Protests have greeted the opening of a bookstore run by the anti-LGBTQ+ organization Focus on the Family in Holland, Mich.
The store, Family Central, opened Thursday in downtown Holland, a western Michigan town known for its tulip festival and for Hope College, a conservative Christian school. It’s only the second bookstore opened by Focus on the Family, a prominent Christian right group; the first is in Colorado Springs, where Focus is based.
“With the progress we’ve had here in Holland, supporting not only the LGBTQ+ community but diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s a bit of a disappointment to the LGBTQ+ community at large to learn that a group like Focus on the Family is now going to have a much stronger presence here in Holland,” Jeffrey Sorenson, director of LGBTQ+ activist group Out on the Lakeshore, told Michigan TV station WOOD.
A small group of protesters, fewer than a dozen, demonstrated outside the store during its grand opening Thursday, the station reports. “If I’m not out here expressing my voice, then I can’t expect anybody else to come out and stand up for me,” said one of them, Joe Spaulding. Meanwhile, a line of people waiting to get into the store extended around the block.
Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by James Dobson. It considers same-sex relationships a sin and offers resources for supposedly overcoming same-sex attractions, although its website says it does not endorse counseling that engages in “shame” or “degradation.” As for transgender identity, its website says, “Transgenderism violates God’s design.”
“No one has spread the anti-gay gospel as widely, or with as much political impact, as James Dobson, the former child development professor and spanking enthusiast who founded Focus on the Family (FOF) in 1977,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website. The SPLC points out many anti-LGBTQ+ statements on Focus’s radio shows and Dobson’s crusade against marriage equality. He left Focus in 2010 but continues to spread his message through the James Dobson Family Institute.
An even more virulently anti-LGBTQ+ group, the Family Research Council, grew out of Focus. The FRC was founded by Focus officials in 1983, but the organizations separated in 1992 “over concerns that [FRC’s] very political work might threaten Focus’ tax-exempt status,” the SPLC site notes. The SPLC, which monitors hate groups, does not list Focus as a hate group but does list FRC.
Several commenters on the Downtown Holland Facebook page noted Focus’s anti-LGBTQ+ activity, including support for conversion therapy. Focus CEO Jim Daly, who attended the grand opening along with Duck Dynasty stars Al and Lisa Robertson, claimed much of the criticism was inaccurate. “For us, in the issue of conversion therapy, we just believe if a person has unwanted same sex attraction, they should be able to go to a counselor and talk to them about it,” he told WOOD. “That’s our simple statement on that issue.”
“Given the makeup of Holland and the Christian roots of Holland and the acceptance of biblical themes of marriage and parenting within the constituency of Holland, we think it’s a good place to try that extension of our bookstore,” he added.
The Downtown Holland organization issued a statement saying its mission is to promote all businesses in the shopping district. “The opening of any business in a privately-owned property within our district does not distract us from this mission, including our commitment to ensuring that all members of the community and all visitors to the area feel welcome here,” the group said.
Sorenson offered a message of encouragement to LGBTQ+ residents of Holland, which, after much controversy, added sexual orientation and gender identity to its antidiscrimination ordinance in 2020. “Things are changing in Holland and people are more accepting,” he told WOOD. The bookstore’s opening is “discouraging and it seems like a step back, it’s also not endgame. It doesn’t mean that diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t important in Holland,” he added.