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Opinion: Were queer students ever safe in Dearborn?

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Cody R. McCain, Guest Writer

How could we have been so naïve? Photo//Detroit Free Press.

Last week, on Monday, the 10th of October, hundreds of protesters packed the Dearborn Public Schools Board meeting over LGBTQ+ books housed in some of the libraries of Dearborn’s public high schools. These protestors managed to shut down the meeting entirely due to the number of persons present violating fire safety code, leading to a follow-up meeting on Thursday, the 13th of October. This time signs were banned and speaking limits imposed from the beginning of the meeting. The board even limited the number of attendees to 600 people.

The Washington Post reported that the books in question, which have been removed by the district, are “Push” by Sapphire, “All Boys Aren't Blue” by George M. Johnson, “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold, “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell, “Red, White and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston and “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson. According to the Detroit Free Press, the episode made national headlines over just six books. Six books in a collection of over half a million books, an approximation according to Dearborn Public Schools.

Bed-ridden from COVID-19, I helplessly watched the news as I saw the all-too familiar vitriol and hatred eschewed at this tragedy of local politics: “Protect our children,” “Vote them out,” “The School Board is woke,” “If democracy matters, we’re the majority,” “You will not ruin our kids,” the same familiar (and admittedly tiring) vitriol queer people such as myself know well. As someone involved in my own local government, scrolling through the coverage of this event made me even more ill. It was not all doom and gloom, though. There were those present who spoke out against the vitriol, some with more tact than others.

The American Federation of Teachers union, in a joint statement, said: “We stand united with the Dearborn LGBTQ community and all students, parents, educators, and staff over political division. We will never stop working hard for our students to ensure they have the best education possible and safe, supportive schools and classrooms.”

“Our chief of police was not mistaken on Monday when he said the eyes of the nation are on us," said Rawan Hider, an MSU law student. “What have we shown the nation? We have shown that we, as a minority population of primarily Middle Eastern Muslim Americans, have forgotten our own struggle with hatred, discrimination, prejudice and violence. We have forgotten the signs that were held up against us. The isolation, the pain and fear we have all felt because those harming us couldn't take a step back to see who we were as people. I urge the Dearborn community to please reflect on this when they put up the signs.”

“Being LGBTQ+ is not a choice,” said Jojo Gremal, a non-binary staff member with Dearborn Public Schools. “It is so hard . . . People hate you for the very thing out of your control. People who don't know the first thing about you, only that you're different from them, so you must be evil. I honestly don't want to be here, but I know what it's like to have been a Queer and trans student and now a staff member.”

Some of the less tactful responses include Brian Stone, a Dearborn activist, who said “You're not trying to ban a book. You're trying to ban gay people. That’s what this is all about." He would later turn to the crowd, after they booed his comments, and said “You hate gay people. And it’s obvious, because look at how you behave when one gay person speaks.” Though I disagree with Stone’s rhetoric, I do not disagree with Stone’s anger. What are we supposed to think after the nightmare that was last week?

One man tried to strike a middle ground. “To the LGBT community, the majority of parents [are] not here to attack your rights to exist in a free society,” said Amro Hizam, a resident. “Criticism of age-inappropriate content is not criticism of the LGBT community.” To be honest, I am apt to agree with Hizam. Parents, indeed, ought to have some influence over the state of their schools to prevent corruption and ensure their children get the education they deserve in a free society like ours. Unfortunately, I think his voice of reason has little company.

Many residents, and I do mean many, deferred to their faith to defend their position-- the antithesis of a free society. These deferments are coming from the top of the Muslim Arab community in Dearborn. The Washington Post reported that Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini of the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights, used his sermon on Friday, which may be illegal for his 501(c)(3) organization to do, to urge his congregation to protest. “Some of those books are completely inappropriate for our children to read,” said Al-Qazwini, adding “Some of those books promote pornography. Some of them promote homosexuality. We don’t need this.”

Hassan Chami, an emergent leader in the protests, shouted “shame on you” twice at the board. Chami, founder of the famous Dearborn Suhoor Festival, stated “I also want to say that the Founding Fathers fought for freedom of religion. So on behalf of the Muslim community, I want to congratulate you on the birth anniversary of Prophet Muhammad, which is this week.” I guess last Ramadan’s Suhoor Festival will be my last. Unfortunate. I loved the food and the sparkle of the lights at night.

Some of the signs at the (attempted) Monday board meeting. A deferment to faith was present throughout the week. Photo//Detroit Free Press.

Trumpist Republicans have, of course, used this wedge to their electoral advantage, despite the last six years demonstrating that Trumpist Republicans could not care less about Muslim Arabs or queer people. Matthew DePerno, Republican nominee for Michigan Attorney General, who accused the board of allowing speakers to “disparage the Muslim faith.” He further commented that “This issue comes up in Dearborn, but it's the same issue we're seeing in Grand Rapids, we're seeing it in Kalamazoo, we're seeing it in Northern Michigan. We're seeing it everywhere, where school boards think they can ignore the rights of the parents in terms of how their children are educated.”

Republican nominee for Secretary of State Kristina Karamo stated in the meeting “Parents do not send their kids to school to explore their sexuality.” Tudor Dixon, Republican nominee for Michigan Governor, published a statement, and even Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida joined in on the fun. Anything for a vote in his inevitable 2024 presidential bid, I suppose.

