Sixty-five votes and 21 years. Those are the numbers that span Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope’s political career.
The first number is how many votes Harold Leeman Jr. garnered over him in 1995 to win the 1st Ward Council seat. That was a year of political upheaval in the city. The city had just gone through a controversial early retirement scandal, and there was a call for a clean sweep in City Hall. Swope was hoping to be one of those voices and to make history as the city’s first openly gay elected official.
Swope announced his candidacy in the newsletter of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, an LGBT community advocacy organization. He promised readers he would run as an “openly gay candidate.” Anonymous notes were distributed to seniors and church attendees highlighting his sexuality.
Swope said he had more votes at the polls that day, but lost in the absentee ballot count.
The fliers contributed to his loss, he recalled.
But the political landscape started changing dramatically after that.
Swope was elected to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners in 2000 and as a clerk in 2005.
Swope helped usher in an openness to LGBT elected officials that has become a hallmark of Ingham County. Currently, there are at least two on city councils; Ruth Beier in East Lansing and Kathie Dunbar in Lansing; a Lansing school board member, Peter Spadafore, who was just endorsed by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce for the City Council; an LCC trustee, Ryan Buck; and three county commissioners, Ryan Seabolt, Brian McGrain and Bryan Crenshaw.
“No one made anything about their sexuality,” Swope said about the three county commissioners. “It wasn’t even mentioned. It just wasn’t a thing.”
He suspects the out candidates on this year’s ballot for the City Council — Spadafore, and Dunbar, Amanda Bernes and Jim McClurken — won’t face the kind of whisper campaign he faced in 1995.
“I think individuals’ attitudes have changed,” he said. “I think it is very broad. It’s not just Lansing. It’s not just Michigan. Look at what was on TV in 1995 and the change to today. Some of our media notables are out. We’re still a little bit lacking when it comes to movie stars. I think it’s our whole society changing.”
That doesn’t mean wisps of homophobia aren’t still there in the political realm.
He provided a real-time experience from earlier this month.
“The person who is running against me made a comment that made me scratch my head when he said at a candidate forum that since Virg was leaving office maybe it was time to clean out the closet,”Swope said. “Now closet isn’t usually a political term, it’s usually a term referring to the LGBT community. So, I think that was kind of an oblique reference.”
Swope’s opponent, Jeremic Clayborn III, said he never made that comment.
State Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, who is one of three openly gay House members, said having members of the LGBT community sitting at the table is important.
“You’re no longer talking about us, you’re talking to us,” he said. “That makes a difference. I can walk across the aisle and have a conversation now.”
For Swope, there is a more fundamental reason to be out.
“Our society is not universally positive,” he said. “Having people out, known and visible helps that. It helps bring everyone forward. It helps give that gay kid a positive vision of what their future can be rather than thinking ‘I have to hide this for the rest of my life.’” While there have certainly been an increase in the visibility of out LGBT candidates and elected officials, and there has been significant gains in equality for the community, there remains a dark undertone still — one that echoes the reality 21 years ago.
“I think there are always going to be people who are antigay, who are fighting our progress,” Swope said, “I think unfortunately it’s never going to leave us at all.”
In 1996, Bob Gross, a beloved sports writer for the Lansing State Journal, was found brutally murdered and his body set on fire. His murder was classified as a hate crime. In recent years there have been cases in Eaton County and Ingham County where men have preyed on the LGBT community to rob and assault them. And Larkin Neely Jr. is facing a felony murder and armed robbery charge in the brutal murder of Kevin Wirth earlier this month, a murder civil rights experts have said has the hallmarks of a antigay bias crime.
McGrain, the county commissioner, said living in a “progressive bubble” it is sometimes easy to forget that “there are people out there with misdirected hatred against us as gay men.”
“It’s always in the back of my mind, that hate crimes are happening in the neighborhood,” he said. “I think it is our duty to advance the struggle.”