|By Neal McNamara|
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.
Others say that Wood’s cred in the gay community is undeserved.
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.”