Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Painful Steps to Justice

When I came to Jackson, MI in 2004, it took me a while to realize how unsupported the LGBTQ community felt here. During my seminary years, all my LGBTQ friends and colleagues were entirely out of the closet, and as someone with cis-gender and heterosexual privilege, I had basically forgotten that the closet could still exist. But here in Jackson, I found, the closet was still deep and wide. People I knew through church or PFLAG or social justice work might be out in one context and still in with family, work, or other friends. So I learned this again, and said it many times to people in one context or another that Jackson was not as progressive with LGBTQ rights as many other locations.  I said it, and I knew it, but I hadn't felt it.

In Michigan we have no state-wide protections for LGBTQ people. In fact, when our state's civil rights legislation, the Elliott-Larsen Act was passed in 1976, LGBTQ protection was specifically left out because of fear that adding LGBTQ protections would cause the whole act to fail to pass. Since then, there have been efforts to amend Elliott-Larsen, but all have failed. What's happened in its place is that individual cities -- over 40 of them in Michigan -- have passed city-wide protections, one at a time.

People had been trying to get a Non-Discrimination Ordinance (NDO) passed in Jackson long before I came here. The local paper recently wrote about the history of this fight, and traced it back to 1999 when it was first brought to the City Council. It was brought to a first reading, but then never went to a second reading for lack of votes. I got mildly involved -- enough to write and speak about it -- when it was being brought back in front of the council in 2009, where it failed again. A grass-roots organization was formed, which we titled "Jackson Together," and I got more deeply involved. We worked to bring it in front of the City Council again in 2012. My part was to collect a list of some clergy who were supportive of the NDO, and I created the Facebook page for the group, and was one of those who spoke up at the City Council meeting. The City Council sent it to committee for review.  It never came out of committee. Later, the committee was disbanded. The Jackson Together group fizzled out. And then in 2014, a high school student started asking around about why the NDO didn't exist in Jackson, and he became determined to see it pass. I suggested we resurrect the old Jackson Together group, and so he and I and another local clergy member took the helm, and we started meeting again.  We created lists of local businesses in support of the NDO, updated the clergy list, and brought it back before the council. This time, the state-wide LGBTQ advocacy group, Equality Michigan, asked us to table the issue.  They thought they had enough Republican support to amend the state-wide Elliott-Larsen Act.  They were wrong.  But meanwhile, our City Council never would get the NDO back off the table to a vote.  As so our group fizzled out again.

This time, the LGBTQ community started organizing again for another push before the City Council, and asked me to join them.  I resurrected Jackson Together to be a Facebook presence for disseminating information.  Various groups convened and worked on it under different banners -- Jackson Together, PFLAG, the newly created Jackson Pride Center, a working group of our Vice Mayor -- and we started just going to the City Council meetings repeatedly asking for it to be passed. Finally a couple of council members got it on the agenda in January. We organized people to meet before the Council Meeting and go over to the Council Meeting together. When we got there, our organized support group was less than a fourth of the crowd, as over 400 people tried to pack into the City Council chambers.  The line was outside the building to get into City Hall.  The Council had never seen anything like it.  They hastily met and worked out a plan to adjourn and reconvene at the local Michigan Theater around the block at 8:30.  400-500 people packed into the Michigan Theater, where citizen comments were shortened to two minutes. Over two hours of testimony ensued, with 76 people speaking for the ordinance and 4 against. Finally, around midnight, the City Council passed the ordinance through its first of two readings, with a vote of 4-3. Voting against us was the mayor, a council member who had voted to table the ordinance back in 1999, and a third council member. In favor was one member who said that she didn't promise to vote for it in second reading. We knew we had work to do in the next two weeks.

Over the next two weeks, we had phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, letters to the editor, letters to council members, press conferences, editorials, and daily pushes on social media. I created daily graphics with action items for social media, and gathered clergy together to write a press release and to sit together for the final vote. As one of the identified leaders, I also spoke to the press on several occasions leading up to the vote, and worked with the press to help identify others to talk to.

For the final vote, over 600 people packed the Michigan Theater, and we had five hours of citizen comments.  Those of us who worked hard organizing were pleased that the supporters still outnumbered the opposition, who had also worked hard to turn out their people.  88 people spoke in favor, and 66 against.  Around eleven, the press had to step out to make their "live at eleven" reports, and then come back in.  One gave me his number to text him if they should suddenly finish and go to the vote, but they didn't.  It was after midnight again when they finally voted. The opposition had been trying to force one of our supporters on the Council to recuse himself because he worked for a large company, Consumers Energy, that had made public statements in favor of the NDO.  The first name they called for the vote was our Council Member who was on the fence. We held our breaths.  And she voted in favor. Some folks started cheering, but I didn't yet. The second council member was one we knew we could count on.  But then the third person was called, and it was the Council Member who had pushed to table the issue in 1999, and who had never supported it.  And he voted yes! Even if the Consumers Energy employee was forced to recuse (which he wasn't), we now had won. In the end, our vote was 5-2 in favor of the ordinance, with only the mayor and one other council member voting against.

