Canton Community Helps Push Ordinance Forward

AJ Trager

CANTON-On June 10, Canton Township became the 35th municipality in Michigan to adopt an anti-discrimination human rights ordinance that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of groups protected against wrongful termination and rejection of employment, housing and public accommodation.

Twenty minutes into the meeting, it looked like the ordinance wasn't going to pass and that the Board of Trustees was going to delay adoption until January 31st of next year, hoping that the State legislature would give the matter its full attention. According to many members on the dais, including Treasurer Melissa McLaughlin and Trustees John Anthony, Pat Williams and Thomas Yack, the ordinance was a "done deal," just not on Tues. It was an important issue and they planned on doing something about it, board supervisor Phil Lakey said.

The board identifies themselves as conservative. Steven Sneidman, the lone Democrat on the board, was the first to speak against tabling the ordinance and introducing a resolution instead, calling it a complete cop-out.

"I believe the time is now to get this done, supporting this can only look good for Canton Twp.," Sneidman said in his opening argument. "I personally won't be able to sleep tonight knowing that we have the power, authority and public backing to make this happen and we will not take that action."

There was a standing ovation after Sneidman's remarks, an applause that lasted just shy of a minute. Lakey, board supervisor, brought the room back to agenda attention. It was stated once again that this is a state issue, not a municipality issue, and that the current ordinance does not have the language to be properly implemented.

As the second largest township in Michigan, passing this ordinance would send a message to the other municipalities that this is an important issue in Michigan and for the Michigan people. A majority on the dais came out to say they have a LGBT member in their friends or family. The audience grumbled and sneered. You could feel the contempt. There was an overwhelming feeling of "Why wait?"

Next motion of the evening was public comment on the decision facing the board. This is where things got really interesting.

Jay Kaplan, LGBT Legal Project Staff Attorney of the ACLU of Michigan, was the first to get up and comment.

"We feel this year might be the strongest chance for the legislature to pass an amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. These ordinances, beyond enforcement, serve an important function. Symbolically, they send a message that Canton is a community that values treating people fairly and that values diversity," Kaplan stated. "Secondly, they send a message to the community itself that this kind of discrimination is not to be tolerated. But thirdly, and equally important, they have helped build momentum, for the first time in a very long time, for the legislature to seriously consider amending Elliott-Larsen."

Kaplan also mentioned the 1700 or so other communities in Michigan that have not adopted this ordinance and touched upon Canton's worry about enforcement.

"You're right. You won't have the same enforcement powers that the state civil rights law does. But if you look at these communities, you'll find that very often they don't get many complaints filed. And it's not because the idea of discrimination never occurs; it's because just by passing an ordinance itself you've sent a message, you've made a preemptive strike that this kind of thing is not to be tolerated," Kaplan said.

Joanna Hill, a resident of Hazel Park who works in Plymouth for an electrical engineering company, is no stranger to work discrimination. As a transgender woman, Hill has been terminated from employment because of her LGBT status. She wants to see the tides turn so that the LGBT community feels secure in their workplace and that young people stay in Michigan after they receive their college degrees. Her company has two positions available for immediate hire and is having trouble finding appropriate candidates.

"We need to make sure that the young graduates think that Michigan is a cool place to live. And they don't right now. They don't. Because things like this don't get passed," Hill said. "They have LGBT friends, which are just a part of their life and accepted completely, [who] are not welcome in Michigan. So please, I ask you to consider passing this ordinance today because our businesses need it."

"I come to you today because I understand what fairness looks like," Sommer Foster, Canton resident and director of political advocacy for Equality Michigan, said. Foster is also a member of the library board and has is a long time Canton resident.

"Hiding takes a toll on their ability to put themselves 100% into their jobs. They have to completely separate their home life from their work life. Which means no personal phone calls can be overheard or emails that can be read. No pictures of loved ones on their desk. No honest dialogue with coworkers, clients or customers. No questions like are you married or do you have children. All of these things you and I take for granted."

Community members came out in strong support of approving the ordinance. Among those who spoke after Kaplan were George Bellavich, president of the Plymouth-Canton Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFFLAG), Bryan Smith, a pastor at the Geneva Presbyterian Church, Scott Green a student at the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park, Julie Rowe who works as a lobbyist in Lansing and Tina Terrill, a lesbian who waited until she was 48 to come out; all urged board members to stand up and be leaders.

Then, approximately 72 minutes after discussion of the human rights ordinance began, a motion to declare adopting the amendment to the code of ordinances and adding in Chapter 36 Equal Rights, was suggested, seconded, voted on and approved 6-1, with Trustee Tom Yack being the only one to dissent.

A complete victory for the Plymouth-Canton LGBT community, and to the Michigan LGBT community, adding in one more municipality to the list of those that support equal rights for all. This win for the community serves as an example of how coming out to show public support of a county, township, state or federal decision can truly make a difference.

"I'm pleased with the agreement we came to. I want it to be done throughout the United States federal legislation. I was hoping this would not come to a big meeting and that we could try to work together, but I am glad the citizens spoke up and changed minds. I'm glad we have this ordinance. But we have a long way to go to achieve full equal rights for all," Sneidman said.

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