Ypsilanti

25 years after passing non-discrimination ordinance, Ypsi reflects on fierce battle for LGBTQ rights

Although the ordinance outlawed discrimination on the basis of over a dozen characteristics, its protection of LGBTQ people sparked two formal challenges and lengthy public debate.
As many in the Ypsilanti community celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month in June, others are quietly marking the 25th anniversary of Ypsilanti's non-discrimination ordinance, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and more than a dozen other characteristics.

The ordinance was proposed by a group of concerned LGBTQ residents called the Ypsilanti Campaign for Equality (YCFE) after an Eastern Michigan University advocacy group named Tri-Pride tried to order raffle tickets, only to be turned down by a local printing company. City council unanimously passed the ordinance in 1997, but opposition was immediate and fierce. 

An anti-gay group called Citizens Opposing Special Treatment (COST) gathered petitions seeking to repeal the ordinance. The matter went before voters and the ordinance passed with a huge margin, taking effect in 1998. It was challenged again in 2002, with a group proposing an anti-gay amendment to the city's charter, but that effort was defeated.

Looking back on a "horrid" time

Beth Bashert, former mayor of Ypsilanti and one of the founders of YCFE, says that before singer and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant began her "Save Our Children" campaign in the '70s and '80s, non-discrimination ordinances were uncontroversial and often passed easily across the nation. Post-Bryant, Bashert says, that became harder. 

"After her campaign, we lost more than 80% of those non-discrimination campaigns locally and statewide. When we did win, it was by a hair's breadth of a margin, often less than 1%," Bashert says. "With Ypsilanti, we came out of it with one of the biggest margins, if not the largest margin, of a win in the country since Anita Bryant. I think that's a testament to Ypsilanti and the people that worked on that campaign."
Lisa and Beth Bashert.
Bashert notes that there were two prongs to Ypsilanti activists' strategy back in 1997. One group, YCFE, focused on campaigning for civic protections. The other, called Citizens for Community (C4C) and led by local LGBTQ activist Gary Clark, focused on community outreach. 

Bashert's wife, Lisa Bashert, focused on community outreach while Beth Bashert focused on the political campaign. Lisa Bashert says C4C was made up of residents who were already active around town in everything from community gardens to the Ypsilanti Historical Society to city commissions.

"It was a lot of queers who had already been out and active in the community," Lisa Bashert says. "That made a really huge difference, because the more people that were out, the easier it was for people to support us and support the ordinance. We started a campaign amongst us to be more and more out among our neighbors and so forth, coming out to people who knew us and knew our work but maybe who didn't know that about us."

YCE co-chair Paul Heaton.Longtime Ypsilanti resident Paul Heaton, who now lives in the Washington, D.C. area, followed the news about the ordinance but didn't get heavily involved until the ordinance was challenged. He became co-chair of the YCFE at that time.

The challenge prompted a series of meetings between YCFE and the human relations commission, followed by city council meetings on the subject. They were loud, heavily-attended, and combative.

"Horrid would be the word I'd use," Heaton says. "People trotted out all the classic anti-gay tropes, pedophiles and Bibles, horrible stuff. They were quite painful to sit through."

Lisa Bashert remembers herself and other allies leaving those meetings to "either drink a lot or cry a lot."

"I wanted to go home and take a shower because it was like being covered in shit for hours," she says.

Building support

Beth Bashert says the campaign reached out to every ward in the city but focused heavily on those who were "on the fence". YCFE members were very careful in crafting their message to reach the widest possible audience, Heaton says. 

"One of the things the campaign did really well was make it comfortable for people to support the campaign while holding onto whatever beliefs or thoughts they had about gay people," Heaton says. "We'd say, 'Even people who don't like or agree with homosexuality know that it's wrong to discriminate.'"

Much of the opposition came from the COST group, a coalition of anti-gay residents and out-of-towners, right-leaning activists, and conservative ministers, who tried to frame the debate as a religious issue. Former pro football player and minister Reggie White came to town as well to campaign against the ordinance. But YCFE's cause was backed by Coretta Scott King and Ray Mullins, who has served as president of several Michigan branches of the NAACP.
Newspaper clippings at the Eastern Michigan University Archives memory swap .
And a group of local Quakers showed up to help YCFE deal with difficult conversations with a method that uses the acronym CLARA: Center, Listen, Affirm, Respond, Add.

For instance, a campaign member might challenge the idea of "special rights" for the LGBTQ community by agreeing that it would be bad if someone got "special rights."

"But then you'd go on to say our goal is for all people to have the same rights, and then add at the end: here are the ways gay people do not have equal rights," Lisa Bashert says.

"I know Beth and I get a lot of credit for running the campaign," Heaton says. "But the reason we won in Ypsilanti is that gay people were active in the community and out in the community for years before this happened. Then, when this happened, it wasn't like this was happening to a bunch of strangers. That's a very important component of why we got that ordinance passed."

A living document

On the anniversary of the ordinance's passage, Ypsi residents are looking back in various ways. Matt Jones, archivist with the Eastern Michigan University Archives, has been documenting the non-discrimination ordinance for the archives by recording oral histories. The archives held a "memory swap" on Sunday, June 5, which drew in many shared photos, documents, and objects to be digitized for the archival project.

"It's been difficult to listen to sometimes," Jones says. "There were just these absolutely abusive things said by anti-gay opponents, just some of the worst things you're going to hear. They held these LGBTQ advocates and activists up and crucified them publicly."
Matt Jones interviews Lisa Bashert during the Eastern Michigan University Archives memory swap.
Elize Jekabson is the Downtown Development Authority Coordinator for the city of Ypsilanti and the co-founder of Ypsi Pride. This year, she and a small handful of others raised the rainbow flag in city council chambers June 1, and she says she wishes she'd known more about the LGBTQ history of the city when they were doing so. She's only become more aware of the history of the non-discrimination ordinance in the last few weeks, in part due to Jones' archival project.

"I'm excited Matt Jones is bringing this to light, because it's super important," Jekabson says. "I think a lot of us take for granted all the work that was done not even that long ago. It's hard to believe it was only 25 years ago and how relentlessly homophobic and transphobic the public comment was at the time." 

"I wish we would do more," Jekabson adds. "I'd like to see a dedicated flagpole and put up the rainbow flag every year with a little more of a ceremony."
Downtown Development Authority Coordinator Elize Jekabson.
Lisa Bashert notes that the ordinance is a "living document" that has been added to over the years. Since 1997, immigration status and felony conviction status have been added to the ordinance. 

"Two or three years ago, I was proud to work for the addition of felony status. People that have a history that includes a felony can't be discriminated against for housing," she says. 

Jekabson says "there's a reason there's such a strong LGBTQ community here."

"And it's not by chance. Probably a big part of it is because of the non-discriminiation ordinance," she says. "It's just incredible what those folks were able to do."

Read the non-discrimination ordinance here. Learn more about the EMU Archives here

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.