Shedding Discrimination: Eventually, we’ll all just be neighbors
#TCVote Yes on Proposal 1
~ By guest contributor Mayor Chris Bzdok
Good evening and welcome. I want to thank you for coming tonight and I want to thank the organizers and staff of Traverse City Equality and the Vote Yes campaign: Ross Richardson, Marshall Persky, Rick Shimel, Diana Ketola, Lee & Donna Hornberger, Danielle Stein, and Laura Wilson. I want to thank our hosts tonight – the Dettmers, Hornbergers, Robbs, Parsons and Waltons.
We’re here tonight at the culmination of a long process in Traverse City. Over a decade ago TC voters rejected an anti-gay ballot initiative on this subject, by a wide margin. Then, last summer, the Traverse City Human Rights Commission led by Marshall worked with our city attorney to draft a non-discrimination ordinance.
The ordinance prohibits discrimination in Traverse City. The key difference between the ordinance and Michigan law is that the ordinance protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while Michigan law does not. It prevents employees from being fired from their jobs or denied housing or access to public accommodations because they are gay or transgender. It requires contractors doing business with the city to comply as well, whether they are located in the city or not.
The ordinance then came forward from the Human Rights Commission to the City Commission. The effort was spearheaded there by City Commissioner Jim Carruthers. Jim not only worked tirelessly for its passage at the City Commission, he stood firm under a storm of personal harassment by some ordinance opponents.
The City Commission passed the ordinance unanimously. In passing it unanimously I believe the City Commission sent a message that equality in Traverse City is not a partisan issue. Equality in Traverse City is a human rights issue. Not only did the CC unanimously approve the ordinance; all but one of the current city candidates endorse it too. Equality in Traverse City is a consensus.
Now the opponents of the ordinance have put it on the ballot, and that is their right. It is crucial to remember, however, that in the year the ordinance has been in effect their two main predictions have not come true.
The opposition said the ordinance would drive away business from the city by imposing scary new regulations. The ordinance has not driven away business, business has accepted it. The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce official position statement says that the Chamber “believes any form of discrimination is wrong,” and that “our members have not brought any concerns or issues about the current ordinance to our attention.”
The opponents also said the ordinance would be used to persecute people for their religion. Not one person has claimed to be persecuted. The ordinance also has important exemptions to protect religious beliefs.
On November 8th we will settle it once and for all. We must do this because it is our only path forward for the future. It is the only way to build a city out of the bricks of our aspirations and held together by the mortar of our values.
The bricks are aspirations of who and what and how we want to be as a city and a community. An inclusive place, a place that looks after people, a place that steps forward into the future and not backward into a skewed and myopic vision of the past.
The mortar of our values say it’s worth the effort of writing and recommending and passing and then defending at the ballot box a law that says people will not be treated unfairly because of who they are. These values that hold our aspirations together say not only do we not practice discrimination ourselves – discrimination is so antithetical to what we stand for that we will not allow it within our boundaries.
It takes courage to be unambiguous. It takes courage not to hedge. But as a city, we have no other choice. Nobody ever built anything for the long-term by treating people unjustly. Nobody wants to live in a community that wallows in fear and intolerance.
If you create something that is well thought out and fair, as we did; and you build a broad consensus for it, as we did; and you are on the right side of history, as we are; and you communicate clearly and with energy what is at stake, as we must – there are few limits on what you can do.
I read a statement this week that it’s the job of leaders to invent alternative futures and enroll others in the cause of making them come true. In the Traverse City future I hope for, we won’t have these arguments any more, because we will have resolved them once and for all. We won’t spend time enforcing this ordinance, because we won’t have to. It will simply be a baseline for the way in which we live.
At the city commission meeting last fall where we passed this ordinance, I mentioned that my wife Colleen grew up on a farm in southwest Ontario, in a community that was the literal end of the underground railroad. That community resolved the argument about whether people are entitled to equality under the law in 1850. As a result, many of those escaped former slaves stayed in that community, and their descendants are still there. They live alongside the descendants of the Irish and Scottish immigrants who welcomed them 160 years ago. They stayed because the community embraced them.
When Colleen was 9 years old she asked her mom if they knew any black people. Her mom said yes dear, Odessa and Harold – who lived across the laneway. Colleen disputed this – “Odessa’s not black mom, she’s our neighbour.”
If they figured it out in the Ontario farm country in 1850, I am confident Traverse City can figure it out in 2011. If you tell the world that you treat people fairly, whatever the distinctions among them, eventually you won’t have to argue about those distinctions any more. Eventually, we’ll all just be neighbors.
That’s our future. Thanks to you – thanks to all of you – that future starts November 8th.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The above comments were made by current the mayor last Thursday night at a Traverse City Equality party and fundraiser. The Mayor has one week left in his term and his leadership will be sorely missed–thank you for serving Mayor Bzdok.