For the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Traverse City has come a long way in a short time.
In the not-so-distant past, a hot debate flared over a city commissioner’s comments that homosexuals were “the filthiest, dirtiest people on the face of the Earth.” (see actual timeline on next page) While that story earned the city national notoriety in the late 80s, today Traverse City’s gay-friendly reputation is something different.
RECENT (UGLY) HISTORY
In 1987, amid fear of HIV/AIDS and a debate over whether the city should allow the sale of condoms in vending machines, two city commissioners’ anti-gay statements prompted stories in the Detroit Free Press and New York Times.
One made the comment about gays being “the filthiest, dirtiest people on the face of the Earth” and later said the spread of HIV/AIDS could be stopped “with a quick cut of the scalpel.”
He resigned weeks later amid intense pressure.
Another commissioner ignored calls to resign or apologize after he said homosexuality was “an immoral act that got us into this AIDS proposition.”
Before the dust settled, the human rights commission requested the city pass a resolution to bar gay bashing at commission meetings.
Perhaps what resonated more than the speech of two commissioners, however, was the resounding condemnation that followed from many Traverse City residents. A year later, the city’s first gay bar, now called SideTraxx, opened.
‘WE ARE TRAVERSE CITY’
The tone of discussion 13 years later was much different.
In 2000, the city made an effort to show itself as a diverse, accepting locale, only to suffer backlash after printing thousands of rainbow-colored “We Are Traverse City” bumper stickers.
The rainbow stickers were a reaction to an attempted assault of a bartender at SideTraxx (at the time the only gay car in Northern Michigan) by neo-Nazi skinheads.
“Even with all my strokes and blackouts, that’s something that will stay with me,” said Margaret Dodd, who has suffered health problems since her retirement from city politics.
Dodd had introduced the rainbow bumper sticker idea as a commissioner and was later elected mayor.
She said she believed she needed to do something about the pall that the hate crime had cast over the city.
“At the time the gay community … had never been terribly out. They had never really been in the closet, either. They just lived their lives and everything was fine and dandy,” she said. “But suddenly they were scared. That really bothered me, because everything had been so calm and nice.”
TC BECOMES A CIRCUS
At first, there was general concensus that the bumper stickers were an affordable, noncontroversial means to show support for diversity in the city.
The city gave the human rights commission $2,000 to make the stickers. Dodd helped design them.
“We got them and everybody thought they were cute, the city commission thought they were cute...” she said. “They were adorable.”
Dodd said it wasn’t until it was decided to put the stickers on all city vehicles, including police cars, that a firestorm erupted and the religious right entered the fray.
“The city, for a few days, couldn’t carry on any business,” she said. “The phones lines were all tied up because all these stations were telling their listeners to call.”
The stickers were soon scraped from city vehicles, but that didn’t stop a visit to Traverse City by Fred Phelps, the antigay pastor who would later become world famous for his Westboro Baptist Church protests of military funerals that featured “God Hates Fags” signs.
Dodd said she was impressed with Traverse City’s reaction to Phelps. Many showed up outside SideTraxx to counter-protest.
“By the time we got there, there was a crowd of people surrounding the whole building. Locals. So the SideTraxx guys never even met Fred Phelps,” Dodd said.
The counter-protesters “had just come on their own. No call went out. Fred Phelps was really pissed off,” she said.
‘WE’VE GOTTEN THE BEST’
One long-term goal of the gay rights community – protection against discrimination at work or in housing through a city ordinance – recently came to fruition.
In 2010 the city commission, led by then- Mayor Chris Bzdok, voted unanimously to approve a human rights ordinance that made sexual orientation a protected class.
Many people still opposed the measure, mostly on religious grounds.
Opponents circulated petitions to force a challenge, but city voters overwhelmingly approved the gay protections, 63 percent to 37 percent.
In the run-up to the vote, some opponents said it was solution to a problem that didn’t exist because gays had not been discriminated against. Others said they worried the ordinance would saddle the city with neverending allegations of discrimination.
Jon Becker, a TC-based real estate agent, said it’s not true that there was no discrimination against gays prior to the ordinance.
He said he knows of two friends who lost their jobs in the years prior to 2010 when their employers discovered they were gay. One worked in IT, the other in accounting.
Since the ordinance passed, it has not appeared to harm business or create problems for employers.
“A lot of people were expecting the worst and I believe we’ve gotten the best,” said Theresa Gardner, chairwoman of the Traverse City Human Rights Commission, who was on the human rights commission throughout the ordinance fight. “We haven’t gotten any complaints.”
GAY FRIENDLY MESSAGE SENT
One thing that has changed since the ordinance passed has been the message that Traverse City is a gay-friendly town.
“I think it was Traverse City saying we recognize people who are gay, or who are transgender. They are here,” said Gardner “They exist. They live and breathe in our community and they deserve everything everyone else gets.”
Traverse City’s reputation is spreading, Gardner said.
“I’ve heard from friends downstate who say, ‘I feel more comfortable coming to Traverse City,’” she said. “It’s slow but sure, and sometimes that’s the only way you can go. I mean, you can’t shove it in somebody’s face.”
The human rights ordinance was a big deal for Traverse City, said Rev. W. Edward Grim, a retired United Methodist pastor who moved to town four years ago and runs an informal ministry for the LGBT community.
“People are aware of it,” Grim said. “It influences the attitudes of people in town. It’s more than just symbolic – it’s a statement.”
Jon Becker, a Century 21 Northland real estate agent in Traverse City who advertises on gay websites, said it meant a lot to him for Traverse City to pass the ordinance and then for voters to uphold it.
“I think it was a huge step,” he said. “I think it says a lot about Traverse City.”