ROYAL OAK — Around friends and family Preston Van Vliet has identified himself as being male for nearly two years.
“Coming out as transgender was way harder than coming out as gay,” he said recently. “Literally, every interaction you have with people changes.”
The most notable of changes are the pronouns. For the first 21 years of Van Vliet’s life, “he” had been “she”; “his” had been “her.” But correcting people on the pronouns is something he had gotten used to over the last couple years.
Still, checking the box that said “male” while applying for an apartment two months ago in Royal Oak was one bridge Van Vliet did not feel comfortable crossing.
“I was too scared,” Van Vliet, 23, said.
In Michigan and in most cities across the state, there are no specific civil rights protections for people like Van Vliet, who could have been legally denied housing based on his sexual orientation and identity.
Come Nov. 5, that could change.
On the ballot is a human rights ordinance that, if passed, would prohibit “discrimination based upon actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, height, weight, condition of pregnancy, marital status, physical or mental limitation, source of income, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.”
With that ordinance, Van Vliet said, “wholly and completely” he would have marked the box for male.
“I would take the actual ordinance with me in case someone gave me a dirty look,” he said.
Those against the ordinance — identified as Proposal A on the ballot — say it would be a law protecting a choice to be gay, while infringing upon their First Amendment rights.
“There’s no discrimination in Royal Oak,” said Fadwa Gillanders, the spokeswoman for the anti-Proposal A group Just Royal Oak. “No one cares who you are having sex with, but we do care when you force me to engage in something that’s against my religious convictions.”
The issue dates back to March, when the commission approved the human rights ordinance. It was on course to become law until Royal Oak resident Fred Birchard collected enough petition signatures in April to stop the ordinance from going into effect. That same month, the commission voted to have the ordinance placed on the ballot for Nov. 5.
The issue has proven divisive throughout the community.
Public comment sections of City Commission meetings have become grounds for both sides to throw accusations at one another. One resident has used the five minutes allotted to her to read Bible passages.
Impromptu press conferences have been held in various locations around the city. Commissioner Jim Rasor and other human rights ordinance supporters held a press conference in March in front of the Royal Oak Post Office urging residents to not sign Birchard’s petition, which he called opponents wanting “the right to hate and the right to discriminate in the city of Royal Oak.”
In October, Gillanders held a press conference outside Shrine Catholic High School telling reporters the ordinance could potentially ban Red Cross blood drives in Royal Oak because they do not take blood donations from men who have had sex with other men.
Bridget Tuohey, Communications Program Manager for the American Red Cross in southeast Michigan, said in an email to the Review she was unable to comment on the effect Proposal A would have on blood drives. She deferred to the legal opinion of City Attorney David Gillam — who has maintained that the ordinance would not prohibit them.
Royal Oak is far from the first city to decide on such an ordinance. According to a tally from Unity Michigan, 29 cities have ordinances in place that extend discrimination protections to the LGBT community and other groups.
Ferndale voters approved the city’s human rights ordinance in 2006.
The city has yet to file a complaint against anyone for violation of the ordinance — leading opponents to Royal Oak’s ordinance to argue against the need for a law to stop something that doesn’t happen anymore.
“Well, we didn’t have any murders in Ferndale last year, but I think having that be illegal is a good idea,” said Dave Coulter, the mayor of Ferndale. He has spoken during Royal Oak commission meetings in favor of approving a human rights ordinance. “It sends a very strong message that discrimination won’t be tolerated.”
Like Royal Oak, Ferndale’s human rights ordinance was on the ballot for the second time when it passed.
It failed to pass in a February 1999 election.
“I believe the only reason it was defeated in 1999 is because we made an error in judgment,” Coulter said.
That error was introducing the proposal near the end of 1998 and having it placed on the ballot for the next election, which happened to be a Republican primary.
Proponents of Royal Oak’s Proposal A see much of the same uphill battle in their fight this time around. A Royal Oak human rights ordinance failed to pass in 2001 during a special election that saw about 13,000 voters turn out, according to Oakland County.
