An Open Letter to the Honorable Kurt Dykstra, Mayor, City of Holland (MI):
In his public remarks explaining his vote against adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing list of protected classes in Holland City Ordinances, Mayor Kurt Dykstra invoked the words of the great Edmund Burke, an 18th Century British Member of Parliament from the City of Bristol. In doing this, he quoted perhaps the most quoted statement in history concerning the nature of a representative’s duties to his constituents.
The problem is, it is not clear why exactly Mayor Dykstra invoked this quote. Usually, politicians offer it as a rationale after making an unpopular decision. They point out that a representative owes his constituents “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” But if one reads between the lines of Mayor Dykstra’s comments, it becomes clear that his principle objection to voting in favor of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the current list of protected classes in Holland, is that the public itself is not convinced it is necessary. Specifically, the Mayor says “[i]f attitudinal and associational change is to occur in this city, it will be because a majority of its residents – not merely a majority of nine – have been convinced that the protections afforded by federal and state law are insufficient in this place and at this time.”
In other words, he invokes Edmund Burke to argue that he owes his constituents a duty… to agree with them.
This assumes of course that the people of Holland agree with what his decision was, and that it can be proveable either way. Although statistics are often cited in these kinds of discussions, the old Mark Twain adage that there are “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics” should give us pause before we give too much credence to percentages and polls. They often take as much as they give. If we rely on them one minute, they will bite us the next. We should, with the smarter of the Trojans from the old story, “fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts.”
Given this lack of clarity, what can be drawn from the Mayor’s ostensibly ironic quotation of Edmund Burke? If Sigmund Freud were here, perhaps he would say that this is a classic bit of psychological “projection.” This is where a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, and then ascribes them to the outside world, usually to other people. Simply put, it seems that the Mayor has not made a decision about this issue at all. He has unfortunately—and perhaps understandingly—not wanted to take a stand on a difficult issue and has voted with the majority to end the process of considering these very important changes because to do otherwise would inevitably upset someone. And it seems that he very much wants to claim the mantle of being unpopular in the Burkean sense while doing so.
Perhaps, however, the Mayor is a student of history. If so, he will of course acknowledge that all important decisions inevitably upset some segment of the population. All moments of progress from the freeing of the slaves to the birth of democracy itself have come at a cost, and were only achieved in the face of fierce resistance. Decisions for real change would not be momentous decisions else, and if they sometimes did not need to be made, then Edmund Burke would never be quoted, the slaves would never have been freed, and Abraham Lincoln would not be now considered unanimously by all historians to be the greatest American President. Abraham Lincoln, after all, did what he thought was right even though it meant losing half the country.
None of this is to necessarily compare the measure at stake, here in Holland, with prior great moments of change in world history. But we can learn from those big, global changes how to act when we are presented with the imminence of local ones. The issues and proposals at stake today here in Holland involve very important questions, very real social ills, and they present very important solutions. And by talking so much about history in this response, the only thing we wish to accomplish is to exhort civic-minded politicians like Mayor Dykstra to make decisions based always on what is right, and not on what is popular.
Mayor Dykstra gives two principal explanations for his vote to deny consideration of extending protections to individuals based on gender identity or sexual orientation. The first, as discussed, is that he thinks the public at large remains unconvinced that it is necessary. The second is encapsulated in this statement: “[l]et us be clear. Tonight’s proposal would exceed federal law. It would exceed state law.” In this, the Mayor is correct. Neither Michigan state law nor U.S. federal law includes sexual orientation and gender identity with other classes that are protected from discrimination by law.
This however belies the very nature of the system of government that we have in America. Things are not usually done first at the federal or state level. We live in a ground-up society, where localities usually make the first splashes that then ripple outwards to the bigger, more ponderous state and federal government apparatuses. By way of example, other Michigan cities have taken steps to provide legal protection against discrimination for LGBT individuals. Such cities include Kalamazoo, Douglas, Huntington Woods, Grand Rapids and Lansing. Some of these diverse cities have taken small steps, some larger, but they have responsibly engaged the issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity all the same, and should be commended for doing so. In this sense, the state government of Michigan and the federal government could be instructed by Holland’s example. This is as it should be in a federal democracy.
In the public forums that led to the Holland Human Rights Committee’s recommendations to take action and in those forums that were held before the Holland City Council itself, LGBT individuals testified to many instances of discrimination and persecution. Some of these testimonies can be found here and here and here and here and here. The proof is undeniable that legal changes are necessary and cannot be delayed merely because they would bring contention with them. Our LGBT neighbors, friends, and family are suffering and the city government has it in its power to create avenues of redress for them.
So, in summary, we encourage the Mayor to claim the mantle of Edmund Burke for real, and to do the right thing regardless of how unclear the consequences, in terms of electoral prospects or the public’s reactions, may be.
Very Truly Yours,
cc: Mayor Kurt Dykstra