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Communications From The Audience

An Open Letter to the Honorable Brian Burch, Holland City Council:

As a community leader, I want to lead you. Whether or not you follow is up to you. But I want to lead you.

Thank you for your leadership and service in West Michigan, as a member of council in the magnificent city of Holland. Leaders are more than merely the sum total of “check-box” preferences of constituents: they are elected to lead, protect and serve. You have done this admirably in your time as a member of council, and we owe you a debt of gratitude.

We are a community of people within Holland and throughout West Michigan who respectfully submit the following for your consideration.

Like the region’s leading businesses, including Herman Miller, Haworth, Padnos, Johnson Controls and more, we believe equality benefits the greater good. Through your leadership and that of your fellow lawmakers, Holland City Council took great steps to advance equality in 2010, by asking the city’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) to recommend whether Holland ought to adopt an ordinance to protect LGBT residents and workers from discrimination.

After nearly a year of community conversations and research (spanning 2010 and 2011) HRC recommended unanimously that Holland City Council protect the city’s LGBT residents and workers by making it illegal to discriminate. Absent protections, discrimination was legal – you and your fellow lawmakers seemed poised to make Holland nearly the 20th Michigan city to say, “No, you cannot discriminate against our LGBT residents and workers, we don’t do that here.”

What a positive and loving thing, with benefits for all: Michigan cities (where lawmakers enacted protections for minorities) have grown stronger in business start-ups, economic markers, arts and culture and more.

And on June 15, 2011, the night the vote was called, you gave a statement containing some of the most hopeful things ever said by a member of council:

Surprisingly, the ordinance failed by one vote. The Holland City Council vote against LGBT equal rights took took West Michigan off guard. This is in fact why Until Love Is Equal exists: to find a way back to moving forward again.

And Mr. Burch, it is because of your hopeful and impassioned statement (above) that we write you. In your explanation for what would be your vote against the protections for the LGBT community, there is much that aligns with a vote in favor of such protections!

[Gays and lesbians] are part of many families and that makes them part of our American family.

Many at Until Love Is Equal are LGBT Americans; but this is just a part of who we are. All of us applaud your words. We are an American family. Liberty and justice. This is why we look to you, Mr. Burch, as a lawmaker who boldly declared his regard for LGBT brothers and sisters. It is legal to discriminate against us in matters most basic to living: eligibility to work and reside in your community. That is a vulnerability that few could ever understand. We believe you do understand. And we consider you a friend. And you could render discrimination illegal in Holland! Any of the votes against protecting LGBT residents and workers… was the vote that made the ordinance fail. As a lawmaker, you have a power none of us have, with an expediency unavailable to most, to realize an outcome of equality. You are a lawmaker, a leader, and a friend of the LGBT community. And we need you right now.

I believe the most important thing we can do is create a conversation with our community, and listen to each other about these topics.

Conversation is a cornerstone of democracy: on many levels, we are with you. As few know better than you and your esteemed colleagues, so much conversation happened between 2010-2011 – ongoing conversations that led the HRC to their unanimous recommendation (that you and your fellow lawmakers should adopt protections for LGBT residents and workers.) One might wonder if this could suffice, at least for now.

We are a disenfranchised community and we are in harm’s way. We are weary of further conversation and wary of the concept of going door-to-door (so to speak) to prove that we are worthy of protection from our lawmakers. If you were to motion to vote in favor of protections for our community, it wouldn’t prohibit conversations from continuing: but the LGBT community would be protected while the conversations you propose continued. Doesn’t the cost/benefit seems compelling?

In short, we are concerned about the absence of equal footing for our minority. From one viewpoint, continued conversation maintains special advantages for the group of people who are not LGBT. Fair Housing Center surveys say 50% of applicants perceived as LGBT are denied housing vs. similarly qualified applicants who appear heterosexual.

Furthermore, examples such as this and this and this and this and this may compel us to agree that conversations could wait. Tall people are protected against discrimination in the city of Holland: a cursory review of the public record shows that no such standard (for community conversations prior to the enactment of protections by lawmakers) was imposed. Nor were people of different height or weight required to prove that they deserved protection. We can assume Holland’s lawmakers simply concluded, “Hey, those things have no bearing on housing, so let’s take those off the table for consideration.”

Also, it is unknown whether circumstances dictated that lawmakers protect tall, short, skinny or obese people in Holland; however, it is certain that discrimination against LGBT Americans exists:

 This begs the question. And a question posed to all of us. What kind of community do we want to be?

Sometimes a leader represents more than the tally of yes/no responses available by survey: sometimes a leader represents the best interests of a community. Sometimes equality comes as a correction enacted into law when circumstances compel decisive action. We believe this is such a time, and the testimony and data compiled by HRC seems to back this up.

