Several years after the failure of a human rights ballot proposal that included protections for gays and lesbians, Ferndale appears ready to give equal rights another chance.
The city council on Monday was wrapping up about two dozen appointments to a committee that is to decide whether to put a human rights ordinance on a future ballot and, if so, how it should be worded.
Mayor Chuck Goedert says falsehoods permeated the previous campaign in 1991, particularly with regard to what it would mean not to tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Detroit-based civil rights attorney Rudy Serra, who drafted the earlier ballot proposal, said it was attacked with false claims, including that churches would have to hire homosexuals and that anyone who advertised for a roommate could be forced to share their home with someone against their will.
"They were telling you that if you are a 70-year-old woman, you would have to share your home with a man!" Serra says.
State and federal laws already forbid discrimination on the basis of categories including race, gender and disability. But in Ferndale, gays and lesbians are also asking for protection on the basis of sexual orientation. Such protection was controversial in Ypsilanti last year in the months leading up to a May vote in which residents reinstated an anti-discrimination ordinance including sexual orientation.
Ferndale’s 1991 ballot proposal that included protections for lesbians and gays failed at a time when Ferndale’s homosexual community was smaller and less politically active. Those in favor of passing a similar ordinance in the future are basing their hopes on the changes they have seen in Ferndale in the past eight years
"It’s not the same community," says Ann Heler, a committee member and vice president of the gay and lesbian group FANs — Friends and Neighbors — of Ferndale. "There’s absolutely a gay presence in civic issues and political issues here."
Heler says there has been a trend toward more open, tolerant political leadership under Goedert, who became mayor in 1996. Still, there are disturbing signs, such as the wave of anti-gay and white supremacist literature in late 1997, which police say came from outside Ferndale.
Serra recalls people telling him in 1991 that they didn’t want a civil rights ordinance because they wanted to keep blacks out of Ferndale.
Planning Commissioner Joe Trice, an African American and a member of the committee, says he would like to see tougher penalties for those who distribute materials that advocate violence. He says he has seen such hate literature in Ferndale, aimed against African Americans.
"As a black person, I have to wonder is there some white guy out there thinking that he is going to cause me grievous harm or kill me if he can just because he doesn’t like the skin I’m walking in," Trice says.
Trice says any human rights law should include sexual orientation as well as race, but committee member Kay Watson, a retired hospital worker, says homosexuals shouldn’t be protected by law.
"If they stayed in the closet, they could fade into the woodwork," Watson says. "If they want to reveal who they are, if that’s what they want, then so be it. But you have to realize you’re going to be punished for your honesty."