Last year, my hometown's City Council voted down partial equal rights for LGBTQ people. I've been working on this blog post ever since then, but I've been unable to put my very strong emotions into effective words (although frustrated ranting came quite easily).
After the hours I've spent in City Council meetings, only to hear the vote for an addendum to the Anti-discrimination policy lose 5-4, I couldn't bear to write about it. I was devastated.
But, when you compare my hours in those meetings to the hours LGBTQ people face inequality... it really doesn't compare. It's actually selfish of me to not share Holland's story with whoever has time to read it.
This week is a week of hopeful celebration for Holland, and I now want to share my story. We didn't achieve what we want--yet. But Holland better get ready.
Holland has been fighting for these rights like I've never seen before. Last year, the Human Relations Commission unanimously recommended that the Holland City Council adopt new language to the Anti-Disrimination Ordinance to include LGBT people and gender identity.
I've been struggling with: how can we make our small-towns ready for this change? Can we keep families together by increasing inclusion at the city level? Although this measure was defeated, I cannot help but feel optimistic now that a few months have passed.
The day of the vote, I attended and spoke out at the five-hour-long meeting. I was surprised to find myself surrounded with fellow equality supporters.
I arrived early to get a seat in the front row; the room was packed. The Grand Rapids Press reported that there were 250 people stuffed into the room, and there were a number of people spilling out into the atrium of the building. A huge majority of the people there were in support of the proposed amendments to city law, something I was very surprised to discover.
Holland is becoming a battleground for small-town LGBTQ rights. The city has a reputation for being religious, called "The City of Churches." The city also has a reputation for being anti-gay.
About a year ago, the local newspaper, the Holland Sentinel, published obviously bigoted paid advertisements which promoted "family values" and was extremely anti-gay. Additionally, when Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter of the movie "Milk," was scheduled to talk to Hope College Students, the college prevented him from coming and created a national media-worthy story.
But that is the bad, and much good is growing in Holland. An organization called "Holland is Ready" has been at the forefront of LGBTQ equality, along with its partner organization "Hope is Ready." The local PFLAG is a wonderful resource, also.
On June 7, 2010, the City Council referred for study the addition of "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the list of protected classes to the Human Relations Commission. The HRC then researched the issue for much of this year, and then unanimously voted in favor of recommending that the City Council adopt these amendments to the Civil Rights Ordinances in Holland.
The so-called "Gay Rights Ordinance" (the name given to it by media sources) was brought to a vote this summer. Before the vote, the City Council hosted an open forum for public comment.
I attended the meeting with my friend, boyfriend, mother, grandfather, and grandmother. But also attending was my pastor, my sister's dad, our brother and his girlfriend, and so many others. I had gone into the meeting thinking that the ordinance would fail. But when I heard the unique and convincing arguments pile up at the Council Members' feet, I couldn't help but hope.
When it was time to vote, it was very anti-climactic. It was 11:30 at night, and we sat there and listened as many of the Council Members spoke as if they hadn't heard us.
Voting for the ordinance at this point wasn't by any means final approval. Because of this, one of the Council Members who did vote for the ordinance admitted he had doubts, but he wanted to see where this would go.
The five who voted no, including Mayor Dykstra, explained that they were for equal rights, but not for top-down measures "forcing" equal rights upon citizens. One Council Member even explained that if we really thought Holland was ready, we should try and change individual hearts, not the opinion of nine Council Members.
I found this ridiculous, and I have to admit it was hard to sit still in my seat. First of all, one of reasons we have representative government is for their judgement and ability to protect minority rights. We should not have to leave it up to the majority to decide whether a particular minority deserves to be protected. This argument is a cop-out. Think of all the major Civil Rights Laws. Remember any that were voted on by the majority of the country?
"The motion has failed."
Those four words settled heavily upon us as supporters slowly filed out of the room at nearly midnight. I remember my 79 year-old grandfather's head in his hands, the tears in my mother's eyes.
Would it ever be safe for my sister to come home to us?
What of the others? What of the suicides that happen in less supportive communities? What do all the closeted LGBTQ teenagers think when they read the front page of the Holland Sentinel and see that their city doesn't support them?
Since this discouraging City Council Meeting, Holland is Ready hasn't disappeared as perhaps many would have hoped. Other organizations have stepped forward as well. Until Love is = is one of those organizations.
And now the ultimate irony.
Last night, Holland is Ready was awarded a Social Justice award by the Holland City Council itself. Remember that Human Relations Commission I mentioned earlier that voted unanimously to recommend the City Council vote for this measure? Well, the HRC, in what might be act of resistance, is in charge of giving out these awards.
Reverend Jane Adams, accepting the award, commented:
“We might in fact be the only group ever who in one six month time period were first denied the rights we requested and were then celebrated by the city for our efforts in seeking those rights.”
It's also interesting to note that Wayne Klomparens was elected to City Council in the last election. He supports the Nondiscrimination Policy. On the day of the award, he suggested a revote in the future on this issue. We're moving in the right direction.
We need this ordinance. It's up to our government to protect us. And they left us in the cold.
So, maybe we haven't reached our goal yet.
Equality sometimes feels far out of reach. But every day Holland is Ready, Until Love is =, and YOU are out there working for equal rights, more people join our side.
The right side of history.
Jaime J. Coon
Former Holland Sentinel Columnist
Former International Relations Commission Student Representative for the City of Holland
Holland High School Valedictorian and Graduate
Holland Public Schools Attendee for 13 Years
Daughter of Two Holland Teachers
Granddaughter, Niece, Cousin, of Many Holland Residents
Sister of Former Holland Resident, Who Now Lives in Oregon,
Because Holland Wasn't Ready for Her
PS-- To Holland City Council: Get Ready. Your residents are going to show you how ready they are. Some people tried to tell you that this message was coming from the outside. Well, here I am, born and raised in Holland (see above list), and I'm telling you I will not live in Holland when I graduate from college unless Holland shapes up. And you definitely have a hand in that. You will go down in the history books already for being old fashioned and backwards in the eyes of history. Let's change that!