When work began on “A Century of Progress — 100 Years of LGBTQ History in Saugatuck-Douglas,” now on exhibit at the Saugatuck-Douglas History Center’s (SDHC) Old School House Gallery, curator and executive director Eric Gollannek and director John Kerr knew that perceptions about the area would be upended in surprising ways.
While Saugatuck is well known as a queer-inclusive oasis — travel fare aggregator Orbitz listed the city among places like Tokyo, Las Vegas and Guadalara in its “10 Hottest Gay Destinations” in 2019 — it’s Saugatuck’s neighbor Douglas that’s proven to be the more embracing of the two municipalities.
Kerr is quick to note that the location of The Douglas Dunes Resort, established in 1981 by Carl Jennings and his business partner and husband Larry Gammons, is across the river from Saugatuck. That’s because Saugatuck city officials would not sell property to the couple, quashing their original Lake Street bed-and-breakfast plans. “They didn’t want ‘those people’ in Saugatuck,” Kerr said.
On their way out of town, however, they saw the 22-room Amity Motel for sale in the adjacent city, which had fewer qualms about two partnered men owning a business. As the decades progressed, Douglas would remain the more inclusive city, a fact that Kerr and Gollannek hope vacationers and locals alike will find surprising.
Citing Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which continues to leave out protections for queer and tran citizens at the state level, Kerr said the Village of Douglas passed its ordinance prohibiting “house discrimination based on sexual orientation” in the late 1990s. A similar ordinance in Saugatuck passed in 2008. In Kerr’s mind, that 11-year gap exists because those in Saugatuck thought they “didn’t need it.”
It’s the ongoing struggle for “civil rights, human rights” — the ability to buy a house, rent a hotel room, congregate and marry — that Gollannek feels are at the heart of “A Century of Progress,” which will likely stir controversy in the lakeside communities.
“Being in a small town, everyone gets along. You don’t go to battle with the neighbors… and Saugatuck likes to see itself as welcoming,” Gollannek told Pride Source.
“But Saugatuck didn’t allow the Pride Flag to be hung until 2020,” said Kerr. “In Douglas, anyone could hang a flag — any flag.”
Noting that “all events have place,” Gollannek, who grew up in Detroit and holds a Ph.D. in art history, said, “Discrimination against queer people at the local, state and national level has all happened well within living memory. This is our recent past.”
While planning for the exhibition began in earnest in 2019, “A Century of Progress” was built on the longstanding work of “The Gay History Project,” a collection of audio and video stories, photographs and other ephemera originated in 2006 by Dr. Jim Schmiechen, Professor Emeritus, Central Michigan University and the SDHC.
Schmiechen, one of the center’s founding members, started compiling archival materials and oral histories in the mid-2000s and later collaborated with the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Kutsche Office of Local History for “Stories of Summer.” The GVSU partnership yielded an additional 40 hours of interviews and helped digitize 2,000 documents and photos.
Two 2019 events, one national, one closer to home, served as the impetus to draw on nearly 15 years of research into what Gollannek calls “a first draft of LGBT history on the Lakeshore”: the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in June and the death of local queer pioneer Carl Jennings in February. The exhibition’s timeline integrates local people, places and events in the context of regional and national queer history. Gollannek and Kerr hope that seeing Saugatuck-Douglas stories on parallel tracks with U.S. and Michigan narratives will encourage others to share their anecdotes and artifacts so that this inaugural exhibition grows into larger, successive exhibitions encompassing even more histories.
With the inclusion of “History Book: LGBTQ Portraits” on display in the SDHC’s second-floor gallery, that hope is being realized immediately. Featuring bright, bold representations of folks from Saugatuck-Douglas and beyond, noted Chicago artist David Lee Csicsko and historian/author Owen Keehen create an exhibition filled with exceptional people, many of whom may be unfamiliar but are nonetheless fascinating. Local figures include out-and-proud trailblazers like Jennings and his husband Gammons and pioneering puppeteer and television creator Burr Tillstrom. Tillstrom created Kukla, Fran and Ollie and mentored Shari Lewis and Muppets mastermind Jim Henson, but never publicly identified as gay while alive.
Made possible, in part, by a Michigan Humanities grant, Gollannek sees “A Century of Progress” as just that — part of the progression of LGBTQ+ people in the world — but he emphasizes that history, queer and otherwise, stretches beyond the places, people and events of now. “The timeline does show progress, he said, “but it also reveals that queer people don’t have full protection against discrimination in our country.”
Gollannek, along with Kerr, Csicsko and Keehen, encourages visitors to interact with the exhibit, whether by responding to questions about the area’s LGBTQ+ history, contributing their own stories or by inviting other community members to attend. “This (exhibition) legitimizes LGTBQ history and stories,” Gollannek said. “Hopefully, people can see themselves in it and realize that things they might not think matter do warrant being preserved.”
“A Century of Progress: 100 Years of LGBTQ History in Saugatuck-Douglas” is now on exhibit at the Saugatuck-Douglas History Center, 130 W. Center Street, Douglas. SDHC is open Friday-Sunday, 12- 4 p.m. Admission to the exhibit and the exhibition “History Book: LGTBQ Portraits” is free, and all members of the public are welcome.