HAMTRAMCK, Mich. – This city of 28,000 was once so Polish it was dubbed “Little Warsaw.” But in recent decades, an influx of immigrants gave Hamtramck new character. Bengali and Arabic joined English on signs at City Hall. Yemeni and Bangladeshi mosques, restaurants and shops proliferated.
And last year, a Muslim who emigrated from Yemen as a teenager became mayor – the city’s first leader in nearly a century with no Polish roots – alongside what is believed to be the nation’s only all-Muslim city council.
Many residents in this tiny enclave just north of downtown Detroit saw these changes as a sign of the Hamtramck’s progressiveness. The Muslim community that had previously experienced discrimination, including voter intimidation and resistance to mosques’ public call to prayer, had finally taken its seats at the table.
Yet the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity that made Hamtramck something of a model is being put severely to the test. In June, after divisive debate, the six-member council blocked the display of Pride flags on city property – action that has angered allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who feel that the support they provided the immigrant groups has been reciprocated with betrayal.
“We welcomed you,” former council member Catrina Stackpoole, a retired social worker who identifies as gay, recalls telling the council this summer. “We created nonprofits to help feed, clothe, find housing. We did everything we could to make your transition here easier, and this is how you repay us, by stabbing us in the back?”
The council’s unanimous vote in the middle of Pride Month seemed intentional to Stackpoole and others, though the resolution banned not only the rainbow flag but all flags except for the U.S., state, city and POW/MIA banners. Mayor Amer Ghalib, 43, defends the action as one of neutrality, saying no group should be able to promote a political agenda on city property.
“We’re not targeting anybody,” he said recently. “We are trying to close the door for other groups that could be extremist or racist.”
Not everyone buys that.
“The sole purpose was absolutely to go after the gay pride flag,” maintains Josh Hansknecht, a local middle school teacher and president of the Hamtramck Queer Alliance. The issue has laid bare tension between the LGBTQ+ community and socially conservative Muslims like the mayor.
“The ban did not create the conflict, but it emboldened people,” said Hansknecht, 28. “It expanded on that tension.”
It also triggered a spike in thefts and vandalism of Pride flags on private property. One YouTube video shows teenagers egging homes that were flying the flag. Some people, like 23-year-old Selena Briggs, are talking about moving out of the city, saying they no longer feel welcome.
“I don’t feel comfortable to even hold hands with my girlfriend,” said Briggs, a lesbian who works at a cellphone shop on Joseph Campau Street, a main commercial thoroughfare lined with mostly aging store fronts where furniture, clothing, jewelry and cannabis can be bought.
Because of Hamtramck’s historic diversity – a reflection of immigrants from Poland, Albania, Ukraine, Yemen and Bangladesh, among other countries – the city likes to describe itself as “the world in two square miles.” Its neighborhoods are filled with small, tightly packed single-family homes and duplexes. Many were built well before World War II.
Flags have long held an important symbolism here.
A 2013 council resolution directed the Human Relations Commission to manage the display of those representing various groups and nationalities on the city’s 18 poles on Joseph Campau. The Pride flag went up across from City Hall in 2021, but only after then-mayor Karen Majewski broke a 3-3 council tie. The next year, despite some officials’ opposition, it flew along with flags representing various countries, the African Union, Cherokee Nation and others. Today, the stars and stripes top every pole.
Hamtramck isn’t the only city with Pride-flag squabbles. Similar bans have been implemented in small communities and school districts in Ohio, Wisconsin, Utah and California. And in Washington, some Republicans in Congress have sought to strip Pride flags from federal government property.
Sometimes, the dispute has gone beyond rhetoric. On Aug. 18, Laura Ann Carleton was killed at her clothing store in Cedar Glen, Calif., after a man tore down the Pride flag she had out front and yelled homophobic slurs before opening fire. Police responded and fatally shot him.
Confrontation in Hamtramck has been without violence, but no less contentious. At the June meeting when the council voted to remove all flags, a lesbian couple went before the council to express opposition to the ban, then embraced in a dramatic kiss, triggering a wave of discomfort in the audience. An elderly Muslim man closed his eyes and covered his heart with his hand.
The mayor, a health care worker at a local clinic, stresses that the city welcomes all. He notes that no other constituencies have objected to the blanket ban on the flag.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is a lesbian, weighed in after the resolution passed.
“I ask the city of Hamtramck to use its voice to speak up for all its people, take down the wall you have now built that has made this proud city into a national embarrassment,” Nessel (D) said at a protest rally at the park across from City Hall. “Make no mistake, homophobia, transphobia are indeed forms of evil as much as Islamophobia is.”
Many Muslims and other residents support the council’s decision, the mayor insists.
“I don’t like the fact that (the LGBTQ+ community is) publicly having these flags everywhere, and it’s being forced on me,” said Amin Haque, 26, an Uber driver who is of Bangladeshi descent. “There’s no problem being gay or lesbian, but keep it to yourself. Just don’t push it on us.”
Stackpoole, who served on the council from 2008 to 2012, thinks the real rift is between the LGBTQ+ community and the city’s male leadership, backed by Hamtramck’s conservative mosques.
Neighbors are not pitted against neighbors, she said. “Everybody I know gets along with their neighbors on a one-to-one basis. We mow each other’s grass, we look out for each other’s kids. Our children play together.”
Anthropologist Rumana Rahman, who chairs the local beautification committee, echoes those sentiments. In a city where low-income immigrants are a significant part of the population, she sees most getting along with the LGBTQ+ community. And their real concerns are not a Pride flag but worries about the challenges of daily life.
“There’s lead in the water, there’s lead in the soil, there’s trash overflowing in the alleys, potholes in the road,” said Rahman, 41, who is from Bangladesh. “A lot of the factory workers don’t have cars. These are their problems.”
Anyone who thought the controversy might soon go away was mistaken. The tension surfaced again in early September when the mayor and council balked at marching next to the Hamtramck Queer Alliance in the Labor Day parade.
“Basically, they wanted to destroy our image in front of our supporters by making us look like we were leading the queer group with all those flags flying behind us,” Ghalib said in a statement afterward. He’d managed to arrange a ride in a white SUV at the front of the parade, several spots removed from his concern.
The Labor Day Festival committee also issued a statement last week, saying the event was organized to celebrate “the diversity that makes Hamtramck unique. We are saddened to hear that Mayor Ghalib has expressed a complaint about being in the parade in proximity to a rainbow flag or a display of LGBTQ+ pride.”
As for Hansknecht, who walked in the parade holding the alliance’s bright yellow banner – “two square miles, for all of us,” it proclaimed – the incident only reinforced what he’d believed from the start.
The flag ban, he said, “has always been about being anti-queer rather than the neutrality they claimed.”