Oct. 21 2009 12:00 AM

Lansing’s LGBT community and the election

Crouched down in a small room lined with bright red couches inside the Spiral Video Dance Bar, one of three gay clubs in Old Town, Maggie Rich described why she supports At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood for mayor.

“She’s got her finger on the pulse of all the issues,” said Rich, who is a lesbian. “She’s more progressive, she’s the only one who’s been asking for enforcement on (the city human rights ordinance).”

Rich described Wood as a local politician who “holds the hand” of the gay community and someone who has been a supporter of gay events like National Coming Out Day and the Michigan Pride festival, and was part of its planning committee.

Rich, along with a smattering of mostly female members of Lansing’s LGBT community (and a few straight men, and some straight women), was attending Wood’s “Speaking Out” fundraiser Sunday night.

Members of Lansing’s LGBT community say there’s a split between supporters of Wood and incumbent Mayor Virg Bernero, who has a record of being supportive of gay rights issues. Bernero’s brother, Victor, was gay and died of AIDS in 1991 on the same day that the mayor won his first elected seat on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners.

Both candidates, however, have been rated “very positive” by the politi calaction committee of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, a gay advocacy group. The opportunity to choose between two candidates friendly to gay rights, some say, gives LGBT voters the opportunity to look beyond which candidate is going to champion their issues.

Still, some question Wood’s credibility with the gay community because of a 1997 questionnaire called “Simple Integrity," which shows that Wood disagreed with extending domestic partner benefits to gay couples and agreed that the city “should not endorse homosexual behavior” by protecting sexual orientation under a city ordinance.

Brad Rakowski, a graphic designer and the husband of City Clerk Chris Swope (the couple was married in Canada), is a strong Bernero supporter. Wood’s past record, he says, is “troubling.” He wants to know why she has changed her tune since 1997.

“For those folks who support Carol, I don’t have a problem with that. My take is that there’s a pattern of troubling circumstances that have not been addressed,” he said. “It’s one thing to know somebody (who is gay), but Virg has a closer connection to LGBT community. With Carol, I question it. Why such a radical change?”

Bernero figured out that his brother was gay when they were both still kids. Victor Bernero would get picked on because of his demeanor, and his younger brother would have to step in and stand up for him.

“I ended up defending him before I even knew what gay was,” Bernero said. “Then at times, I was afraid of being associated with him, because then I might be called a ‘homo,’ too.”

Bernero said he experienced a “range of emotions” confronting his older brother’s identity. As a public figure, after his brother’s death, it was his involvement with the local gay community that allowed him to “come out” as the brother of someone with AIDS.

“I’d shut a lot of it out because it was painful, because of how my brother was treated. The community helped me to come out as the brother of somebody who was gay and suffered, was really persecuted, and was really victimized,” he said.

He carried the horror of seeing his brother being picked on in school, and later as an adult having hate crimes perpetuated against him, into his career as a politician. As a state senator, he was part of a team of legislators that tried to get sexual orientation added to the state hate crime statute in the 2004 and 2005 sessions. Both of those efforts, however, failed.

“The hate crimes legislation, it just hit a brick wall of partisan opposition. You work, you cajole, you try to talk to people. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. If I’d been there longer, I think I would have been successful,” he said.

Bernero’s experience with gay issues and subsequent legislative action caused Patrick McAlvey to apply and take a job as Bernero’s campaign manager. McAlvey, who is gay and recently came out as a victim of abuse by a so-called ex-gay ministry, said he had been asked by Wood to be a part of her campaign. But after researching Bernero’s record, and witnessing his efforts as mayor, he decided to go for the campaign manager job.

“I wouldn’t work for him if he wasn’t an ally,” McAlvey said.

Two weeks ago at an event held by the gay networking group Suits and the City, McAlvey distributed a flier titled “Lansing’s Mayoral Candidates and the LGBT Community.” The flier touted Bernero’s participation in Michigan Pride, Lansing Area AIDS Network AIDS walks, a 2004 “Ray of Light” award for contributions to the gay community, and his support for the 2006 Human Rights Ordinance, which made sexual orientation and gender identity a protected class in Lansing.

But the flier derided Wood as an LGBT “opponent until recently.” The flier referenced Wood’s statements on the Simple Integrity questionnaire, and her first two LAHR PAC ratings when she ran for City Council, which were “negative” and “somewhat negative,” respectively. (On the Simple Integrity questionnaire, Larry Meyer, a candidate for LCC Board of Trustees, answered the same as Wood, as did Second Ward Councilwoman Sandy Allen.)

“A number of people were thankful,” McAlvey said of the reaction to the flier at the Suits event. “I felt people in the community need to know this and where she stood. Some people were not fond of it.”

McAlvey said the Simple Integrity flier had been talked about in the gay community, which is how he knew about it, as well as from Joe McDonald, Bernero’s campaign treasurer.

