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Published in Economic Development
Out on the Lakeshore Director Jeffrey Sorensen (above) and business advocacy groups say Holland’s recently passed anti-discrimination ordinance will help retain and attract talent to the lakeshore community. Out on the Lakeshore Director Jeffrey Sorensen (above) and business advocacy groups say Holland’s recently passed anti-discrimination ordinance will help retain and attract talent to the lakeshore community. MIBIZ PHOTO: SETH THOMPSON, GREEN FROG PHOTO

Biz groups back new Holland LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance

BY Sunday, August 30, 2020 05:26pm

HOLLAND — Business leaders and elected officials in Holland say the city’s recently approved anti-discrimination ordinance codifying protections for the LGBTQ community will be beneficial for retaining and attracting talent.

The Holland City Council’s Aug. 19 meeting stretched into the early hours of the next day after about 60 people voiced opinions for and against the ordinance during a four-hour public comment period. The Holland City Council ultimately voted 8-1 to approve the ordinance.

The city council meeting — which was held in person with social distancing restrictions — was “an emotional rollercoaster,” said Jeffrey Sorensen, director of Holland-based LGBTQ resource center Out on the Lakeshore.

“There were people who got up and told their stories about how these forms of discrimination have affected them, talking about either themselves or their children and their friends and family,” Sorensen said. “A lot of it was hard to hear but it’s the truth of the matter.”

The ordinance language was based on a model provided by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and states people may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity — among other characteristics — in the areas of housing, employment, access to public services and public accommodations.

“Anything we can do to welcome all people and to be an inclusive community is the right thing to do for our community’s business growth and talent attraction,” said Lakeshore Advantage President Jennifer Owens.

The renewed effort behind the Holland ordinance was due in part to Mayor Nathan Bocks winning the mayoral seat in last year’s Nov. 5 election. Bocks made diversity and inclusion a large part of his platform and was among the “yes” votes for the anti-discrimination ordinance.

“This sends a very clear statement to the community that we believe these are rights that should be protected and we wanted to have a local place where people can file these complaints,” Bocks said. 

Business owners have expressed to Bocks that lacking such an ordinance has made it harder to attract employees and new talent to the area, he added.

“I’ve heard from employees as well saying, ‘Thank you, I feel more comfortable now knowing my sexual orientation is protected,’” Bocks said. “This is incredibly beneficial for employers and employees. I have very good friends who have moved away from the community because they did not feel comfortable here.”

The ordinance offers some relief to LGBTQ individuals in the city because their employer can not fire them on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity without violating local law. If someone in the LGBTQ community or one of the protected groups in the ordinance is denied housing, employment or access to public services and accommodations based on their identity, they can now file a claim on the local level with the city.

‘Important in our area’

Holland’s anti-discrimination ordinance aligns with ongoing efforts of local business advocacy groups and their members but now covers the whole city, said Caroline Monahan, director of marketing and communications at the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce

“It all stems from companies in our area wanting to attract diverse talent and not only attract them, but create a community that’s welcoming to keep their families here,” Monahan said. “Everyone is embracing the fact that this is important in our area to maintain the thriving economy we’ve had for so long, and this makes it better to bring more people in and have more diversity of thought.”

The interest of businesses in fostering welcoming work environments to a diverse workforce including LGBTQ people is increasing in Holland, Monahan said. 

“The answer is always: We need to go back to creating the community where people want to be,” Monahan said. “Within your own business culture, if you’re going to have diverse talent you need to accept you’re going to have a diverse work culture and look at how you can embrace the differences of people who work for you.”

Zeeland-based office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc. has a long history of supporting the LGBTQ community and workplace protections for its employees. Most recently, the company publicly supported the expansion of the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBTQ individuals.

“No one in our community, state, or country should doubt that they can live confidently with the knowledge that their rights are protected in the eyes of the law — and we’re committed to being an organization where everyone can thrive,” said Ann Noe, Herman Miller’s inclusion and diversity program manager.

If other states have anti-discrimination protections that local communities lack, it puts up a barrier to move a business here, said Anna Heaton, vice president of marketing and communications at Business Leaders for Michigan

“What we hear from some of our member companies is it’s definitely a talent issue,” Heaton said. “This has been a big year in diversity and inclusion efforts in terms of not just giving it lip service.”

Business Leaders for Michigan has also supported statewide efforts to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for the LGBTQ community. In July the group’s political action committee contributed $100,000 to a ballot initiative to expand Elliott-Larsen.

Holland’s reputation

Sorensen said Holland’s reputation as a conservative city has caused some in the LGBTQ community to move away as well as outsiders choosing not to relocate there. The new ordinance will have the long-term effect of people starting to feel more comfortable moving to Holland, being employed in Holland and visiting the lakeshore community, he said.

“This is definitely a way to send that message that Holland has changed and is an inclusive and diverse community,” Sorensen said.

Part of the change Sorensen is referring to is when a similar anti-discrimination ordinance was shot down in 2011. A recommendation from the city’s Human Relations Commission to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the city’s human rights ordinance was rejected 5-4 by the city council. 

“The fact we made it as far as we did shows Holland is changing,” Sorensen said. “The fact that the vote went through and passed with only one no vote — that shows the community truly is changing, and that the beliefs and values of the community have changed to become more inclusive of everyone who wants to live and work here.”

In order to have a thriving, economically successful community, all members need to be able to fully participate, Noe said.

“The reality is that we shouldn’t only care about inclusion when it’s easy and conflict free, but rather ensure our commitment to inclusion pushes us to learn and grow beyond the bounds of our comfort to learn about other perspectives as well,” Noe said. “LGBTQ+ individuals are our neighbors, co-workers, friends and customers, and it’s great that Holland is finally reflecting that in their policies.” 

Why it matters

In the year that Sorensen has led Out on the Lakeshore, he has heard several complaints from people who have lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation, as well as people who simply did not feel comfortable at work because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

“While some people can get by for the most part, at a certain level you want to be able to mention your spouse to your coworkers, or even if it’s your child that’s gay and you support them,” Sorensen said. “I’ve heard complaints of situations like that, where people have supported their children but don’t feel comfortable they can discuss it openly.”

While efforts are ongoing to expand the state’s civil rights law to include LGBTQ protections, it was important for Holland to reinforce the message of inclusion and diversity on a local level, Sorensen said. Having the ordinance also will make it easier for residents to file discrimination complaints.

“It’s more likely that person will actually follow through on a claim when they can do so at a local level because it’s the city hall they know, the people they know,” he said. “They feel much more comfortable than going to the state level to file a complaint.”

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