The Gongwer Blog

Remembering A Pioneering Moment In Gay Rights In The Legislature

By John Lindstrom
Posted: March 7, 2013 1:49 PM

With U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman on Thursday deciding to hold off on ruling whether Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, it is time to recall a moment when the mere suggestion of gay rights in the Legislature was explosive.

2013 marks the 30th year – the actual anniversary is October 6 – of the introduction of HB 5000, introduced by Rep. James Dressel, an Ottawa County Republican, which would have amended the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation as a basic civil right.

It was a stunning and electrifying step that galvanized the entire state. Today, while the issue is still clearly emotional and controversial, to even speak of gay rights let alone see court fights over them has become somewhat routine, just another matter for the daily news fodder.

In 1983, gay rights was something limited to San Francisco, and otherwise the overall issue was wrapped in fear the public had of a new, mysterious and terrifying disease called AIDS.

Mr. Dressel was an Air Force veteran, a Vietnam veteran and still in the Air National Guard when he was elected in 1978 to the House. He was one of a trio of western Michigan Republicans elected that year who had an aura about them that they would be top leaders. (The others were Paul Henry, who was elected to Congress before dying of cancer in the early 1990s, and Paul Hillegonds who became the first Republican speaker in more than 20 years first under split power in 1993-94 and then outright in 1995-96). Mr. Dressel was a practical conservative, focused on realistic solutions that still encompassed his points of view, who was liked by all sides for his open, direct but still easy-going manner.

Barely two weeks before he turned 40, Mr. Dressel introduced HB 5000 and the world of Lansing politics was turned around.

Curiously, beyond the controversy it stirred, one question many House members asked Mr. Dressel was: “Why now?” Terms limits had changed the entire context of the House so the question today seems odd. But in the 1980s a member had to serve four terms to be eligible for a pension. Everyone knew the move could cost Mr. Dressel his seat, and he was in just his third term. Waiting one more term would have assured him a pension at least. But he said it was the right thing to do.

Mr. Dressel, who was a bachelor, also refused to say if he was gay or not. It should not matter, he said, that was the whole point of the bill.

The measure’s high point came on December 1, when the House Judiciary Committee reported the bill to the full House on an 8-5 party line vote. Now U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), served on the committee, and said in debate the gay “lifestyle is immoral, condemned by God Himself.” Despite being rejected by his GOP colleagues, Mr. Dressel expressed hope as many as one-third the GOP caucus would vote for the bill.

A week later, the bill was referred back to committee. Then chair Rep. Perry Bullard said the House was focusing on reapportionment and the income tax. The committee would come back to HB 5000 in 1984, he promised, but it never did.

In the 1984 primary, Mr. Dressel was crushed in his bid for re-election. He was sanguine, telling this reporter he knew it would happen but that he was right to do what he had done.

Out of the Legislature, Mr. Dressel somewhat haltingly did come out, and then dedicated himself to gay rights issues. He died in March 1992 of AIDS-related pneumonia.

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