I've always known that the arc of the universe bends toward justice.  And I've preached many times about how we don't always get to see it happen, how Susan B. Anthony died before women got the vote, and how the arc can look flat from where we're at.  But this time, after nearly two decades of activism, we were victorious at last. There was great rejoicing -- cheering, hugging, thanking each other for our work and our support.

It wasn't until a couple of days later, when the euphoria subsided, that some of the harder parts of the night came to the forefront for me. We had listened to sixty-six people get up to the microphone and talk about how they didn't think this NDO was necessary.  Some were polite.  Some cited reasons that really would've been cleared up if they truly understood the ordinance -- fear that an accusation alone would cost them the fine, or that even if they didn't know someone was gay they could be fined for not hiring them, etc.  But as the night wore on, things got nastier and nastier.  And at the same time as they got nastier, person after person would say something like, "Everybody for this NDO keeps talking about hate.  I don't hear any of us talking about hate.  I don't hate gay people.  But..."  And then they would talk about how their religion and their God tells them that homosexuality is a sin, and so they can't possibly be expected to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, or do photography for a same-sex wedding.  A Catholic priest spoke about how this would (and, of course, it won't) force him to perform same-sex weddings.  Over and over again, people talked about bathrooms at schools. (The NDO has nothing to do with schools, and explicitly states that it doesn't require changes to bathrooms.)  A sample comment reported in the paper was, "I don’t want some confused guy in the bathroom with my daughter.”  But the nastier ones used language of "perversion" and "Sodomite."  Living and working among progressives as I do, and being given the privilege not afforded to my LGBTQ friends and congregation members, I hadn't heard language like that in years. Another pastor got up and told the Council that if they passed the NDO, God would damn Jackson like he did Sodom.  Our row of clergy in the front was stared down in particular by several people as they got up to tell what they thought their God and their Bible had to say about how we treat people in this community.  We had certainly proven to the City Council that the NDO was needed, as person after person spoke about how they shouldn't be forced to hire, rent to, or serve LGBTQ people in this community.

And in the face of all that hate, person after person, from high schoolers to senior citizens, got up and spoke about their fear, about the discrimination, about the hatred they had faced, about family and friends who turned their backs on them.  Not knowing if they could be fired tomorrow or denied housing next week, some who had been out for ages and some who were only now coming out of the closet, they got in front of the City Council with cameras on them from all directions, and told their stories.

As I reflected, I posted this on Facebook:
"Two days later, still up too late and unable to sleep. Euphoria having worn off a bit, I'm thinking about what our local LGBTQ community had to go through on Tuesday. Five and a half hours of deliberate misgendering and mockery, name calling like sodomites and perverts, insinuation that they would harm people in restrooms, being told that God would damn them. And then over and over again being told that this wasn't about hatred, but their identity goes against God. I know how awful it was for me to listen to that, and can't imagine how hard it was for our LGBTQ community who came up and talked about fear, about abandonment, about abuse, and about discrimination. I'm so proud of our LGBTQ youth, but so sad the world still holds these hatreds. 
"I'm proud of the work we did to win the vote, and happy we have the nondiscrimination ordinance at last, but I'll never forget how some of the people stared right at me as they said that their Christian faith demanded they act this way. For one evening my hetero privilege was stripped away, and it was shocking and scary. There were people trying to intimidate me at several points. As I left the theater, a man started yelling at me and accusing me of things I hadn't done, and I felt threatened and afraid. Fortunately the police were there and hurried him on his way, and also fortunately I had a ride to my car. 
"I'm so glad we had our row of clergy to counter that disgusting show of the worst of our community. God loves you, friends. And those people were outnumbered by the ones who know that you are loved for who you are."
My biggest regret was that we stacked our clergy people in the front of the deck, trying to set a tone about God's message, and then it was followed by hours of hurtful theology.  I wanted a time at the end of the night for us to be able to get up then and say, "You are loved.  You are loved by God for being just who you are.  God made you queer, trans, bi, lesbian and gay, because that is wonderful."

But my LGBTQ friends here tell me they had fewer regrets and fewer surprises.  They had seen this hate before, and they knew it was here under the surface still.  They were less surprised than me at the language thrown at them, and many were less intimidated than me by the preachers staring them down while yelling about Sodom.  And at the end of the night, they had won. After twenty years of working, we had bent the arc toward justice.

No comments: