‘Welcoming people exist here’: Traverse City reacts to anti-trans salon policy
City weighs legal action, AG says Michigan law protects LGBTQ+ community from discrimination
Studio 8 Hair Lab in Traverse City, July 12, 2023 | Lily Guiney
Studio 8 Hair Lab in Traverse City, July 12, 2023 | Lily Guiney
A small hair salon situated in an unassuming strip mall across from a Planned Parenthood clinic in Traverse City became the center of a national debate on LGBTQ+ rights this week when owner Christine Geiger posted to Facebook that it would no longer serve clients identifying as “anything other than a man or woman.”
In the now-deleted post on Tuesday, Geiger told transgender and nonbinary clients to seek out a “local pet groomer” instead of her Studio 8 Hair Lab salon.
“If a human identifies as anything other than a man/woman please seek services at a local pet groomer,” Geiger wrote in the post. “You are not welcome at this salon. Period.”
“Should you request to have a particular pronoun used, we may simply refer to you as ‘hey you,’” the post continued. “Regardless of MI HB 4474.”
HB 4474 would update Michigan’s standing laws on hate crimes to include provisions on gender identity and expression and sexuality, which its sponsors say would make it easier to prosecute hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals. Opponents of the bill have falsely claimed it would make it a felony to address someone by the wrong pronouns — which has spread through right-wing media — although the legislation makes no mention of gendered pronouns.
Geiger also referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as “Governor Witchmere,” inviting her to kiss “my ASS” and tagged Garrett Soldano, a far-right activist who opposed Whitmer’s early health orders to combat COVID-19 and lost his 2022 GOP gubernatorial bid.
The salon was closed on Wednesday when the Advance went to try to interview Geiger. The business’ voicemail also was full when the Advance tried calling Wednesday and Thursday. Geiger did not respond to a request for comment via Facebook.
Residents of Traverse City, a noted progressive haven in largely rural, red northern Michigan, responded swiftly to the post, divided as to whether or not Geiger reserved the right to deny service to transgender or nonbinary customers based on the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 303 Creative, LLC v. Elenis, in which a Colorado wedding website designer was granted the right to deny service to gay couples.
Up North Pride, a Traverse City-based nonprofit that hosts much of the city’s LGBTQ+ programming, addressed Geiger’s comments in an Instagram post encouraging members of the community to support each other and offering a list of open and affirming local businesses for followers to frequent.
Up North Pride Vice President Kendall Kotcher said that while diversity of opinions can be positive for a community, the decision to post discriminatory messages is ultimately harmful to LGBTQ+ Traverse City residents.
“It is frustrating, sad and alarming to see posts like that,” Kotcher said. “Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but when it comes to discrimination, you’re not allowed to do that. We are protected under the laws of Michigan.”
Legal experts have said that Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), recently amended to protect from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, is not negated by recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office called Geiger’s comments “hateful and reprehensible.” Spokesperson Danny Wimmer said in an email to the Michigan Advance that the matter of ELCRA and the 303 Creative ruling would “likely be litigated” in the near future.
For now, though, Wimmer confirmed that Michigan law protects the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination by business owners.
“The holding in 303 Creative has no impact on Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act when it is applied to protect against discrimination in the provision of public accommodations that do not constitute speech, let alone expressive speech,” Wimmer said. “It is not a blanket invitation to discriminate.”
Geiger doubled down on the now-deleted post in the “Overheard in Traverse City” Facebook group, where she commented from her personal account in defense of her stance on a post denouncing her salon.
“This stance was taken to insure (sic) that clients have the best experience and I am admitting that since I am not willing to play the pronoun game or cater to requests outside of what I perceive as normal that this probably isn’t the best option for that type of client,” Geiger wrote. “There are plenty of salons/stylists willing to cater to what I will not.”
Geiger has since changed the salon’s Instagram and Facebook pages to private settings, and provided a now-deleted update on the business’ Google results page.
“ENOUGH is ENOUGH,” the Google post from Geiger read. “Conservatives are speaking out and no longer going to tolerate being bullied into supporting what goes against our beliefs.”
Molly Wertenberger, a high school student and Traverse City resident, said that she was shocked upon first seeing Geiger’s posts.
“I feel very fortunate to have grown up here in a fairly accepting environment,” Wertenberger said. “But it’s kind of one of those posts you think you’d see from maybe Florida or Texas, someplace generally less accepting. Not northern Michigan.”
In a statement provided by City Clerk Benjamin Marentette, Traverse City Mayor Richard Lewis said that the city prides itself on providing a “safe environment for all people.”
“We are disheartened to hear of any discriminatory behavior in our region,” Lewis said. “As a community, we are responsible to take care of one another and speak up for one another.”
The clerk’s office said it had received multiple notifications of discriminatory language that could be a potential violation of Traverse City’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance, which in 2010 adopted that no person be denied civil rights based on factors including race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The City’s attorney will investigate this matter based upon the relevant legal standards, including the city’s non-discrimination ordinance as well as recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and state legislation,” the statement said.
Kotcher said that in spite of the discriminatory remarks from one local business, Up North Pride is bolstered by support from other small business-owners around town. She said that providing resources for LGTBQ+ northern Michiganders like the directory of affirming businesses is an important tool in advancing civil rights in the region.
“It protects us as a community,” Kotcher said. “This resource directory is used to give them an easy way to find businesses that they can support. It’s also the businesses and services we use every day, right? So when allies often ask us, ‘How can we support you?’ this is how you can do it – with your dollar.”
Wertenberger said she has faith that Traverse City residents will prove to Geiger that closing Studio 8 off to the LGBTQ+ community is a bad business decision.
“This is in a way an outlier, especially where we live,” Wertenberger said. “It’s not just LGBTQ+ members of the community. It’s also the people who love those people and the people who care about what’s right. That’s a whole group of people in Traverse City that they’re losing out on.”
Studio 8 has already lost its relationship with one product supplier since Geiger’s posts. Jack Winn Pro, a hair product manufacturer, issued a statement on Wednesday denouncing hate speech and publicly cutting ties with the salon.
“It has come to our attention that disturbing comments have been attributed to one of our product users,” the statement said. “We want to make it clear that we disapprove of and reject hate speech in any form. The stylist who made those comments no longer has authorization to represent our brand or products.”
While it remains to be seen whether or not Geiger and Studio 8 Salon will be faced with legal action, pushback from the community has been tangible – a ‘queer joy’ march Wednesday night brought dozens of protestors to Eighth Street in Traverse City, where the salon is located, to protest the promise of discrimination.
It’s really scary being a trans person right now with all the hate being spewed around. It’s really hard to see a local business make the decision to not serve people like me. On the other hand, it’s really heartwarming to see people in the community stepping up to (counter) this hateful person.
– Beetle Noble, Traverse City resident
Beetle Noble, a transgender Traverse City resident, said that while seeing the original post was frightening, the community’s reaction was reassuring.
“It’s really scary being a trans person right now with all the hate being spewed around,” Noble said. “It’s really hard to see a local business make the decision to not serve people like me. On the other hand, it’s really heartwarming to see people in the community stepping up to [counter] this hateful person.”
Kotcher said that it’s important for Michiganders to see that Traverse City does contain an accepting, affirming community in the face of increased anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments nationwide.
“I think the good thing about the U.S. is we’re very diverse – Michigan is diverse,” Kotcher said. “And with diversity comes different points of view, and where you’ll find welcoming people, you might find unwelcoming people. But I can tell you these welcoming people do exist in Traverse City, and we can be just as loud and proud as all the haters out there.”
And in spite of the stress of continued bigotry, northern Michigan’s LGBTQ+ population still finds solidarity within small, rural communities.
“It’s wonderful to see how many people do care about queer and trans individuals,” Noble said.
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