Nov. 5 is a municipal election, which usually translates to a small turnout.
City Commissioner Kyle DuBuc, a strong proponent of the ordinance, said the biggest thing going against Proposal A is people not voting.
“There’s no sense of urgency for people to get out and get to the ballot because everyone just assumes it’s a foregone conclusion that Royal Oak will support this,” DuBuc said in a recent interview.
The opposition is optimistic that their voters will turn out.
“We believe we’re going to win the voter war,” Birchard said.
Both sides have raised money for the effort.
One Royal Oak, a group supporting the passage of Proposal A, has raised more than $10,000 and received more than $3,000 in in-kind contributions as of Oct. 23, according to Oakland County records.
Just Royal Oak, the anti-Proposal A group, has raised $2,695 and received $4,176 in in-kind contributions as of the same date.
Despite the possibility of a low turnout, DuBuc doesn’t regret not waiting to approve the ordinance either next year for the gubernatorial election or in three years for the next presidential election.
“I’m glad we moved forward with (the human rights ordinance),” DuBuc said. “I’m hopeful the majority of voters who come out this November are with us. If they’re not, then the battle moves to another day.”
Birchard sees the vote against Proposal A as saving his children and grandchildren from a fate seen by the biblical cities Sodom and Gomorrah and by former empires Greece and Rome.
“What did change in those countries is the nonhomosexuals accepted the behavior as normal,” Birchard said. “And that is when those countries went under.”
Q and A with City Attorney David Gillam
Based on questions collected by the Review from both sides of the Proposal A debate, City Attorney David Gillam talks about the five-page, 10-section human rights ordinance.
• If the human rights ordinance were to pass, to whom would it extend civil right protections?
If the Human Rights Ordinance is approved, existing civil rights protections would be extended by local ordinance to prohibit discrimination in housing, public accommodations or employment on the basis of height, weight, condition of pregnancy, marital status, source of income, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.
• Would the ordinance create a human rights panel to decide on possible violations of the ordinance?
The ordinance would not create a human rights panel to determine if the ordinance had been violated. A person who believed that he or she had been the victim of discrimination in violation of the ordinance would file a complaint with the Police Department. The Police Department would investigate the complaint and then submit the results of that investigation to the City Attorney’s Office. The City Attorney’s Office would review the results of the investigation, and if that investigation led the City Attorney’s Office to conclude that there was reasonable cause to believe that the ordinance had been violated, the City Attorney’s Office would authorize the Police Department to issue a civil infraction to the suspect.
• Would the ordinance allow males to use the women’s bathroom and vice versa?
The ordinance would not allow males to use the women’s bathroom, or females to use the men’s bathroom. Pursuant to Subsection 10(12) of the ordinance, the use of lavatories (as well as locker room facilities) would continue to be restricted on the basis of the sex of an individual.
• What exemptions from the ordinance would there be, and why would there need to be any exemptions at all?
Specific exceptions to the proposed ordinance are set forth in Section 10. Those exceptions, along with the general exception in Section 9, are in recognition of the fact that some policies or requirements that are not meant to be discriminatory but may have a discriminatory effect are still necessary and appropriate.
• Are separate structures sharing property with a single-dwelling, owner-occupied home still exempt from the ordinance?
Subsection 10(11) of the ordinance creates an exception for discrimination in any arrangement for the sharing of a dwelling unit. Any separate arrangements for the sharing of structures that are located on the same property as the dwelling unit would not fall within this exception.
• Would the ordinance potentially ban Red Cross blood drives within city limits?
The ordinance would not prohibit an organization like the Red Cross from establishing and enforcing requirements that individuals would have to meet in order to be able to donate blood. While some of those requirements could have a discriminatory effect, the City would consider the protection of the blood supply to be a “bona fide business necessity” under Section 9 of the ordinance.