By Tim Retzloff
Responding several months ago to Equality Michigan’s decision to move Motor City Pride from Ferndale to Hart Plaza, Oakland County Commissioner and former Ferndale Mayor Craig Covey noted in his Covey’s Corner blog that this year marks 25 years since Detroit held its “first pride parade,” an event he was instrumental in organizing. He deserves boundless thanks for his leadership in making that event happen, not in the least because of the enormous fear people had about marching in public – as seen by coverage leading up to the event published in Cruise magazine. His role was crucial in stoking a new wave of activism in the wake of AIDS and the cruel indifference of the Reagan administration.
The 1986 parade also was personally significant for me as the first pride event I ever attended. I was then 22 and it was an exhilarating entree into a wider grassroots movement that seven years later would land me on the catwalk in front of the stage at the 1993 March on Washington, press badge from Between The Lines dangling from my neck as I looked out on a fierce crowd of over half a million LGBT people and allies, never again to feel I was the only one in the world. My elation in marching in 1986, however, was punctured the very next day when the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Bowers v. Hardwick that consensual sodomy was not protected by the Constitution. Such were the heady times of a quarter of a century ago.
But the gay procession down Woodward 25 years ago was not Detroit’s first, and our local queer history did not begin in 1986. The Motor City’s first pride march, Christopher Street Detroit ’72, took place June 24, 1972, two and a half years after the founding of the Detroit Gay Liberation Front in January 1970. We owe a debt to those who paved the way before us. However, it might seem our individual entrees were not starting points but continuations. Local queer history did not begin when we first built up the courage to walk into Menjo’s in 1974 or into Stilletto’s in 1999 or into Soho last week. Stilletto’s, after all, began as the Cruise Club before becoming Tooter’s before becoming Cruisin’ Again before becoming Silent Legacy. While we are not actually doomed to repeat the past if we don’t know our history – the convergence of actors, social forces, technology, and culture are all unique to a given time – we do miss out on the vital lessons that our history can teach us if we choose to forget.
And, as Commissioner Covey’s perspective honestly reveals, the march in 1972 has largely been forgotten. Why is this so?
For one, the 1972 march and the opening that same week of Green Carnation, the city’s first gay community center, located at 660 Virginia Park, were followed within six months by a dramatic factional upheaval between radicals and moderates that left one activist with shotgun wounds and much of the community in splinters. As such, many of the key leaders of the early 1970s either left metro Detroit or retreated from local activism, exhausted or disillusioned or bitter. At the same time, the militant spirit of gay liberation was on the wane nationwide, as was the fervor of so many other social movements. In the mid-1970s, new groups like Dignity/Detroit, the Association of Suburban People, and the Michigan Organization for Human Rights emerged with new personalities like Brian McNaught, Henry Messer, and the Rev. Nancy Wilson, all largely unaware of the trailblazers who had come before.
After the first march in 1972, similar marches were held until 1976; then for ten years Detroiters did not take to the streets but instead celebrated pride with festivals and picnics. By 1986, the earlier marches had begun to fade from collective memory.
With all due respect to Detroit’s first gay pride parade, much deserving of celebrating, we ought not to forget Detroit’s first gay pride march. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Christopher Street Detroit ’72, we should pledge to commemorate it in June 2012 with as spirited and vibrant a celebration as this community can muster. While some of the participants, like Ken Dudley and Rodger Keller, are deceased, many others are still living and should be invited to take part, not just to be recognized but also to witness the wondrous decades of change they helped to spark.
Let the planning begin!