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Progress in the Midwest

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Anyone who has grown up in and then departed my hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., has faced the same question from curious acquaintances: "You're from where?" The city's name owes to the Native American heritage of the state. Despite a population of 80,000 and various song lyrics that have spread its fame, its whimsical sound prompts disbelief that such a town exists.

There has been nothing whimsical about the antigay campaigns in local politics of the past decade. On November 3, Kalamazoo took a giant step toward creating a welcoming environment for all residents. Voters turned back a political attack on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people by upholding the city's human rights ordinance.

The victory came in a 62% yes vote in a city referendum on whether a nondiscrimination ordinance covering sexual orientation and gender identity should be retained. The raw numbers were 4,731 ballots cast to reject the measure and 7,671 votes to keep it.

Approving and now successfully defending the ordinance against repeal are a point of pride for many current and former Kalamazooans. I wish that one of them, my late grandmother, were alive to celebrate it. In her 90s she volunteered at an earlier point in this struggle to help set the stage for this victory. Now, at the fourth anniversary of her passing, she is one of the hundreds of volunteers who deserve credit for the important win.

In the past 20 years, like many cities in the Midwest, Kalamazoo has begun to recognize its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents. The breakthrough in openness occurred just as the city transitioned from auto, paper, and pharmaceutical manufacturing to a future in health care and education jobs, leveraging three major campuses in town. This adaptation and the dislocation accompanying it have enticed far-right activists to try to exploit the nervousness for political gain.

Since 2001 anti-LGBT activists opposed to any mention of LGBT people in Kalamazoo law have sought to repeal two very modest initiatives aimed at inclusion and respect. Once they even tried to do what Justice Anthony Kennedy deplored in his 1996 opinion about antigay initiatives, that is, to make gay people "strangers to the law.'

In 2001 the city manager incorporated insurance coverage for the domestic partners of city workers into the municipal contract.

Antigay activists pounced. Not only did they set out to overturn this very modest effort to treat gay people with dignity by including committed same-sex couples in health care on similar terms as spouses. They went much further. They petitioned and qualified for voters to weigh in on an amendment to the city charter that would have barred Kalamazoo from ever passing any law that respected LGBT people. They didn't just want to rewrite the rule book. They wanted to tip the playing field, permanently, against us.

Such nasty tricks don't seem fitting for American politics and might not have passed judicial scrutiny if used against any other group. But in 1993 voters in Cincinnati did approve such a measure. The margin in that election was 62%-38% in favor of the antigay charter amendment. During the legal wrangling over the measure, it got a pass from the sixth circuit court of appeals. Since that circuit covers Michigan and three other states, including Ohio, and since the Supreme Court seemed reluctant to step in and shoot down the policy, the antigay group thought it had a model it could replicate elsewhere.

Try they did in Kalamazoo. As their issue, Proposal A, headed to the November 2001 city ballot, my grandmother stepped up. At the age of 91, she was a resident of an assisted living facility. She used a mobility cart, and even then getting around was sometimes painful. Still, she offered to take No on Proposal A materials door-to-door throughout her building. My grandmother also encouraged my mom to volunteer distributing material to voters outside the precinct that happened to be in the facility, which she did. Every task my grandma took on with gusto and love, and my mother followed her example.

On that Election Day in Kalamazoo, we defeated Proposal A by a margin of 54% to 46%. On the personal front, I watched my grandmother and my mom take heart in having made a difference. On the political front, the win kept the door open for forward progress for inclusion in the law.

That's exactly what happened in 2009. The city council unanimously passed additions to the city's human rights ordinance that included protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Again the antigay activists jumped in, putting a repeal measure on this fall's municipal ballot.

Friends from high school, church, union work, and past campaigns in Kalamazoo called me, asking what they could do to help. Several got involved, giving money, time, their voices, and shoe leather to the One Kalamazoo campaign. This victory is a testament to all their efforts at effective voter education, identification, and turnout. The result sends a powerful message.

Kalamazoo, in its drive to nurture, attract, and sustain top talent for jobs and innovation, needs to be a welcoming environment. It has voted to be one. The LGBT rights movement, in its quest to achieve equality for all, needs to be able to win resoundingly at the polls in those regrettable instances when right-wing groups subject basic policy questions of nondiscrimination to a popular vote. In Kalamazoo we reversed the outcome from 16 years ago in Cincinnati and met that challenge.

This hometown victory was months and, as my late grandmother might remind you, years in the making. It has ripple effects for LGBT leaders and coalitions as we carry on our work for full and equal protection of the law at the local, state, and federal level.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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