By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
WARREN – They start things, they build things, they keep things going and grow them. Like the Motor City itself, they haven’t stopped when things were tough. And because of them, the spirit of gay Detroit is going strong.
They are Kimya Afi Ayodele, Tito Guttierrez, Grace McClelland and Suzanne Wait, and they are the recipients of this year’s Spirit of Detroit awards.
But just what is the spirit of gay Detroit?
“If we talk about Detroit proper it’s still in progress. It’s still closeted,” said Ayodele, community outreach coordinator for Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center. Ayodele, a Detroit native, said that she has been an LGBT community activist for 10 years.
It’s been a busy ten years, too. Ayodele is one of the founders of Karibu House, and has worked with the Gill Foundation. She has also paid the price for being out — Ayodele said she was fired in 2004 from Presbyterian Village in Redford for being a lesbian.
“I have always felt like there needs to be more out people — especially African-American lesbians and those of us who are mothers,” said Ayodele, who is the mother of 11-year-old Abeni. “That’s always been my platform. There’s also the education piece. I teach in the Social Work department at Wayne State University as an out lesbian, just educating the non-LGBT community about the diversity of who we are.”
For Grace McClelland, the executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center, the spirit of gay Detroit is “the kids; there’s no question. I think it lives and breathes in our young people and we have to cultivate that so they can become the leaders that will get us through the next generation. We’re all going to get old. We need our young people to step up, and frankly we’re not doing enough to do that in the community.”
McClelland came to Detroit from Erie, Pennsylvania, where she said she was fired from her position as executive director of Harbor Creek Youth Services for being a lesbian.
One Spirit of Detroit winner is not only safely out in her workplace, she helps others be out as well. Suzanne Wait, a Ford software engineer, is the current president of Ford Globe and one of the LGBT affinity organization’s founding members.
“I think that work is such an important part of all our lives that being out in your workplace is something that makes a big statement,” Wait said. “I think it’s something that changes how straight people perceive the LGBT community. They know me, and some of them knew me before they knew I was a lesbian so their concept of knowing what a lesbian is can be changed by knowing me and knowing who I am.”
According to Wait, a Royal Oak resident, the spirit of gay Detroit, “is to try to come together as one Detroit. To make our differences work together, work for us. It’s a great strong community, and I’m really proud to be part of it and proud that all that the community has accomplished over the last couple of years.”
Tito Guttierrez said of his arrival in the Detroit area 18 years ago, “It seems like I arrived just in time for the whole community to really come out of the closet and knock the door off the hinges!”
Guttierrez, a program director for the Kresge Foundation, was a volunteer at Affirmations before the LGBT community center even had a staff, and according to Affirmations Marketing Director Kathleen LaTosch was “instrumental” in the success of the organization’s recent capital campaign.
“I don’t really see myself as an activist, but as an active volunteer in the community,” Guttierrez told BTL. “I like to pitch in and help out.”
As for coming to Michigan from Boston, Guttierrez said, “I love Michigan — but you can have the winter. These June days are what we live for.”
Asked for his vision of the spirit of gay Detroit, Guttierrez said “I think it is on the move — really on the move. With a wonderful center, the terrific work that Triangle is doing and that the black community is doing things with Hotter Than July … Wow! Did we come out of the closet here big time! We’re really on the move here in southeast Michigan, and it’s really been great to be here and be part of all of that.”
This year’s Spirit of Detroit winners will receive their awards at the 21st Annual Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony on June 22. They will join Business Award winner Paramount Bank, MAPP Award winners Reynaldo Magdaleno and Mike Flores and other LGBT leaders in receiving the well-earned recognition and praise of the LGBT community when the event begins at 7 p.m. at Warren’s Ukrainian Cultural Center. Doors open at 6 p.m. with dinner served at 7 p.m. and awards ceremony beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $37 and include dinner and open bar. For directions, visit http://www.goaffirmations.org/pride_banquet.asp . For tickets call MAPP at 248-545-1435.