Nearly 10 years after the Holland City Council shot down a nondiscrimination ordinance that would codify protections for LGBTQ people, the council voted 8-to-1 in August to approve an ordinance that bars discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and public services “on the basis of age, race, national origin, color, disability, education, familial status, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, height, marital status, religion, source of income or weight.”
“There was so much hurt that happened nine years ago,” psychotherapist Sara Van Tongeren says. “In so many ways, this really helped move Holland forward — beyond just LGBTQ rights.”
Van Tongeren was one of three leaders pushing the city council to enact the ordinance
“I’ve had numerous, numerous people say they feel for the first time that Holland actually hears them,” she says. “It’s the beginning of the work that’s ahead for the community, but it’s an important step. I feel hopeful. I think that’s important and to be able to affect change in our own city.”
The issue fell by the wayside for several years, but picked up steam with the November 2019 election of new Holland Mayor Nathan Bocks, says Jeffrey Sorensen, director of Out on the Lakeshore.
Bocks ran on a platform of inclusion, ousting two-term Mayor NancyDeBoer. Every January during a council retreat, members establish priorities for the year. For 2020, diversity, equity, and inclusion emerged as the top priority.
Just before he called for the vote on the ordinance last month, Bocks said: “It’s time to protect the rights of everyone equally. One standard, one rule, one ordinance, one Holland. Holland, let's send a clear and unequivocal message: ‘We love our neighbors as ourselves. We appreciate the gifts they bring to our community. We protect the rights of everyone equally.
And we celebrate the value of everyone who calls Holland home, because this is Holland — one Holland, and we all get to live here.’”
Not all comments were positive,however. Some residents were opposed because similar laws are in place at the state and federal levels, or they feared a slippery slope. Councilman Quincy Byrd cast
the sole no vote on the grounds that it would not afford effective protection for Christians and Christian organizations.
“It wouldn’t be fair to shove it through and not have the community say what it needed to say, and — to be honest — on both sides, even though it got pretty ugly,” Van Tongeren says.
She and dozens of other mental health professionals first approached the council in December 2019 to address the lack of protections, especially for LGBTQ people, as a public health crisis.
By the last meeting, the city of Holland had received hours of public comment and hundreds of email comments on the topic.
The Rev. Jennifer Adams of Grace Episcopal Church has been fighting for change longer than most. She is one of the founders of Out on the Lakeshore, but she’s quick to say she’s not the only one who has fought long and hard.
“I'd want people to know how overwhelmingly grateful we are for everyone who helped this ordinance happen,” she says. “It's been a lot of people over a lot of years.”
“Holland’s big thing is ‘welcome,’ and there are several groups of people who don’t feel ‘welcome,’” Sorensen says.
He has spoken to former Holland residents who moved away for one reason: Holland’s reputation as less than welcoming to those who are different.
“Now that things are changing, there are people who want to come back. They want to be where their families are,” Sorensen says. “Holland’s reputation is on the mend, and it’s going to change.”
The Aug. 19 council meeting
didn’t end until 1:30 a.m.
With reduced capacity in council chambers due to COVID-19 restrictions, a crowd of people set up outside the building, awaiting the result.
“Even after seven hours, people were sitting outside in lawn chairs, just waiting,” Sorensen says.
By the time the vote happened, Sorensen says he felt worn down, emotionally and physically. And though supporters upheld the decorum of the council chambers, they could hear the cheers from those outside listening to the audio.
“We could also hear there’s a whole crowd of people outside cheering for the vote,” he says.
Now, Holland has one of the more comprehensive ordinances in the state, Van Tongeren says.
A couple of weeks later, Grandville passed a similar ordinance.
With local protections in place, Adams says the majority still needs to make sure it is listening “to listen and learn from those on the margins.”
Sorensen agrees. “There’s always going to be work to be done. With that in mind, this is a huge step for Holland, and for other communities as well.