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Nearly 200 people march for equality in Holland

August 4, 2011

Last night people from all over West Michigan were in Holland to continue the campaign to pressure the Holland City government to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance that would include gender identity and sexual orientation as part of the City’s anti-discrimination policy.

Initially people gathered at Smallenburg Park in Holland to share food, to get shirts from Until Love is Equal and to building community amongst those who believe in justice and equality for all the residents of Holland, Michigan. This action involved people from Until Love is Equal, Holland is Ready, Hope is Ready, West Michigan Pride and GLISEN.

At around 6:15pm people then marched through the city chanting and making it know to the downtown businesses and citizens that were encountered along the way.

Before the march began, GRIID had a chance to interview one of the organizers of this event, Max Singer.

Once the crowd gathered in City Hall they were joined by more supporters of this campaign for equality. The City Council dealt with other matters before the public comment period began.

Jack Hoffman, a Grand Rapids lawyer, was the first to speak and he responded specifically to the Holland Mayor’s comments on the ordination. Hoffman addressed numerous flaws in the Mayor’s comments, primarily from a legal point of view. Hoffman referenced the proposed ordinance that was put forth by the Holland Community Relations Commission and noted that the Mayor did not fully understand the legal implications of the anti-discrimination ordinance.

Many speakers followed, those speaking in favor of the anti-discrimination ordinance and those against. However, it should be noted that during the public comment period there were 31 comments in favor of the ordinance and only 4 against.

We were told by one of the organizers that some of those that voiced their opposition to the ordinance have been at every Holland City Commission meeting since the vote was first put to the commissioners. Their arguments were primarily rooted in their own interpretation of the Christian Bible, but they also made arguments that “homosexuality was a sin” and “an unacceptable lifestyle.”

Another man who spoke against the ordinance said that it was a prelude to the “gay community” wanting same sex marriage, which in his opinion would lead to “bestiality and people having multiple sex partners.” The only other specific argument from the opposition was that gay people should seek out the assistance of Exodus International, which can help people denounce their lifestyle and embrace a heterosexual life through Jesus.

Those in favor of the ordinance presented numerous arguments, some of them also including religious reasons. However, the most compelling comments spoke to the issue of harm being done because Holland is not an accepting community.

One young woman spoke about how her sister, who is a lesbian, is afraid to come out to people because of what might happen to her. Another young woman spoke about a gay friend of hers who has no come out to most people because of the fear and intimidation he believes he would have to endure under the current government sanctioned discrimination.

A member of the gay community in Grand Rapids then spoke about his own history and experience of discrimination. He doesn’t understand why the City voted for hate and said that gay people deserve the right to be protected.

Bill Freeman with Holland is Ready then followed by citing a Christian song, “they will know we are Christians by our love,” but says it ought to be “they will know we are Christians by our homophobia.” Freeman then addressed each of the council members that voted no on the ordinance, responding to each of their claims.

One woman spoke tearfully about her gay son who did go through the Exodus International program, renounced his identity and then later committed suicide. She urged the council members to recognize all the young people in the room and that they are the future of Holland.

A professor then told his story growing up gay. When he was a student at Hope and came out he remembers students praying outside his dorm room. He then stated that “people who feel free to engage in public comments of hate towards the LGBT community demonstrates the need for formal protections for those who identify as LGBT or Q. How many people have to tell you stories about the fear and harm they have endured?”

A 16 – year old from Rockford then spoke in favor of the ordinance to set an example to other communities in the state to make the right decision. She only found out about this that day and decided that she needed to come and speak in favor of this ordinance. “Even if you think that gay people are wrong, you have the obligation to protect them.”

A young woman then told her story of meeting a transgender person who committed suicide last year because of the discrimination that person faced. This young woman always wanted to raise children here, but now sees that there is “a tremendous amount of hate” and that may cause her to not want to live here in the future.

Another young woman who has a close friend that is gay said that her friend and many others that identify as LGBT will not want to grow old in Holland unless they vote for the ordinance.

A middle aged man then spoke about how he thought that “this issue doesn’t really affect him,” but while at the park he realized that if he gets on TV it will that impact how people see him. In fact, he said that people might begin to question his sexuality. He urged the council members to vote yes so the young people will not feel the fear he felt that day.

After nearly two hours of testimony it was clear that the majority of the people in the room were in favor of an anti-discrimination ordinance and that the bulk of those who spoke in its favor were young people who saw themselves as the future of Holland.

The other main point that was stressed throughout the night was the fact that harm is being done right now in Holland because there are no legal protections for people who identify as LGBTQ. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report for 2010 says that acts of violence against the LGBTQ community increased by 13% across the country from 2009 to 2010. The question must be asked, how many people have to live in fear and suffer hate, intimidation and violence in Holland before they are legally protected?

At the end of the meeting the Mayor spoke and said that an anti-discrimination ordinance does not mean a city is welcoming and that religion did not inform his vote.

Councilman Dave Hoekstra, one of the four council members who voted in favor of expanding the ordinance, said he was impressed with all the young people who spoke up during the meeting and he encouraged other members of the council to make the right decision and support the ordinance.

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