Citizens Speak Out After Council Refuses to Discuss Human Rights Ordinance

BY Crystal A. Proxmire

ROCHESTER HILLS -

There are signs welcoming people to Rochester Hills, which label the city as "progressive," though a group of citizens called Rochester Hills Together is starting to have their doubts. At the July 30 city council meeting several used the public comment time to ask their elected officials why they would not put a human rights ordinance proposal on the agenda for public discussion and a vote, even though it has been in discussion since last November.

"Seems like we've been talking about this issue for the better part of a year now, and here we are again," said resident Brian Kersey. "It still deserves to be on the agenda so that everyone one here can take an up down vote... But I have a sneaking suspicion to the reason why an up down vote doesn't happen is because some political cowardice is happening. People don't want to take an up down vote in front of the public because they don't want the political repercussions of saying no to this... Tell the public how you really feel about this issue."

The Council's response was resounding. "I do not support an ordinance, I'm not hiding anything," said Council President Greg Hooper. "This is a federal and state issue. I think the effort is great... but the focus needs to be at the state level. I talked one-on-one with all our council members here and there is no support that I'm aware of for an ordinance here in Rochester Hills and I made the decision not to put it on the agenda."

Councilperson Adam Kochendefer stated "at the end of the day, you need four votes...and there's a huge generational gap in the polling on this issue."

One councilperson even accused the group of trying to "construe a new claim-right." Councilperson Mark Tisdel quoted several founding fathers about the fundamental value of property ownership and argued that discrimination is a right. "What rights and protections are owed to employers and the landlords? You see, someone owns those jobs. Someone owns those properties that are being sought by the new claim-holders. Should property rights be subordinated to a new claim-right?"

Quoting James Madison, Tisdel said, "Government is instituted to protect property of every sort. That is its end." He added, "I simply cannot, and will not, vote for a newly created claim-right at the expense of our endowed and unalienable property rights."

Two other councilmen echoed the sentiment that human rights only happen at the state level. One refused to comment. And only one, Councilperson Ravi Yalamanchi, supported the human rights ordinance idea. "To me, nothing supersedes a human right. Every day discrimination happens in one form or the other. Kids are treated very poorly....I don't know when the federal law will pass or the state law will pass because of how much hatred and division is going on. If we could come together here in our community and demonstrate that we do not tolerate any type of discrimination by a simple ordinance you could see....There has to be a message to the state and federal that this is an important issue. And nothing is more important than equal rights. Every human should be treated the same no matter who the individual is."

While council refused to vote, residents did make their voices heard. Among the dozen or so who spoke were gay students from local schools, parents, a transgender woman, and straight allies who all want Rochester Hills to be the 20th city to adopt an inclusive human rights ordinance. Flint, Traverse City, Detroit, Ferndale, Ann Arbor and Mt. Pleasant are among those that have enacted ordinances letting LGBT people know that if they live in or visit those cities and they are discriminated against, the law is behind them.

In cities without local ordinances, individuals can be fired just for being gay. They can be denied service at restaurants, hotels, print shops and other businesses. And as a group gays are not protected from hate speech that is addressed to them as a group, the way that racial and religious groups are. Inclusive human rights ordinances let progressive people know that a community is making a public, conscious effort to be inclusive and to create a culture that is welcoming to everybody.

"The young people standing here tonight may be a minority group. But their parents, their brothers, their sisters, their cousins, their nephews, their friends, step parents, aunts and uncles are an overwhelming majority. They're organized and they do not forget," said Rochester Hills Together member Tim Mauer. He said that with the exception of Yalamanchi, "Council chose strategy over integrity," and that the gay youth and their allies "will not forget who stood up for them tonight after eight months of us asking you to stand by them."

Nick Rinehart was among the students who spoke. "In June I graduated from Rochester High School with a 3.9 GPA. I'm going to the University of Michigan next year. But no matter how successful I might be in life, I can still be fired just for being gay. No matter how financially independent I am, I can still be denied housing for being gay. Simply because of who I am, I can be denied services that others take for granted," Rinehart said.

The co-founder of the Rochester Adams Gay-Straight Alliance also addressed council, sharing what he has seen first-hand. "Some LGBT students even at my own high school have had their best friends turn their backs on them. They've been ostracized by their own parents and closest family members just for being who they are. These LGBT teens are bullied for being who they are and for something they cannot change....Now how do you think these kids feel if the government does not protect them? Let's show these kids they have something to look forward to in life - full equality under the law without discrimination."

The next Rochester Hills City Council meeting will be Aug 13 at 7:00 pm.

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