Wood said she does not remember publicly making statements antithetical to gay issues back in 1997, but she acknowledges that her stance has changed since then.

believe my answer at that time was there’s enough laws on the books
that would include the issues and concerns the community had. I have
since learned that that’s not so. I have been supportive ever since;
it’s been a learning factor,” she said.

has been rated “very positive” by LAHR PAC in Council races in 2003 and
2007. Further, she said she’s been asking since the Human Rights
Ordinance was put on the books that it be strengthened by sending
literature to Lansing residents so they know what it is, and asking
that the City Attorney’s Office give Council an annual report on how it
has been used (City Attorney Brig Smith has said that it has been used
only a couple of times, and that no complaints have been found true
under the ordinance). Wood said that the Michigan Democratic LGBT
Caucus endorsed her last week, but the group’s chair, Phil Volk, could
not be reached to determine how Wood got that endorsement.

some in the gay community, Wood’s past on gay issues and her change to
be supportive is a good thing. Even Bernero agrees that the change is

“I don’t
expect any community to be monolithic in its support — these are
individuals,” Bernero said. “I’m delighted to have strong support in
the LGBT community. I’m delighted that Carol has come around.”

Others say that Wood’s cred in the gay community is undeserved.

Redman, who was knocked out in this year’s primary for the Fourth Ward
Council seat, says that Wood gets too much credit for her involvement
in this year’s Michigan Pride event. She’s also skeptical about Wood’s
transition to a gay rights supporter.

have two philosophies: One is that she had an epiphany, and is now
ready to assist. I believe that might be the case,” Redman said. “But
she’s also a politician. I’m cynical in that regard because I’ve seen
people make those changes because they’re just getting votes.”

too, does not believe 100 percent in Wood’s change. He says he has
never seen her address his concerns with her past sentiments about gay
rights. A statement Wood made at an NAACP forum before the primary when
she was asked what was the last minority-owned business she patronized
particularly troubles him. She named the place where she gets her hair
done — Applause on Michigan Avenue — but not that her hairdresser is

“I thought
that was borderline deceptive,” he said. “If she is openly supportive
of the LGBT community, I’m troubled that she left out that he was gay."

Executive Director Penny Gardner is a Bernero supporter, but said she
would support Wood had she not voted against a particularly hot city
issue of the past year — the sale of the North Capitol parking ramp to
Lansing Community College. Gardner said that to get a rating of “very
positive” from LAHR PAC, a candidate would have to positively answer
every question on the organization’s questionnaire and have taken a
public stance on an LGBT issue. Wood and Bernero supported the Human
Rights Ordinance, as did At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, At-Large
Councilman Brian Jeffries, At-Large candidate Harold Leeman (the former
First Ward Councilman who was on the Council at the time the ordinance
was approved) and Allen, which netted them very positive ratings. Some,
like Fourth Ward candidate Jessica Yorko, Second Ward candidate Tina
Houghton, and At-Large candidate Rina Risper got only a “positive”
rating because they have not taken a stand for gay rights as elected

Beachler, who is on the LAHR PAC board, would not say which candidate
he supports. But he explained that each LAHR PAC questionnaire has
questions tailored to a specific elected office.

candidates were ranked at least “somewhat positive,” except for East
Lansing Mayor Victor Loomis and LCC Trustee Robert Proctor, who were
rated “somewhat negative.” Proctor had voted for an LCC resolution in
2007 that would support removing domestic partnership benefits for
college employees not already receiving such benefits under a
collective bargaining agreement. Proctor said he voted that way on the
advice of the college’s lawyers (because Proposition 2, passed in 2006,
bans domestic partnership benefits in Michigan), but he personally is
not opposed to domestic partnership benefits. (To see how all the
candidates ranked, see http://www.lahronline.org/Articles/CandidatesNov2009. htm.)

Beachler wrote commentary to accompany the LAHR PAC ratings, which were released in July. He made note of Dunbar and Bernero’s consistent support, and explained why Allen and Wood have, too, progressed to “very positive.”

ago they had less than positive ratings, but not only have they changed
their votes on LGBT issues, but have done other positive things to earn
the “very positive” rating they have today. In recent years Sandy voted
for the Human Rights Ordinance and has been a member of LAHR and
attended LAHR-sponsored events. Our good friend Carol voted for the
Human Rights Ordinance, attended LAHR-sponsored events and in the past
couple of years has been an active on the planning committee for
Michigan Pride, attending more committee meetings than some of the rest
of us,” he wrote.

explained that having two very positive candidates for mayor might make
it even more difficult for members of the LGBT community to choose.
Now, LGBT voters are split between two personalities and two differing
visions for the future of Lansing.

those who support Virg, they think he is best in terms of his
administration of the city and getting things done, especially
involving the economy. And for those supporting Carol, I think (Virg)
can be a little sharp and there’s sort of a personal dislike that some
people have in his relationships with people. The other side would then
say, ‘If you’re going to get anything done in this city that’s
worthwhile, you’re going to have to force people a bit.’ It’s a tough
call,” he said.