BY JAMES RUSSELL
TRAVERSE CITY — A long-simmering debate over homosexual rights and protections in Traverse City came to a resounding close on election night.
So said supporters of an ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
By a nearly two-to-one margin, the city voted 2,818 to 1,661 — 63 percent to 37 percent — to keep a year-old ordinance intact.
"It sends a message that Traverse City is an open and inclusive place," said Ross Richardson, of Traverse City Equality, a committee that encouraged voters to support the ordinance. "It defines what our values are."
Richardson, who also is a Grand Traverse County commissioner, announced the results to a cheering crowd gathered Tuesday night at the InsideOut Gallery in the city's Warehouse District.
"Hooray for the citizens of Traverse City," said Donna Miller, who attended the gathering with her husband, John McDonald, to show support for the ordinance.
"It's just a statement that says people are people," added McDonald.
The vote came more than a year after Traverse City adopted the ordinance to prevent discrimination against gays in employment, housing and other areas.
A vocal group of opponents collected signatures to force the referendum, arguing that it singles out a group for special treatment.
Michael Mulcahy was among those who fought to remove the ordinance from the city books.
He wasn't surprised to learn the results, based on what he considered biased media coverage of the issue.
"It's a collision of two worlds. You support a world where people are going down a path that's going to end badly. We support a world different than that," Mulcahy said. "We're trying to wave a red flag that they're going down the wrong path."
Mulcahy said he had no plans to stop his warnings.
"Why would I? It saves people," he said.
Erin Bernhard disagreed that the ordinance grants special rights. She braved a steady, cold rain Tuesday afternoon and voted "yes" at the History Center of Traverse City.
"I sincerely believe in the rights of all people," she said. "It doesn't give special rights, it gives equal rights. That's the bottom line."
Central Neighborhood resident Kimberly Dante said she voted to keep the ordinance for a couple of reasons.
"No. 1, it's already been approved," she said. "No. 2, it's a no-brainer, but it needs to be spelled out."
Tuesday's vote followed years of heated debate over the rights of homosexuals in the city. More than a decade ago commissioners passed a watered-down and legally nonbinding anti-discrimination resolution after months of discussion.
Opponents later secured a measure on a city election ballot that sought to prevent the city from passing an anti-discrimination ordinance, but voters soundly defeated that measure in November 2001.
Local attorney Blake Ringsmuth chaired the city's Human Rights Commission during the early years of the debate and is a strong supporter of the current ordinance.
Tuesday evening, he held a "Vote Yes" sign in the rain at the corner of Union and Eighth streets.
"It's just wrong, no matter what, if you want to harm somebody in their employment or how they can live their life," he said. "It's not what this country stands for, and not what this city stands for."
Ringsmuth said discrimination against gay and transgendered people exists and is a real problem, but he believes the vote finally puts the issue to rest in the city.
"Sixty-three percent sends a strong message that we are accepting and loving of our neighbors, regardless of who they are," Ringsmuth said.
Pam Forton teaches at Central High School and agreed that supporting the ordinance can send a message.
"But I'm not sure if it's the kids who need it," she said. "I think the adults need it. I hope it puts an end to some of those conversations."