A woman from a small town outside of Grand Rapids hopes to bring improved protections for the LGBTQ community to her hometown.
Gidget Groendyk is running for township supervisor of Sparta, north of Grand Rapids. Focusing mostly on discrimination issues against LGBTQ people, she is currently the only candidate listed as running.
Groendyk is the first openly transgender person to run for office in Sparta, according to the township. She said she hopes both her candidacy and revised local laws will encourage others to feel safe living freely in her area.
"We're forced to hide in society and we should be treated like everybody else," she said, referring to transgender people. "I believe we do have the same rights as everybody else and that's why I'm here, to push that."
Groendyk said she became openly transgender in 2012, legally changing her name from Scott Wade Langford. She said she's experienced multiple incidents of discrimination, also losing business at her Sparta hair salon. In July of last year, her car was spray-painted with hateful slurs in the neighboring town of Plainfield, where she currently lives.
Groendyk said it was through the investigation of the car incident that she discovered neither Plainfield nor Sparta township specifically protected rights to employment, housing, and public accommodations regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, as the city code of Grand Rapids does.
She said she hopes to implement language very similar to the Grand Rapids code in Sparta.
"I don't want anybody to experience what I went through in the last year," she said. "It's just been horrible. It's something that if I can just fix it so someone else doesn't have to experience it, I mean, it's that much better."
However, Groendyk said after the car incident got some attention on local news, the climate in town has improved dramatically, with many people reaching out in support. She said she feels safe in Sparta and knows the other residents quite well. The town has fewer than 4,300 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The primary election is in August, and the township supervisor term is four years. While Groendyk said civil rights issues are a focus for her, she also hopes to improve the business climate in Sparta and encourage local economic growth through tax breaks.
Meanwhile, current supervisor Dale Bergman said he plans to run again. He said he hasn't taken on these kinds of issue before because they haven't come up, but he said Sparta is a very welcoming town.
"It's a kind community," Bergman said. "I think we have that, I really do."
Win or lose, Groendyk said, she's just hoping to make people more familiar with transgender people and encourage better connectivity between different types of people.
"People fear what they don't know," she said. "If you're there, in the public side, and you're educating people, and you're talking about it, and you work around the problems that may exist, pretty soon there's no more problems. I think it's going to happen; I really do."