Holland's first openly gay council candidate rekindles debate over LGBT protections

Nov 1, 2013

Watch Holland City Council candidates weigh in on everything from human rights, to public utilities to public safety at a League of Women Voters forum that took place earlier this month at city hall.

A municipal election in the City of Holland is rekindling a debate over laws to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination.

In June 2011, Holland City Council voted 5-4 against a proposal that would have made it illegal for landlords and employers to discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“City council may not have dealt with this in any kind of public way in the last two and half years, but in the community it has never gone away,” Donald Martin said of the issue.

Martin is the first openly gay candidate running for Holland City Council. He’s lived in the city for ten years.

“I understand that I’m a novelty here and I’m fine with that,” Martin said, “Because at some point somebody who doesn’t feel like they have a strong voice is going to catch wind of my campaign and go ‘Wow if he can do it in Holland I can do it anywhere.’ Well, yeah you can. That’s America and that’s awesome. But voters aren’t making a big deal out of it.”

Martin says he does not raise the issue directly. But he says people who ask him about the rainbow design on his campaign signs have been supportive. Martin says the city council’s vote on the discrimination issue is not the main reason he's running, but it played a part.

If elected, Martin says he’d be interested in having staff study the issue again. But he says his main focus would be on economic development, infrastructure improvements, and public safety.

Martin is bilingual and has reached out to Holland’s growing Latino community. All of his campaign literature is printed in both English and Spanish.

Martin says he’s surprised that outside groups haven’t targeted his campaign.

His opponent, at-large Holland City Councilwoman Nancy De Boer, declined to be interviewed. She directed voters to a questionnaire in the Holland Sentinel.

Another Holland City Council candidate, Richard Burlingame, says the anti-discrimination vote is the main reason he’s chosen to run. He spoke in favor of the ordinance during a public comment portion of a city council meeting shortly after it was rejected. Burlingame says he never had any interest in politics, but decided to run when several people asked if he would.

“For me, it’s a civil rights issue, hands down,” Burlingame said.

Unlike Martin, Burlingame says he does raise the issue directly while going door to door. He says only two people have shut their doors on him of the 300 or so houses he's visited.

Burlingame is running against Holland City Councilman Brian Burch, who voted against the ordinance in 2011.

“Is it the number one issue for a homeowner in Holland? Probably not. Public safety is really the number one issue, at least in my neighborhood,” Burch said.

Burch does not support discrimination. He thinks business owners, landlords and condominium associations in Holland are already working to correct the issue. He says it’s “not the role of city government to police the thoughts and beliefs of people.”

And he is not surprised his vote from two years ago has come up again.

“It’s not going to go away because it’s not just a Holland issue. It’s a statewide issue. It’s a national issue. So it’s not going to go away until we adjust our state and federal laws to align with the realities of our society today,” Burch said.

Burch said he probably would support someone adding the protections at the state level.

Related - Unequal by law: Being gay in Michigan (a Michigan Radio documentary)

Burlingame says Burch’s statements are “double speak.”

“I’m a straight shooter. All politics is local. It starts here. Honestly, Holland cannot get ahead if we’re leaving people behind,” Burlingame said.

He admits it’ll be tough to unseat an incumbent.

“I understand the hill that I’m climbing up. Win or lose I think you’ll get a better councilman,” Burlingame said.