By Jim Larkin
Joann Downing had just accomplished what many were beginning to doubt could happen – getting a large number of fearful agencies and organizations to commit to the gay-themed Out ‘N About program in Flint – when cancer came calling again.
First it was a mild case of what she thought was stomach flu that only got worse, but by the end of August 2007 – just when Out ‘N About events began to truly unfurl – she was hospitalized for what doctors determined was TTP, a blood disorder that causes blood clots to form in blood vessels around the body.
Then came news that breast cancer, which had led to a mastectomy in 1986 and bone marrow transplant in 1999, had returned to her bone marrow. It metastasized to her eye, leading to radiation treatments.
She spent two weeks in a Flint hospital, a month at the University of Michigan Medical Center and another two weeks in a Flint hospital for pneumonia.
“I basically missed every one of the Out ‘N About events (in 2007),” Downing said, “but I was there in spirit.”
Today, Downing has limited use of her left arm, which remains heavily wrapped, her voice is quieted by vocal cord damage and she continues chemotherapy treatments. But the well-known and popular defender of civil rights in Flint is back – as development director of the Greater Flint Arts Council, as a committee member of the ongoing Out ‘N About program, and slowly but surely in a number of other community roles.
Few are surprised. It may have taken her 45 minutes to climb the steps to her second-floor apartment when she returned from the hospital – “I was totally exhausted,” she recalled – but it took her scant little time to get back involved in social causes.
“She is fiercely committed to social justice, gay rights and feminine issues,” noted good friend Kim Kratz, who has known Downing for more than 10 years. “And that same ferocity is what has enabled her to survive cancer.”
It was that ferocity in 2007, noted Greg Fiedler, founder of Out ‘N About, that allowed the yearlong celebration of GLBT contributions to the arts to take flight. Fiedler had then named Downing as co-chair of the program and she eventually “was pretty much running it,” he said.
“Joann Downing played a huge role in moving the project forward. After she started chairing the meetings was when we gained tremendous momentum and it all came together under her time as co-chair,” Fiedler said. “She was able to get people to work past their fear and make commitments.”
That wasn’t easy, Downing recalls.
“People wanted to do the right thing but they were afraid,” she noted. “It took a period of storytelling to acquaint them with the GLBT experience. They were surprised to learn, for example, that two people on our own committee had been survivors of gay bashings.
“It took lots of phone calls. It took gentle persuasion, gentle pestering and general feedback.”
Today, she beams with pride when talking about those same organizations.
“It took a lot for them to come to the table, to stand up with us in spite of their fears,” she said. “They believed in us.”
That has been how Downing has operated for most of life, which has been totally devoted to nonprofits. She grew up in Grand Blanc and graduated from Grand Blanc High School and from Michigan State University, with a degree in recreation and youth leadership. She worked as program director for the YWCA of Metro Detroit; Fairwinds Girl Scout Council, eventually as director of outdoor programs, properties and fund development; and Big Brothers/Big Sisters as marketing and fund director before joining the Greater Flint Arts Council.
“She’s always advocated for gay and lesbian policy and issues within every organization she’s worked for,” Kratz noted. “She’s passionate, determined, a hard worker and very ethical. And she just doesn’t advocate for the gay community but for the community at large. She works hard for all of us.”
Indeed, Downing has been a member of the Flint Human Relations Committee, Leadership Development in Ethnic Relations, Gender Equality Committee of Genesee County and as a Rotarian. She hopes to continue her involvement in many of those groups this fall as she regains her strength.
“I just believe in social justice for all people…that everyone deserves a fair shake,” Downing said.
“No one wants to be a bigot, but you have to help each other to see the bigotry. We all must become allies. We need to stand together.”
GLBT issues, however, remain close to her heart. She was one of the community producers of “Face the Music,” a lesbian/feminist radio show that aired on public station WFBE for 15 years. And Out ‘N About remains the one committee she can’t resist contributing to, even while weakened by chemotherapy and a full-time job.
She admits cancer has taken its toll. She has had two long-term relationships, one that ended when her partner found someone else and the other when her partner grew tired of cancer invading their lives.
“She wanted to get away from the whole cancer thing, and so did I, but…,” Downing said.
“It’s difficult sometimes. It is frustrating. But you have to put one foot in front of the other, just keep hoping and never give up. You have to learn to be an advocate for yourself.”
And the future?
“I feel pretty good. I’m optimistic,” she said. “I’m working full time and giving my time when I can. And that’s something.”