By Alexa Stanard
When artist, writer and Detroit native Charles Alexander came out, Dwight Eisenhower was president and gay bars could expect routine raids from local vice cops.
Alexander, born in 1936, has lived his entire life in Metro Detroit, witnessing the LGBT community’s evolution from the vibrant yet secretive bar scene of the late fifties to the modern-day fight for marriage equality. That evolution was intertwined with his own through recovery from alcohol addiction, exploration of his spirituality and development as a painter and writer.
“When I came out, which was right out of high school, the gay scene in downtown Detroit was within walking distance of City Hall and the first precinct,” he says. “There were four bars and gathering places for teens. For teenagers it was really very good – you got an introduction to the ropes, what to do, what not to do.”
Alexander studied art and music while enrolled at Cass Technical high school, where, he says, “because of the nature of art and the nature of music, we were allowed a certain amount of latitude. We could be a bit flamboyant. You quickly learned who was gay.”
By 1959 Alexander was hanging out at The Woodward, the city’s oldest gay bar, where patrons wore suit coats and ties. Vice cops would sometimes enter the bar and “if you looked at them the wrong way you could be arrested, and it was your word against theirs.
“Back then people really knew nothing about homosexuality,” Alexander continues. “There was a requisite anonymity. You had a nickname, you didn’t give any information about where you worked. It was a very, very guarded existence. You knew if you didn’t do anything untoward or that was an affront to straight society you could get by.
“It took a certain amount of courage to be gay because all of society looked down on gay subculture, certainly religion, police and psychology” he adds. “It took courage to be who you were. For the most part you could do so (but) what you didn’t do was you didn’t out anybody.”
His early interest in art served him well in 1950s and 60s Detroit, when the city was culturally on the map and Alexander took jobs in public relations for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and in publications for Detroit Public Schools.
By the 1970s Alexander’s alcohol use, which began when he was 15, was taking its toll. In 1981 he entered treatment at Cottage Hospital; he’s remained sober for 30 years.
“When I was drinking, in that period I never created any art, none at all,” he says. “It’s as though the output I have now was bottled up.”
After he got sober, Alexander enrolled in a master’s program at Wayne State University and returned to creative self-expression. He also began attending the Metropolitan Community Church.
“What was very, very helpful for me in my recovery was attending MCC and meeting some very supportive people there, persons who didn’t drink or use and who provided me with friendships that are really helpful and meaningful,” he says. “The real spirituality there is the community.”
That community became even more important as AIDS took hold in metro Detroit. In 1982, Alexander’s good friend Dan died from what was then known as GRID – gay-related immune deficiency.
“I remember him telling me he was in the hospital for some sort of skin condition that wasn’t resolving itself,” Alexander says. “He died shortly thereafter.”
In 1985, Alexander was motivated to become politically active. He joined the Detroit Area Gay/Lesbian Council as MCC’s representative. When Jan Stevenson and Susan Horowitz took over publication of Between The Lines, Alexander attended the newspaper’s first planning session. He has since written 570 columns for BTL.
Alexander’s artistic output has been equally prolific. His colorful, highly detailed pieces have earned him shows at the Scarab Club and an invitation to join the Florence Biennale, and have raised about $60,000 in various charitable auctions benefitting LGBT causes.
“(Making art) is almost a compulsion, so much so I should be getting things done in terms of tidying up and housecleaning but I get distracted,” Alexander says with a laugh. He cites Gustav Klimt and Francis Bacon as influences; locally, he admires John Strand and Jack O. Summers.
“When I create art I just start. I have no idea where anything is going to go,” he says. “I just proceed and keep at it and the piece is done. It’s almost looking at the work and a space says ‘orange.’ Or another space says, ‘quick line.’ There’s a certain challenge, a daringness to making art, particularly when a piece is near completion and it requires a fast stroke and if you execute that stroke incorrectly it spoils it.”
Now in his mid-70s, Alexander notes significant changes in life as a gay man in Detroit. The old bars of his youth are now empty lots, and the area’s epicenter of LGBT life has shifted to Ferndale and Royal Oak. Many prominent people have come out, something Alexander says he couldn’t have imagined in his youth. Being openly gay doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to one’s job.
Yet Alexander says it would be a mistake to assume that further progress is inevitable.
“I would hope that our young LGBT persons are not lulled into a false sense that everything is getting better and better, because that can change quickly depending on who gets in power,” he says. “The young can’t be complacent.”