By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
FERNDALE – In 1985, when Craig Covey accepted the position of executive director of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, he promised he would stay in Michigan for at least three years.
Twenty years later, Covey is still here, as are the organizations and events he helped start.
In the early 80s, Covey, an Ohio native and graduate of Ohio State, founded Stonewall Columbus, a gay rights organization. It didn’t take long for MOHR, a precursor to today’s Triangle Foundation, to start trying to recruit Covey northward.
During his time with MOHR, Covey founded events that are institutions today; the annual Pride Banquet and Pride March.
“We had put on Pride banquets in Columbus for about four years, and when I moved to Michigan and took over MOHR in ’85 there was no gay/lesbian pride banquet – just as there was no parade or march or anything else,” he said.
“In 1986 we held the first march, which was down Woodward Avenue … and also held the first Pride Banquet.”
“MOHR did [the march] for two to three years in Detroit,” Covey said. “In the late 80s, MOHR moved the parade from Detroit into Lansing, and that evolved into what we have today, which is the Gay Pride March and Rally in Lansing.”
Founding one organization and leading another in the creation of two successful events would be the capstones to many careers. But Stonewall Columbus, MOHR, and the Pride Banquet and Parade were just the beginning for Covey.
“As the mid-80s rolled around and I moved to Detroit – I lived in Palmer Park for a year – HIV/AIDS was becoming a serious problem,” he said. At first, Covey and MOHR worked trying to get funds from Michigan’s legislature for AIDS education.
“As the epidemic became more serious, there was no one doing HIV prevention education in the gay community – there were really no programs going on that you would consider comprehensive, behavior-based HIV education prevention, so I started developing those programs with people at MOHR and within a couple years, that became a major part of the organization,” he said.
Though Covey mentioned that his salary was doubled with each of his career moves, he stressed that money was not and is not his main motivation.
“I can’t get up and go to work if I’m counting beans or making widgets,” he said. “The only thing that gets me up and out of the house to go to work is making life better for my community.”
In 1988, while working as an AIDS education consultant for the Michigan Department of Community Health, Covey co-founded the organization he still heads today – the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. In addition to AIDS prevention, MAPP also took over responsibility for the annual banquet.
“Then, in 1990, we invited Affirmations [Lesbian and Gay Community Center] to join us – somewhere around ’91 or ’92 we invited Triangle to join us,” Covey said. “For several years it was those three organizations, then we began inviting other groups…. In the late 90s it evolved into what it is [today].”
Asked about the secret of his longevity in activism, a field that has a high burn-out rate, Covey said, “I make sure I have a little bit of fun.”
Covey credits many things as making his life’s work fun, among them the people he works with at MAPP.
“Part of my success, I think, has been that I have a wonderful staff that are an amazing group of people,” he said.
Covey admitted that, “I get bored very easily,” and credited the variety of people and tasks he takes on at MAPP with keeping his interest and passion going.
“I think what keeps things interesting for me are the different kinds of community events, the Pride banquets that I’ve helped manage, hiring people who are very diverse and developing programs that target diverse groups,” he said.
Covey called diversity, both in his staff and in the populations that his agency serves, “a passion of mine.”
“And it’s not because it’s politically correct. I take pride in the fact that my agency had a very diverse staff way before diversity ever even became a coined term. When you walk through the MAPP office or talk to the board of directors, it’s a veritable United Nations,” he said.
Many, if not most people would be content with a career that included Covey’s long line of successes in LGBT and AIDS activism. But Covey, who majored in Political Science, decided to take a chance at political life and ran for Ferndale City Council.
“I’ve run three times,” he said. “The first time I lost – came in last place. The second time I ran I came in first place. And this last time I won in a landslide – that makes one feel good. We political types and gay community leaders are always in need of some ego stroking.”
Covey said of his many roles – LGBT activist, AIDS educator, and elected official – “For me, it all fits in together.”
“I’m probably a little bit of a control person, so I feel like I need to be able to be involved in the making of decisions,” he said.
“I absolutely love working on council, mainly because I like to think I’m helping make the city a better place,” he said. “And I live here, so there’s selfishness there, too – I should say that while everything I do I try to justify in terms of helping people, there is selfishness involved as well because I get to live here.”
In addition to success, Covey is no stranger to controversy. In 2000, tempers flared when, in the wake of the defeat of a pro-human rights ordinance in his city, Covey likened the Christian Right to a vampire.
In the Feb. 24 and March 2 editions of BTL that year, Covey said that the defeat of the ordinance showed that the Christian Right, “Is down but not out yet. We might have to drive another stake into that vampire.”
Five years later, Covey says that while he might adjust the quote in wordage, “I look back on it and it is one of my proudest moments.”
“While I did take a lot of flack for that initially, the result of which was a threatened recall, two years later I was re-elected in a landslide, and came in first in Ferndale – so I think, at least here, we’ve created a safe space,” he said.
And though he said he was very upset, even crying, when he gave the 2000 interview, Covey also said that his opinion about fundamentalism of any kind remains unchanged.
“My feeling is, fundamentalism and extremism in all respects, including in the gay community, are wrong,” he said. “Any time that you believe that you hold the keys to the truth and all the knowledge is when you’ve begun to make major mistakes,” he said.
Triangle Foundation Executive Director Jeffrey Montgomery is impressed with Covey’s commitment and staying power.
“Craig and I have worked together on many, many things in the last thirteen years,” Montgomery said. “There’s no question that Craig has been a long-time activist, and I mean that in the most admirable way. This is the kind of work that can burn people out very quickly, and the fact that Craig has been at this for at least 25 years is a great testimony to his dedication to the community and to wanting to see our community advance to full equality.”
Montgomery continued, “I think he also can be given credit for being – not the first openly gay elected official, but certainly the most visible. He’s been around and responsible for and involved in many positive developments for our community, both locally and nationally.”