituents appear to be in favor of the final changes, let alone going ahead with exploring the changes, which a passage would have done?

In order to answer that question one must examine the vote of each member and the reasons they gave for it. Voting in favor of the change were council members David Hoekstra, Jay Peters, Robert Vande Vusse and Shawn Miller. The Mayor of Holland, Kurt Dykstra, and council members Brian Burch, Nancy DeBoer, Mike Trethewey and Todd Whiteman voted to block funding for exploration and effectively continue legalized discrimination in Holland.

Hoekstra, Peters, and Vande Vusse were wholly in favor of passage. Peters stated that “in my gut and in my soul I know that the discrimination that’s been talked about here happens,” that he “overwhelmingly” supported the changes. Vande Vusse shared the concerns of citizens at the meeting, stating that, “the role of this government is to protect the health and well being of the people” and urging his fellows to vote “yes”, Hoekstra along side him.

Shawn Miller expressed concern about “invasive government interventions in personal property rights”. Miller also admitted he was “confused” by the terms “bisexual and transgender” and did not know what they meant. However, Miller agreed to support the measure to draft an ordinance to be reviewed at a later date, with no promises of how he might vote at that time. His position resonates as conservative but reasonable one, especially when compared to his peers.

Todd Whiteman was the only member of the council to openly state he was not in favor of the measure because his “constituents had spoken loud and clear” against it, and further that he was “primarily concerned with the rights of property owners”, again referring to the idea that discrimination is a right of those in power which ought not be impeded.

Mayor Dykstra and members Burch and Trethewey stated that they could not support the council itself passing the measure, though they “empathized” with those in favor, suggesting they bring the issue “in front of the people” for a vote. Burch’s statement was most notable in this regard, as he spoke extensively about his support for the LGBT community, noting his “many gay friends” who he “loves”, that “we all deserve equal rights”, but then stating that a “yes” vote would “end the movement” for equality. In this bizarre, Orwellian exercise in double-think, Burch suggested that the council “implementing a top-down” law on the people of Holland was not good enough for the LGBT people, that only a “vote by the people” would do their fight justice. Burch passionately dared supporters to “imagine the power” that a public vote would have, and in doing so effectively added insult to injury by insisting his disenfranchisement of the LGBT community was actually good for them.

Dykstra and Trethewey held this position as well, though were less cavalier in their presentation. Dykstra had a prepared remark that was clearly written before the meeting even began and the several hours of public comment. One organizer expressed her frustration afterward saying, “why did we all come out here if he wasn’t going to consider (our position)?” This is partially explained by the fact that Dykstra admitted he does not have much interest in the issue of local discrimination, making it clear that his vote was one of political safety in a traditionally very conservative town, putting his own political career in front of the civil rights and equality of others.

Trethewey was visibly unsure and torn, stating his constituents were “split right down the middle” on the issue (which must not have included those present at the meeting or the correspondence received by the HRC). Trethewey wavered, and appeared to be the best bet the measure had of passing, however ultimately retreated, again preferring to force a public vote opposed to representing the interests of a minority group. “We can be progressive and the nine of us can say ‘let’s go, write up this ordinance.’ (But) I don’t think you’re going to get your inclusiveness, you’re going to get something rammed down people’s throats,” he said.

Nancy DeBoer seemed confused and perplexed not only by the issue at hand, but also with her role has a council member, asking at one point, “Can we (the commission) really represent 33,000 (residents of Holland)?” The crowd audibly broke decorum to respond “Yes!,” however she would not support them.

The stance of Burch, DeBoer, Trethewey, and Dykstra, that the issue should be resolved by a public vote and not by the council, is particularly bizarre since this was not the opinion of any of the community members. No person present, for or against the proposal, stated that they supported the measure but that the council ought not vote in favor of it. In addition, the very idea that implementing such a measure is beyond the scope or role of the council is nonsensical, considering the HRC recommended it to the council, and it is within the council’s power to make such changes. In fact, the City of Holland website explicitly states, “The matters handled by City Council include approving of specific building projects, deciding on claims against the City, and making changes to ordinance codes.”

With these facts acknowledged, it becomes clear that the “no” votes with an asterisk noting “empathy” were merely a halfhearted attempt by certain council members to maintain the current power structures while convincing the public that it was actually in their best interest; that they should still vote in support of said council members, even though they haven’t returned the favor in a desperate time of need.

Also notable is that a passage on Wednesday would have only provided the approval to draft an ordinance, not actually implement it. Therefore, supporters cannot simply default to a ballot measure as suggested by some council members, because an actual ordinance hasn’t been drafted yet. Before a ballot initiative can even take place, supports must work with lawyers to draft an ordinance, then that can be voted on by the people of Holland. Had Burch, DeBoer, Trethewey, and Dykstra actually been genuine in their opinions, they would have voted in favor of drafting the ordinance, then brought up their concerns when it came time to actually implement it, allowing voters to decide on a completed ordinance.

As the City of Holland has officially declared it will not support the drafting of an ordinance, it is now up to citizens and activists to draft the ordinance themselves. Jay Kaplan, staff attorney of the Michigan ACLU LGBT Project, was present at the council meeting and his office has indicated to GRIID that they may be aiding in the process.

Supporters of equal rights in Holland, despite sexual orientation and gender identity, can look to the following organizations for resources and support:

Holland is Ready


Equality Michigan

12 Comments leave one →
  1. passionphd permalink
    June 18, 2011 3:26 pm

    This is a kick-ass article, balancing both coverage as well as analysis. Keep the heat on these 4 for their failure to do their jobs, and to represent the community’s commitment to equality.

  2. June 18, 2011 5:48 pm

    Yes superb article, well done!

  3. Mike Saunders permalink
    June 19, 2011 9:36 am

    Excellent journalism!

  4. Carla Vissers permalink
    June 21, 2011 1:38 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m a member of Holland is Ready, and I was at last week’s council meeting. This is the clearest representation and analysis of what happened that I’ve read anywhere.

  5. June 21, 2011 5:23 pm

    Thank you for this clear and accurate analysis.
    Thank you very very much.

  6. October 3, 2011 4:37 am

    Brian Burch is ArtPrize’s public relations director and editor of the ArtPrize Blog.


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