Republican-led Michigan Legislature's Speaker Lee Chatfield
Michigan's Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield. Photo by U.P. Politico U.P. Politico - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This organization hired an anti-LGBTQ former politician as CEO. Kalamazooians aren’t having it.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.— In 2009, just before the OneKalamazoo effort to protect LGBTQ residents from discrimination began, I moved to the city and lived there for 10 years. Watching the city’s commitment to non-discrimination grow into welcoming and supporting LGBTQ residents was like watching a tree grow that I helped plant.

This week, roots of that tree broke through tough institutional soil when the city’s commitment to diversity and inclusion fractured its relationship with a local economic development group. 

More than a decade ago, Kalamazoo became one of the first cities in the state to enact a local ordinance protecting LGBTQ residents from housing and employment discrimination. The campaign was a source of pride for Kalamazoo—a hard-fought victory for the community. From grassroots local organization OneKalamazoo to Western Michigan University’s Outspoken, local LGBTQ advocacy groups organized to win votes for the ordinance against big money from anti-LGBTQ groups. 

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I was part of that campaign. I helped with coordinating efforts between the student government at Western Michigan University, which supported OneKalamazoo, and the grassroots efforts of the campaign and campus advocacy with Outspoken.

And for someone who was a part of that campaign, seeing the city’s continued commitment to people like me only grows the pride I have in the accomplishments of OneKalamazoo. Now, as the city ends a longstanding relationship with economic development group Southwest Michigan First over its anti-LGTBQ hire, there’s no question where Kalamazoo stands when it comes to LGBTQ rights and protections.

A Case of Irreconcilable Differences Over Dignity for LGBTQ People

On Monday, the city commission in Kalamazoo unanimously voted to break ties with the economic development group Southwest Michigan First. City commissioner Erin Knott explained in a statement that Southwest Michigan First broke with Kalamazoo’s commitment to embracing and supporting the LGBTQ community. 

“The former Speaker, having the worst equality record in the state House, does not share the values of Kalamazoo County or Southwest Michigan. Lee Chatfield’s record includes comparing LGBTQ individuals to ‘swingers, adulterers, polygamists and pedophiles,’” Knott said. “How can Southwest Michigan First align itself with Lee Chatfield’s record? Lee Chatfield, for six years, championed the obstruction of every effort to pass non-discrimination protections and stood against anti-discriminatory laws.”

Southwest Michigan First hired former state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) as its new chief executive in early February. Chatfield began his career in the Legislature by running an aggressively anti-LGBTQ campaign and led the opposition to including protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan’s anti-discrimination laws. The lack of those protections in state law led to a court ruling essentially allowing Michigan businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ customers

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Chatfield has argued that protecting the rights of LGBTQ Michiganders would be a “reverse discrimination” that infringed on the right to deny services, employment, or housing on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  

Chatfield has argued that he hasn’t seen widespread discrimination against LGBTQ Michiganders, but Knott thinks that’s a result of not looking very hard. 

“I don’t think that the [former] speaker understands that not everyone has access to the media like he does,” she told MLive. “I think that the speaker is not well informed … discrimination happens on a daily basis.”

Just days after Chatfield’s appointment, Kalamazoo left Southwest Michigan First and took with it the $10,000 in annual funding it usually provides the economic development group. 

More Repercussions Could Be on the Way

Now, Kalamazoo County is weighing whether to follow the city’s lead. Tracy Hall, chair of the county commission, told the Detroit News that ending the county’s relationship with Southwest Michigan First is absolutely under consideration. If it does, that would cost the organization $75,000 per year. As the largest county where the group operates, that could be a serious blow for Southwest Michigan First.

Openly gay herself, Hall worked with the OneKalamazoo campaign in 2009 during my time liaising with the campaign and tought LGBTQ Studies at Western Michigan University. In addition to being a city commissioner in Kalamazoo, Knott is also the director for Equality Michigan. And for years, Kalamazoo was represented in the Legislature by OneKalamazoo’s director Jon Hoadley. Kalamazoo repeatedly has shown it’s support for LGBTQ residents at the ballot box. 

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In hiring Chatfield, Southwest Michigan First ignored the deep roots of LGBTQ pride in the Kalamazoo community.   

Chatfield has been invited to meet with Hall to discuss the unfolding situation but has said that his philosophies as a Republican will lead his efforts as CEO of Southwest Michigan First. 

“My goal is to be nonpartisan in this position, though it’s no secret I lead with the basic foundations of the Republican party,” Chatfield told MiBiz. “Just like my time in the legislature, my goal will be to work with every person on both sides of the aisle, and that spans both politically and personal beliefs. I believe every person deserves civil rights.” 

Southwest Michigan First has updated its policies to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity following Kalamazoo pulling its support. But that action was small comfort to the people who fought to keep Kalamazoo a welcoming and diverse community. 

“[Tuesday’s] action is one step in a long journey,” Knott said in a statement. “I implore them to stand with the LGBTQ+ community by immediately calling upon lawmakers to be on the right side of history. Southwest Michigan First leaders, including Lee Chatfield, must demand that the Legislature pass an amendment to our civil rights law to include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression without a carve out or exemption of any kind in order for it to be fully inclusive for all Michiganders.”

She added, “Taking this next step will demonstrate that Southwest Michigan First shares our community’s core values.”

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So Southwest Michigan First took another step, thanks to the pressure applied by Kalamazooians: Lee Chatfield, who made his career opposing nondiscrimination protections, announced late Wednesday that he supports those protections now that he no longer holds public office and isn’t in a position to actually create that change. That, too, is little comfort to Kalamazoo’s LGBTQ population, says Knott. Words alone can’t unmake a history of policy advocacy opposing Kalamazoo’s values.

“Yesterday’s statement is a good start, but it’s not enough for our community or for Michigan,” Knott said in an email to The ‘Gander Thursday morning. “Moving forward, I want to see actual action from Mr. Chatfield. It is one thing to make a simple statement at an opportune time, and another thing to be a leader.”

It’s no accident that so many current and former elected leaders of Kalamazoo are advocates for the LGBTQ community. In many ways, OneKalamazoo was a landmark moment in local political engagement, bringing together students at the city’s universities, local leaders, businesses, and even some local religious groups. 

If Southwest Michigan First knew the values of the community it was attempting to represent, this hire would be an insult. But it could easily be that the organization simply is ignorant of how deeply tied to LGBTQ pride Kalamazoo is. And in either case, that disregard alone jeopardized the ability for the city and organization to maintain their partnership.

Hiring Chatfield to work with that community shows Southwest Michigan First’s total ignorance of the values of Kalamazoo. And after more than a decade of stalwart support for LGBTQ Michiganders, Kalamazoo’s refusal to participate in an organization that elevates someone who actively fought against them is just the tree planted in 2009 continuing to grow—even when it means cutting certain branches loose.

Knott and Hall both have pledged to continue monitoring the situation.