In law school, I was trained to pay attention to words. We were taught that when reviewing a law, the words themselves are the best evidence of what the legislature intended the law to mean. So when someone chooses a particular word or phrase over another, whether in a formal setting, in a conversation, or even on Facebook, I tend to believe that what they actually said is the best evidence of what a person meant. Consequently, when someone uses a slur -- a word or phrase that is offensive and degrading to a class of people -- I pay attention. What they meant was to degrade that class -- whether it is racial, ethnic, religious or otherwise -- and by virtue of doing so, try to elevate themselves as “better than.” Because I believe deeply in equality, I cannot help but be offended.
As a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, I am especially sensitive to the impact of hateful words on people’s lives. I see every day how the use of anti-gay or anti-transgender slurs -- at school, at work, where we shop, or just walking down the street -- inflicts real harm on us. It is the outward proof of one’s inward contempt for us, which also expresses itself in actions like bullying, harassment, job discrimination and often violence. That is why anti-gay slurs are, and must be, intolerable in public discourse. It is not simply a matter of respect (which should be sufficient) -- it is also a matter of safety.
When I saw that Troy Mayor Janice Daniels had posted on her Facebook page this summer that she was going to throw away her I Love NY bag “now that queers can get married there,” I was shocked and offended. Her choice of the slur “queers” was evidence that a person who is now an elected official harbors deep animosity toward the gay community, and had no qualms posting about it. She may not have been mayor at the time, but I doubt that winning the election has done anything other than reinforce her obvious belief that she is better than the people she serves.
Now, having heard her excuse, I am even more deeply concerned, because it is a familiar and dangerous one. Ms. Daniels claims she was “expressing her personal belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.” Meaning, it is okay to degrade and dehumanize people if you are doing it based on a sincerely held moral conviction.
Does that sound familiar to you, too? Just a month ago, our state senate tried to protect school bullies based on the same justification. They passed a bill that exempted not just students, but also school employees and others, from any responsibility for bullying if it was based on a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” It was, in essence, a license to bully. It was a national embarrassment and a shameful day for our state. And now Ms. Daniels has shamed the City of Troy by attempting to hide behind the same excuse.
Does she understand that this is not about marriage equality -- which can, and should be, thoughtfully debated -- but about her words showing obvious contempt for gay people? She says she lives in a “free country” and has a First Amendment right to “speak her mind” on any and all issues. Of course she does -- and no government entity is trying to prevent or punish her for expressing her opinion. In fact, the exact opposite is happening: she is being held accountable by the community for her bias and bigotry, as she should be.
The sad thing is that I firmly believe that if she could see us, if she could see that we are right there among her neighbors, her co-workers, and throughout her community contributing to and enriching Troy, maybe, just maybe, she would understand why she was wrong to call us names, and wrong to make excuses. We are simply asking for respect and equality.
Ms. Daniels, the people of Troy deserve better from you. This is your moment. This is your opportunity to prove actions speak louder than words. If you truly “love all people,” it is time for you to stand up and prove it. Work with the City Council to pass a city ordinance that prohibits employment and housing discrimination against gay and transgender people. We are ready to help you make it happen. Are you ready to step up?
Denise Brogan-Kator is the Executive Director at Equality Michigan, which works to achieve full equality and respect for all people in Michigan regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Find out more at www.equalitymi.org.