Human rights and Royal Oak

Nov 4, 2013

The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak is a fascinating little city which has had far greater historic importance than its size would lead you to expect. And how its citizens vote in tomorrow’s election may provide an important clue to how attitudes are changing statewide.

Royal Oak’s 57,000 citizens are going to be asked to vote on a proposed charter ordinance that would forbid discrimination based on a wide variety of factors, including sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Twelve years ago, Royal Oak voted a similar ordinance down by more than 2-1. But opinions have evolved, and since then, a steadily growing group of states have legalized same-sex marriage. 

Royal Oak is best known for producing all sorts of characters. Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest, put the city on the national map in the 1930s, before the Vatican silenced him. Later, the city was the hometown of Tom Hayden, the 60s radical who founded SDS and married Jane Fonda. Jack Kevorkian lived in a ratty apartment here, where he helped more than one person commit what he called medicide.

Much of Royal Oak was and still is a rather conventional, middle-class, “Leave it to Beaver” suburb. But over the last couple decades, the downtown became home to a thriving youth culture which evolved into a hopping nightlife district, with crowded bars and open-air restaurants of all shapes, styles and sizes. Back in the 1950s and 60s, this was reliably Republican turf. But times, people and the Republican Party have changed.

The city is still more than 90 percent white, still made up largely of nuclear families in standalone homes. But Royal Oak voted for President Obama by a landslide even greater than his statewide margin. There are many openly gay couples in Royal Oak, and this spring, the city commission passed the human rights ordinance that will now be on the ballot.

Mayor Jim Ellison was, and is a strong supporter of the ordinance, saying, “It is needed. It is the right time for it. Look around the country and the state. Attitudes are changing.”

But opponents, many from the Christian right, collected signatures and forced a referendum. Ever since then, both sides have been campaigning hard. One Royal Oak, the group supporting the ordinance, has raised far more money than the group opposing it, which calls itself Just Royal Oak, though opponents have gotten thousands in “in-kind” help from groups like the American Family Association. 

Those, like Ellison, who favor the ordinance say it will be good for business. Opponents officially say it is wrong because it gives “special rights” to people with certain sexual orientation. But it is quite clear that this is really all about acceptance and tolerance.

If Royal Oak voters approve the ordinance tomorrow, little will change in the city. But it will be seen as proof of a vast change in the average voter’s attitude over the last decade, and give hope to those seeking to repeal Michigan’s anti-same sex marriage amendment. 

But if it fails, it may mean that perceptions haven’t changed nearly as much as some people have thought.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.