My commentary (read: snark) on what occurred this past week in Dearborn should not be taken as a call to arms against the city. I am not a resident, and while I can be frustrated and have every right to express my frustrations with what is occurring, it is wrong to take part in local political institutions that do not represent me, nor have any tangible bearing on my life. I use these events as a segue into a problem affecting our own campus, one few are brave enough-- perhaps foolish enough-- to talk about.

. . .

Dearborn is unique in that it is a truly diverse city: census data reports that 47 percent of residents have Arab ancestry. This diversity does extend to its darling university, the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Just from walking around its campus, this is evident. Again, I am not a Dearborn resident, but as a UM-Dearborn student, and as a prominent student leader, I have a stake in this campus.

After what is about to be three long years at UM-Dearborn, it is known that there is a tale of two campus stances. Muslim Arab students will tell me it is just the parents and their elders who think that way, that Muslim Arabs students at UM-Dearborn either (a) do not care about another’s sexuality or gender identity, or (b) are supportive of queer rights.

I have also heard another tale: the rumors that this student organization’s leadership hates “the gays,” that this student is transphobic and you should totally check out their Facebook profile, that this student just pretends to support queer people because it is to their advantage, and so on, and so on, and so on. Much like the rhetoric above in those board meetings, the rumors are tiring too. I believed the former. Many of us did. We wanted to believe the former-- that Dearborn and UM-Dearborn was open to us, whether we were open or closeted. With last week’s events, all I can say is: how could we have been so naive? I do not think anyone was malicious in telling this tale of two campus stances; I think they were fooled just as much as we were.

Before I resigned from UM-Dearborn’s Student Government to pursue other endeavors, I was intensely supportive of UM-Dearborn’s administrators. This was partly political, as it helped the medicine go down, so to speak. I now understand why many queer students I have talked to are frustrated with their administrators and Student Government. Despite all of this, nothing has come out from our administrators or Student Government. I do not expect a statement of explicit support (it never is), but I have been in those conversations when non-partisan statements were sent out to the UM-Dearborn community from either party. I know how long those statements take to create: they take 48 hours coming from administrators, 72 hours coming from Student Government. And yet, nothing.

Were queer students ever safe in Dearborn?

The answer, in my view, is a clear no. How do we make it safe? In Dearborn, that will be impossible. A sizable number of residents believe that the wall of separation between church and state espoused by Thomas Jefferson centuries ago (which he formulated to protect minorities!) does not apply to them, and that freedom of religion, which means the government cannot endorse any religion or faith, means that religion can be used anywhere and everywhere. After all, anyone who says otherwise is anti-Christian or Islamophobic, no?

At UM-Dearborn, however, something is possible. The Campus Pride Index is “. . . the premier LGBTQ+ national benchmarking tool for colleges and universities to create safer, more inclusive campus communities.” A quick search on its index finds that UM-Dearborn is ranked 2.5 out of five stars. For context, UM-Ann Arbor has five out of five stars; UM-Flint is not listed. UM-Dearborn ranks low in LGBTQ+ academic life, LGBTQ+ student life, and, to my surprise (and horror), LGBTQ+ campus safety.

I propose the following initiatives to administrators, to Student Government, and to Faculty Senate, all pulled from the Campus Pride Index:

1. Create an LGBTQ+ and ally graduate student wing of PRIDE, the queer student organization on our campus.

2. Create an LGBTQ+ social fraternity/sorority with full representation on the Pan-Hellenic Council.

3. Offer new faculty/staff training opportunities on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression issues. Train current faculty as well.

4. Draft and execute procedure for reporting LGBTQ+ related bias incidents and hate crimes on campus.

5. Offer active ongoing training for hate crime prevention, and no, do not offload this onto Student Government like this institution has with self-defense training.

6. Actively conduct outreach to LGBTQ+ students and student organizations with roundtables, town halls, email lists, and so on.

7. Train Campus Public Safety on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression issues.

8. Annually participates in LGBTQ+ admission fairs.

9. Have Admission counselors receive LGBTQ-inclusive training and resources.

10. Give students the option to self-identify sexual orientation and gender identity/expression on admission application or post enrollment forms.

These policies are not about creating a safe space, or sheltering queer students. These are about safety in general. Queer students are not safe in Dearborn, and we must make it safe. Let me make it clear: this burden is not for Muslim Arab students’ alone to bear. We, as a campus community, have all failed. Intentionally? No. Unknowingly? Yes. It requires all of us to pitch in to make the necessary changes happen.I am no longer naive. The tale of two campus stances has been exposed for the tale it is, as evidenced by the Dearborn Public Schools Board meetings. This campus has data on what must be done. We have no control over what happens in the city of Dearborn, but we do on our campus.

Until the time comes when these policies are implemented, I have long ago resolved to take my graduate studies elsewhere. For those early in their undergraduate studies or considering graduate studies, I encourage you to do the same. I love this campus, I love its faculty and administrators, and I love its student organizations, but we are not safe here. We never were.

Cody R. McCain (They/Them) is a senior undergraduate student studying history, philosophy, political science, and applied statistics. They are the President of the Wolverine Media Network, Vice Chair of Student Organization Allocation Council, and formerly held the Executive Secretary, Recording Secretary, and Financial Secretary positions in Student Government. They have interned at all levels of the United States government. In 2022, they were selected as a Dearborn Difference Maker.

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