Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
By Jim Larkin
Flint’s Out’N About project inspiring other cities around state
Greg Fiedler had had enough.
It was 2004, sometime after Gov. Jennifer Granholm had introduced her Cool Cities concept and her keynote speaker Richard Florida had told a crowd of 1,600 community leaders that they had to embrace the gay community if they wanted to make urban redevelopment possible. And yet Granholm was not strongly opposing Proposal 2 – the so-called “defense of marriage” proposition that essentially outlawed gay unions.
“Now I’m disgusted because there’s an incredible hypocrisy going on,” said Fiedler, president and CEO of the Greater Flint Arts Council.
The hypocrisy wasn’t about to end. Proposal 2, which amended Michigan’s Constitution to provide that “the union of one man and one women in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage,” passed by a wide margin statewide and by 58-42 percent in Fiedler’s home Genesee County.
“It just got me to thinking. What is our problem in Flint? We have all these gay leaders but no one is talking because they’re in fear,” Fiedler said. “I thought the only way we’re going to make a change is if everyone does what they can to break the silence.”
Fiedler’s plan to do so – through a series of events that focuses on gay and lesbian contributions to the arts – got off to less than a rousing start. Two people attended the first meeting he held. But slowly and surely it grew into a community-wide celebration that included contributions from major community groups including Mott Community College, University of Michigan-Flint, Flint Youth Theatre and The Whiting auditorium and drew strong attendance from gay and straight residents.
Fiedler’s plan, called Out’NAbout, is now entering the second half of its full season – with the UM-Flint Theatre Department’s production of “The Copa” at Good Beans Cafe on May 2-3 – and has drawn raves from both Flint leaders and those outside the area interested in mimicking its success.
“I think it was very successful at meeting its goals of recognizing the achievements of the gay community as well as bringing our own community together,” said Cindy Ornstein, president and CEO of the Flint Cultural Center Corp., who attended three of the Out’NAbout events last year. “It had a good, warm community feel and a strong, positive reaction.”
Fiedler said the audiences in the first half of the Out’NAbout season were strong, positive and very supportive and that he has been contacted by people in Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor who want to get similar programs started in their communities. That’s a far cry from the two-person attendance at his first meeting.
“I feel really good about it,” he said. “I always thought it could be a catalyst for change. We see things wrong in this world and we just sit back and allow it to be that way. But we can’t do that any longer if we want real change.”
Not that the two years between the conception of Fiedler’s idea to the holding of the first Out’NAbout event were easy. Many people, said Fiedler and Out’NAbout Director Jack LeSage, were uneasy about the repercussions they could encounter from so openly supporting a gay-themed project. Some organizations simply refused to bring the concept to its members. Others had concerns – some agencies, for example, primarily serve children; would their parents be upset by the positive treatment of gay issues?
“It took a really long time to put together because I knew some people would freak out,” Fiedler said. “There’s a big fear factor. It’s a big step for a lot of people. It’s an issue some people are very uncomfortable with.”
But eventually about 36 agencies signed on to the project. The Flint Youth Theatre presented “Gross Indecency” and “The Laramie Project.” The Flint Institute of Arts presented a gay-themed film series. The Whiting signed Margaret Cho to appear during National Coming Out Week. Mott Community College and PFLAG held a panel discussion with parents of LGBT children. Greater Flint Arts Council staged an ArtWalk, Sloan Museum hosted an exhibit celebrating the diversity of family and Buckham Gallery hosted “The Colors of the Rainbow: Out in America.” Businesses such as Fandangles restaurant, Good Beans cafe, Red Ink Studio and Page’s Book Store also got involved.
“There were talks after (one Flint Youth Theater production) between gay and straight people and it was great to hear them ask and answer questions,” LeSage said. “After it, I felt wonderful”
There were also benefits to the sponsoring agencies and businesses in addition to encouraging and showcasing gay talents. Ornstein, for example, said the Margaret Cho show brought a new audience and future contacts to The Whiting.
“We were reaching a market that many of these agencies wouldn’t have reached otherwise,” said LeSage, owner of T.S. Jenkins & Associates. “I’m shocked by the enormity of it all.”
Still, there were things they wish could have happened. An aggressive plan to get corporate sponsors never materialized so the project was funded entirely by a $25,000 grant from the ARCUS Foundation. And LeSage said he had hoped for even a little support from some organizations – such as the Flint Regional Chamber of Commerce – and stronger support from some other agencies.
“You find out there are some that will support it and work with it, but they won’t walk the walk,” LeSage said.
Still, LeSage, a strong supporter of downtown Flint, agrees with Florida’s assertion that the gay community has to be a part of any successful urban renovation because of its creativity, knowledge and talents.
“It is something I feel needs to be done. It’s part of economic development,” LeSage said. “I think with Flint’s reputation as a factory and manufacturing town, you might think it’s a town where gay people aren’t active. But it (gay involvement in the community) has been going on for years.”
And residents need only get Out’NAbout to see that.
Upcoming Out’NAbout events
* The Copa, a multi-media show focusing on the interviews of people recalling the glory years of The Copa nightclub in downtown Flint. 7:30 p.m. May 2-3 at Good Beans Cafe in downtown Flint
* Flint Institute of Arts LGBT Film Series, dates and times to be announced.
* Michigan/Flint AIDS Walk, sponsored by Wellness HIV/AIDS Services, Sept. 1 in downtown Flint.
* Greater Flint Arts Council’s LGBT Artists and Allies Exhibit, dates and times to be announced.
* Woodside Church, the Genesee County Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and the Clio Cast & Crew have committed to hold an event but have yet to determine what and when it will be.
To reach Jim Larkin, e-mail email@example.com.