By Anne Stanton
Jim Carruthers is feeling the heat.
The gay activist and Traverse City commissioner was having coffee the
other day at Another Cuppa Joe coffeehouse. He was telling a woman
friend how he needed to get out of town for a while.
You get cornered and pulled aside on many different issues, and
sometimes it really is an invasion of your privacy. I am not
complaining, but I feel like a caged animal sometimes. Like I cant
get away from it, he said.
Just then, a brunette, middle-aged woman swooped in on the table and
asked Carruthers how his ordinance was goingthe proposed law that
would ban discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgenders in
Traverse City. Carruthers, the lead activist for the ordinance,
looked at his friend for sympathy. See what I mean?
Carruthers believes the commission will support the ordinance at its
upcoming Oct. 4 meeting because its the right thing to do.
The bad news is that the controversy over the ordinance has sucked the
word personal out of Carruthers life. This and other city issues
have created nearly a full-time job for him at the grand salary of
$4,200 a year.
I know thats what I signed up for when I ran for the city
commission, but it will really weigh on my decision on whether to run
for a second time. Its not an easy thing.
Carruthers became a familiar activist soon after moving to Traverse
City from Boston in 1989 (he came here to stop his grandma from
putting vinyl siding on the old family cottage on Old Mission
Peninsula). With his trademark ponytail, he could always be found in
the audience of the city commission, asking pointed questions. Then in
2006in the midst of a controversy over the citys handling of a
proposed parking structurehe decided to join the city commission,
interviewing for a vacant seat on the governing body. He missed the
nomination by one vote, but decided to cut his ponytail and run for
office. He was elected in 2007, despite talk radio attacks on his
Carruthers decision to promote the anti-discrimination ordinance was
to add a level of protection for gay folks in Traverse City, who have
never had an easy road.
We are well aware of the infamous outing back in 2001, where the
parents organized a bus tour for their St. Francis school kids that
went to restaurants. One of their stops was at Side Traxx (a gay bar
off Eighth Street). They stopped there just to heckle people, which
was frickin crazy. It was just wrong.
After the tour gained notoriety, skinheads attacked a Side Traxx
employeea cops sonlate one night after he left work.
He had to run for his life. He got roughed up, but he got away and
ran from these people, Carruthers said.
Carruthers has a passionate adversary by the name of Paul Nepote, a
retired industrial salesman, who said he became an activist after he
sent his friend and two young kids to the Boardman River Natural Area
several years ago to find a praying mantis for a science project. The
girl came across two men playing leap frog with their pants down, he
Nepote said he soon realized the nature area was a popular gathering
place for gay men and became involved in what police called
bag-a-fag, in which law enforcement and anti-gay activists patrolled
the nature area about three years ago. Nepote criticized Carruthers,
who worked for the HIV-AIDS Wellness Network at the time, for sending
staff to distribute condoms in the nature area. He said that it
condoned illegal behavior .
The nature area aside, what does Nepote have against a gay or lesbian
trying to keep his or her job?
Nepote said he doesnt believe that gays should be discriminated
against, but worries the ordinance might open the potential for
unjustified lawsuits. Nepote contends that hes not a bigot or
anti-gay, but fears the ordinance is the first step in making Traverse
City a gay city with gay parades on Front Street.
Nepote also claims that the law would give gays, lesbians and
transgenders special protection that they dont need. He said a group
is ready to begin a petition drive that would trigger a public
referendum in February at a taxpayer cost of $20,000.
Emotions are clearly high on this issue: Nepote claims that someone
called him an asshole after he finished speaking at a city
There is no current state or federal law that gives homosexuals or
transgenders protection in the case of job or housing discrimination.
Traverse Citys proposed ban is closely modeled after a Kalamazoo
ordinance; it will not apply to churches in deference to some
religions that believe gay and lesbian behaviors are acts against God.
The non-discrimination housing ban wont apply to one or two-family
owner-occupied dwellings. It also does not protect unlawful conduct.
About 20 cities in Michigan have similar ordinances.
Heres an interview with Carruthers:
NE: A lot of the blog sites say this ordinance will cost the city
$20,000 to implement. True?
Carruthers: This ordinance is going to cost the city nothing. That
was repeated by City Manager Ben Bifoss. The only cost is if the hate
groups want to bring a referendum, to a citywide vote. Thats what
triggers the cost. The antipeople, people who want to fight this,
will cost us.
We found in 2000, these same groups, these hate groups, wanted to push
an ordinance that groups like gay people could never come forward to
get their rights protected in an ordinance. That was resoundingly
defeated in 2001. The people have already spoken that we dont want to
create an ordinance that promotes discrimination.
NE: Im reading on blogs that this ordinance has been on your agenda a
Carruthers: Politics, in general, is agenda-driven. Everything is
agenda-driven politics. We tried in 1996 to get sexual orientation
protected in the citys hiring practices. In 2001, the city commission
voted on a resolution to support this, but basically resolutions are
nonbinding. So yeah, while I was in elected office, I wanted to
champion the rights of all people, to make sure everyones rights are
protected. There was a list created of people wed protect, but it
wasnt complete. Im very much supportive of this ordinance, being a
gay person myself. Its something I wanted to do in my four-year term.
