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Published: Saturday, 2/24/2001

Royal Oak braces for an emotional civil war

ROYAL OAK, Mich. - To a visitor, this town of tree-lined streets and single-family, middle-class suburban homes looks more like a place where Ward and June Cleaver would live than a hotbed of social controversy.

Yet for some mysterious reason, Royal Oak has often turned into a lightning rod. The skyline consists mainly of the imposing tower of the National Shrine of the Little Flower church, from where the Rev. Charles Coughlin mesmerized millions in the 1930s with his fiery radical and anti-Semitic broadcasts.

Tom Hayden, founder of the left-wing Vietnam-era Students for a Democratic Society, grew up here. Jack Kevorkian lived for years in a seedy downtown walk-up apartment, where he occasionally helped clients die until a peeved landlord decided to tear the building down. Then, a decade ago, a few blocks of Main Street turned into what passes for Detroit's Bohemian Village, where the young, pierced, and tattooed can be found crowding coffee houses and avant-garde boutiques into the wee hours.

And now Royal Oak is on the verge of emotional civil war over something that sounds as plain and simple as packaged white bread. On May 1, its 65,000 citizens will vote on a human rights ordinance, nearly identical to resolutions adopted by neighboring Birmingham and conservative Grand Rapids.

But while echoing the traditional protections against discrimination based on race, color, creed, and sex, Royal Oak's ordinance would also forbid discrimination due to sexual orientation, “defined as male or female heterosexuality, bisexuality, or homosexuality.”

That has some conservatives vowing to do anything they can to defeat it.

“What this would really do is establish a protected class status for homosexual behavior,” charges Gary Glenn, head of something called the American Family Association of Michigan, perhaps the state's leading anti-gay group.

Working from his home in Midland, nearly 150 miles from Royal Oak, the 42-year-old Mr. Glenn alleges, among other things, that the ordinance would force the owner of a religious bookstore to hire practicing homosexuals. City attorney Chuck Semchana denies that, and the ordinance itself seems to exempt any religious or nonprofit institution.

“By putting this on the ballot, we have opened ourselves up for the kind of campaign of lies and hate that Gary Glenn will come to town to spread,” charges an irate Marie Donigan, a member of Royal Oak's City Commission.

Last November, she begged her fellow city commissioners not to schedule an election, but to merely pass what both sides now call the “HRO.”

“Come on, folks. Let's be leaders and act on our convictions,” she told her fellow commissioners. “I am not gay, but I would guess about 10 percent of our citizens and many of our prominent business owners are, and a person can still be fired because of their sexual orientation. No civil rights law has been passed to protect them.”

She begged them to “do their jobs,” as elected representatives, and have the courage to pass the law. But the commission, some of whom may have feared reprisal at the polls, voted instead to schedule an election. Ms. Donigan, a 45-year-old landscape architect for a neighboring city, is urging a yes vote.

“It is stunningly simple, and simply just. Our city will continue to work well or better, our democracy will be safer, and our people will live happily ever after.”

But she fears the worst - “an ugly campaign waged by outsiders. They will go door to door with leaflets promoting hate. Gary Glenn will come into Royal Oak and recruit people to help him do what he does best - scare people into voting no.”

Understandably, Mr. Glenn doesn't put it in those terms. But he vows a stiff fight. “We will do anything we can to help the citizens of Royal Oak defeat this ordinance,” he says, claiming “pro-family views are under assault by the homosexual agenda.”

Mr. Glenn, who named a son “Heston” after the National Rifle Association president, does seem obsessed with homosexuality. Told that the ordinance refers to orientation and says nothing about sexual acts themselves, he said “It's the same thing.”

And he is optimistic he will be able to defeat the Royal Oak HRO, especially given that voters in neighboring Ferndale, a smaller and slightly more blue-collar town, turned down a similar ordinance by only 117 votes in a referendum last fall.

Many people said the defeat was due to a last-minute leaflet campaign (thanks to $5,000 from the American Family Association) claiming (apparently falsely) taxes would rise because Ferndale would have to offer health insurance to same-sex partners of city workers. Mr. Glenn said his victory there was significant because “Ferndale's a place where downtown businesses openly fly pink triangle flags.”

That doesn't seem true either, though the town's mayor has been supportive of the gay community, in part because Ferndale has become a fashionable place for gay couples to live, many of whom have artfully renovated some of the city's aging homes.

The next two months may draw national attention - and also produce other unwanted fallout. Voters will be asked on the same ballot to approve what city officials say is a much-needed new millage for the fire department. City commissioners worry a big anti-gay turnout may also doom that, and that the claim that gay rights mean higher taxes may cause voters to somehow confuse the two.

“We don't need this,” Ms. Donigan said. “Any of it.” By the time this is over, many of her fellow citizens may well agree.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.



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