Your statement contains heartening alignment with their conclusions:

It is because of our inherent diversity on so many levels that I believe that we all deserve equal rights and equal consideration during our day to day experiences in our community.

And this is precisely what we hope you would find in your heart, in considering how to arrive at that place. Because we are not there yet. We can get there. We need a correction. Right now.

Equality is among the bedrock principles of our American society… And it’s because of these founding words that I believe we are all deserving of equal protection under the law, and no majority should ever be allowed to marginalize any minority group.

Spot on. America’s great leaps forward in equality have come by laws created by lawmakers. You are part of a legacy of leadership that has found the strength to move us forward at key moments. It’s not always easy, but the bumps in the road are worth it: this nation has come away better for every “correction” put into law to give equal footing to our minority communities. We live in a time when the President of the United States is an African American (who has twice visited the Holland area!) and what a testament to the importance of lawmakers’ vision and leadership! Each minority struggle (and the hardships they face) are different on almost every level but it’s fair to say: the progress we enjoy today would not have happened if certain minority groups had been required to go door-to-door in adverse neighborhoods, to solicit support for their right to equal footing in this world.

It is because of our greatness as a people, that we moved forward throughout the 20th Century, in matters of equality. And in doing so, we further defined our greatness. We did difficult things and we are stronger for it. This is our heritage. We virtually invented the idea of inalienable rights, bestowed upon us by our Creator: this idea of a “baseline” from which individuals could find their own way, pursue happiness on their own, having equal footing because God in His wisdom created us in love as His children, equally. What a thing, to recognize and uphold that magnificent and virtuous truth. How fortunate are we, to have a heritage of leadership that defined and exemplified these virtues.

What really does it say about a community that needs government to dictate what inclusion means? A law pushed down by these nine [council members] doesn’t say we’re inclusive: in fact, I believe it conveys just the opposite message, that we need to be told how to be inclusive.

Sometimes, we humbly submit to you and your fellow lawmakers, leaders can change the hearts of man. It has happened over and over in American history – leaders have led us through moments when a minority of law-abiding Americans rights are being diminished solely because of unalterable, inherent qualities. And we have become more inclusive, across the boards, because of these corrections.

Government is not obliged to provide happiness. But perhaps leaders are obliged to remove unjust obstacles to that pursuit. If our LGBT brothers and sisters pursue happiness in good faith, but are treated unequally harshly by the majority, they are being denied what is most intrinsically American: the right to equal footing.

Inaction can be an action. As the band Rush said so famously: if you do not choose, you still have made a choice. If harm has been demonstrated, as it was in HRC hearings and subsequent testimony at City Hall, we need leaders to act to remedy that harm. Throughout the 20th Century, it always fell on leaders to step in, to remind people of the principles established by the Founding Fathers. And it has worked.

Changing hearts one-on-one would be the more democratic and therefore more culture-changing approach. To any issue facing gays and lesbians in our city. To those who say we cannot transform the culture of our city this way, I challenge you otherwise. …take the conversation to every man and woman in the city, and place this on the ballot.

This would be true in a vacuum where circumstances didn’t compel us to swifter action. Would that we had more time for an elaborate, academic exercise – it would be interesting. And in a perfect world, it would not be necessary. In this world we live in, in this region we all share, there are good reasons to move ahead with protections for our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community. This community needs you, right now.

In combination with representing the best interests of your constituency, you’d also represent their will: if the June 15, 2011 meeting were any bearing, the ratio was 25:6 of those speaking in favor. And while you proposed that the constituency – or at least the LGBT community – take it upon themselves to present the case for their own protections, this preference didn’t seem to appear in any of the referenced communications from constituents. None of the testimony or letters from residents of Holland or West Michigan suggested that Holland City Council ought to pass the ordinance struggle along to the population of Holland, as a ballot initiative. In this sense, the representation of the best interests of the people, combined with their actual stated preferences, combine to compel lawmakers to consider reconsideration – to enact a correction, to protect this vulnerable community by ordinance, as it does for religions, marital status, body type and ethnic background.

And! If lawmakers did pass this law, and it were never invoked, then its enactment served its purpose. In any case, its enactment presents very little burden to the City of Holland to enact it, as described in detail here by esteemed attorney Jack Hoffman.

The members of Until Love Is Equal believe those who oppose the anti-discrimination ordinance are unwittingly obstructing something that is moral and good. Our movement is a tool to repair a thing that got broken, and to arrive at that just outcome swiftly. Because while protections proposed (by Holland’s Human Relations Commission) do not exist, pending harm for LGBT folks does.

And with this we conclude what we hope you consider a respectful and well-intentioned communication from your audience.

Thank you for your time, and for everything you do for the beautiful city of Holland.

Very Truly Yours,
Until Love Is Equal

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