NE: But do you feel youre trampling on the rights of religious
groups, who feel gay behavior is in direct contradiction to their
Carruthers: Religion is already a protected class. The way I was
educated growing up was that your relationship to the Bible is yours,
but not something you put on other people. We are not trying to take
away from religion. Its my understanding that Jesus was the founder
of the Christian religion. From the limited readings Ive done, he
supported everyone. He taught that you dont pick and choose who gets
treated properly. There is nothing to be feared about us. The hate
groups try to make it about sex. I dont care what goes on in straight
peoples bedrooms, so why are they concerned about us?
NE: Are you personally getting attacked?
Carruthers: Ive had negative emails from Paul Nepote. We all had
slanders yelled out of car windows. Ive seen some of the blog stuff.
Pictures of me are being sharedIm the gay agenda guy. Im the
reason to be fighting this. I feel the Matt Schoech (a conservative
activist who serves on the TC Human Rights Commission), the Paul
Nepote types, are attacking me and using me as the face of the day.
Im just a regular person, an upstanding citizen who got involved. I
want to be part of the community that I have shared with people. Im a
regular guy, my gayness has nothing to do with my city involvement
other than this ordinance protects all the people.
NE: Theres a picture of you wearing a feather boa. Whats that about?
Carruthers: Paul Nepote put that picture out on the Internet. I
thought it was funny too, so I put it on my Facebook. The story behind
it is that Mike Gillman, another city commissioner, had a concern he
expressed in a study session, What would happen if a cross dresser
came to work in fishnet stockings and a feather boa? That question
really came out of fear. He was just echoing a concern shared by Paul
Nepote. Thats not the case. If someone wants to lose their job,
theyll dress that way. Most employers have a dress code. We have this
casual Friday, but people know when they go to work, they must dress a
certain way. They are not going to push the envelope. If someone is a
cross dresser or going through a sex change, I would certainly hope
theyd have a discussion with their employer about it.
NE: What do you do for a living?
Carruthers: Ive been unemployed for the past two years. Before that,
I was a marketing/advertiser for a green builder, and prior to that I
did fund development for Planned Parenthood and the Regional Land
The hardest part in all this is Im not making money. Im spending my
savings. Im taking a hit to do this. Im challenged in my futurewhat
am I going to do in this town? I am very worried about getting a
decent job because I might have pissed off a lot of people. Others
say, this can lead to something else. I was trying to be a uniter, but
I realized very fast, you cant please everybody. No matter how you
vote, someone is mad at you. We as commissioners network with a lot
more people about a lot more topics, which was true with the biomass.
We saw and read a lot more, and sometimes you make a vote, which puts
you in bad straits with your neighbors. You do find that you have to
find separation. I personally feel lucky to have a summer place to
vacate to on the weekends.
NE: Do you know personally of anyone who lost their job due to the
fact they were a homosexual?
Carruthers: There was a fellow who spoke at a meeting at the
introduction of this ordinance. His name is Jeff; he lost a job, he
said. Other people via email said they are concerned because they work
in the school system. If they found out I was gay, there would be a
lobby to get rid of me. There is discrimination. Its quiet. Half the
reason you dont hear about it is there are no safe venues to air your
complaints. If you are gay at a school and feel you are being
discriminated against, the supervisor might not support you, and take
it to the school board. If the people on the board are anti-gay, how
do you deal with that? How do you plead your case and feel safe?
Now there will be legal protection, so if you are fired from a job
based on sexual orientation, you have safeguards. But, unfortunately,
youll have to take it to court to plead your case.
NE: Is there a concern about a rise in lawsuits?
Carruthers: Employers are concerned because there are many reasons
why you will or wont hire someone. But sometimes the case is clear.
If you find out one of our employees who has been there for five
yearsyour secretary found Joe dancing at a gay bar and tells youand
then the boss fires him despite Joe being an excellent employee. If
theres no other reason to fire somebody, then theres a case. I would
hope people wouldnt just go out and sue people. There are people like
that, but I think its rare. Kalamazoo has had this ordinance for a
year and theres been only one lawsuit. It was thrown out of court.
NE: Do you think outside family value organizations will get
involved as they did before on the anti-gay referendum?
Carruthers: The Gary Glenn American Family Associationtheyve sent
some letters and emails, This is wrong, not Christian values. They
are always out there in the wings. And there is Tom Monaghan who has
the Christian law firm, who set up the Ave Maria community in
Florida. He has always been a big supporter against gays and lesbians.
Theres Fred Phelps, the God hates fags guy who protests at AIDS
funerals. On the other hand, there are a lot of area churches that
are promising support for this.
NE: Given the personal toll this has taken, are you sorry to have
created this ordinance?
Carruthers: Im not sorry at all. We know people from all over the
world who have come here to vacation, and are shocked that we are
still dealing with this issue.