GRAND RAPIDS – In March 1964 a terrific partnership was formed. In the safe haven of a friend’s house where gay men were able to meet, drink and socialize, Milt Lennox and Edward Ladner fell in love. They were each other’s first loves, and through the years they helped countless others find happiness and acceptance through their business, The Apartment Lounge. They also helped fund most of the major LGBT advances in Grand Rapids over the years, including the first West Michigan Pride and The Network, 25 years ago.
Lennox and Ladner are looking forward to the city’s first Parade of Pride June 16 at 2 p.m. and wind through downtown Grand Rapids, tying into the 25th celebration of West Michigan Pride. Not only are they glad to see the historic parade take place, they are serving as Parade Marshals for the event.
Said Lennox about the parade, “It’s about time.” Much of the work that has been done over the course of their lives was done with help from The Apartment Lounge donations. “We gave because we were the only ones in the position to do it. We were the first gay business owners in the area, so we gave back,” Lennox said. “The community supported us. You cannot continually take without giving back to the community. It helped business too. We did a lot of it anonymously, but it helped make Grand Rapids a place for the gay community. And the community came in to our business.”
Being marshals is just icing on the cake. “We were very surprised and honored,” Lennox said.
Their legacy is The Apartment Lounge and the years of social and political meet up that the family-friendly bar provided since 1978. “The Apartment Lounge is a very well-respected lounge through America and across the pond,” he said. “It’s a family run business that grew by word of mouth. People would say ‘when you go to Grand Rapids, make sure you stop at The Apartment Lounge.’ The whole deal was word of mouth.
“It was the place to go to feel safe and secure. There were no drugs allowed. We didn’t need hustlers. It was a safe haven. People would bring their mothers, their fathers, their grandmothers, their kids to introduce them to the gay lifestyle. Everyone could feel comfortable there.”
The Apartment Lounge served sandwiches and drinks, and held events like charity auctions to benefit the community. “Every dollar that was raised at the auctions went to the fundraisers,” Lennox said.
Over the years, the gentlemen did not experience any notable problems being gay business owners in Grand Rapids. “We traveled in both worlds very easily,” Lennox said. “There’s always somebody that stands on the sidelines and says things, but that’s it. The acceptance of the gay community has grown. Straight bars wouldn’t let gay people in through their doors. Now they’ve found out our money is just as green.”
Lennox, now 78 and Ladner, now 70, retired earlier this year and sold The Apartment Lounge. The new owner is working to expand the live music capabilities and the menu. Lennox and Ladner are enjoying their continued time growing together. When asked what the secret is to so long of a successful relationship Lennox said, “Keep your pants zipped honey. That’s what I tell the boys all the time. That’s the secret.”
He went on to explain, “We were from a different time. The words ‘faggot’ and ‘homo’ were out there. Gay was not around. It was a dark era in our community and we didn’t have the option of being out there and sleeping around. Ed was my first boyfriend and I was his first boyfriend. It helped that I was working all the time. I stayed busy so we missed each other.”
Lennox had been working with a company that made door handles and chrome parts for the auto industry. The move to bar ownership came when the factory was going to close. “They were going to shut the Grand Rapids factory down. I didn’t want to go to any of the five places they were sending us to. We bought the bar because I knew what was going to happen. This was our first bar in 1972 on Lyon Street.” Since then they owned a handful of different bars before focusing on The Apartment Lounge in 1978.
Looking back and celebrating Lennox said, “You have to feel pride in what’s been accomplished. We didn’t think about the future. It was what was needed to be done and we did it.”