KALAMAZOO – After growing up in a town where bovine out-numbered people, a short stint in the Navy, and a few years suited up in the world of corporate finance, Zach Bauer finally feels at home. For the past 18 months he has been serving as executive director of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center, a position that allows him to help LGBT people in his community and to work on statewide efforts towards equality.
At 32 years-old, Bauer is energetic and scrappy, putting in long hours to sustain the organization's growth spurt of the past few years. One big example is the boom of the sixth annual Kalamazoo Pride, which has now expanded to a two-day event to benefit the center. And as part of the Community Center Network, Bauer is making sure that the voice of southwest Michigan is being heard statewide.
Bauer fell in love with the city a dozen years ago when he came to study political science and economics at Western Michigan University. While there he tasted activism, working with the school's LGBT club OUTspoken, and even a brief membership in the Campus Republicans. His worldview expanded along with his passion for activism as he worked on a campaign to elect Mayor Bobby Hopewell, who became a friend and mentor.
Though his job with a large bank took him back and forth between Michigan and Pennsylvania, Bauer remained active as a volunteer in political campaigns, and ultimately by volunteering his expertise for the 2011 Pride. When the previous executive director, Dave Garcia, left to take the helm at Affirmations Community Center in Ferndale, Bauer was a natural to step in.
In a small office building shared with the HIV/AIDS organization CARES, Bauer and his team oversee a surprising number of programs. The Faith Alliance seeks to "foster constructive conversations on the intersection of faith and sexuality for the healing of individuals and communities." Their Connections Youth Group helps young people aged "ages 13 to 18, who are trying to come to terms with their sexuality in a sometimes-unaccepting society." TransCend provides support and resources to the Southwest Michigan transgender community, their significant others, family, friends, and allies. And there are a number of social, support and health/wellness related groups for people in the LGBT community and their allies.
One program that helped give Bauer insight into the importance of the center's work was the Triangle Mentorship Program. The program connects a youth with both an LGBT adult and an ally for a year's worth of connection. Bauer had never been a mentor before. "My mentee is now graduated from high school and is off doing political activism work," Bauer said with pride. "He and I had a lot of similarities. It was a good opportunity for him to talk about what he's going to do in life." Through the program they met at least once a month, and also had big events with the other youth and mentors in the program. "It was a great experience for us both," Bauer said.
Growing up gay in the small town of Vassar, Michigan gave him first-hand experience at the challenges some LGBT youth face. "It wasn't easy," he said. "I came out at 14 and I'm not sure if Vassar was ready for their first openly gay person. You got slurs. You got pushed into lockers. But I had a couple of teachers that helped. My parents supported me and we pushed through.
"I used humor to get around a lot of it. I was the gay kid. People would laugh about it and I'd laugh about it. I was a lippy kid. So if I wasn't being treated fairly I had something to say about it."
His parents' support helped immensely. "It was a very different time. There was no Ellen back then," he said "But they learned. They started from a place of love. They loved their son and wanted their son to be safe. I am very proud of them."
For young people who don't have a ready-made support system Bauer advises, "Find somebody you know is going to support you – a teacher, a neighbor, a relative – and be your wonderful, beautiful, queer self. But be safe." He also suggests finding a community center and connecting with other LGBT people for support.
KGLRC is one of several throughout the state. Each is independently operated, but within the past year there has been unprecedented cooperation between them, as well as rapid growth of community organizing in smaller towns like Battle Creek, Jackson and Holland.
The Community Center Network is made up of seven centers statewide, including Kalamazoo. "The Network came together in response to Governor Snyder withdrawing same sex partner benefits to state employees. We came together in Lansing to say that all families matter," Bauer said. "It was this organic thing that morphed into something unique. The equality movement in Michigan is not a pretty story. There has been a lot of in-fighting. Work was being done in a siloed manner. Now we're working together, and that's never happened in Michigan." Bauer is the co-chair of the Community Center Network, along with Garcia of Affirmations.
CCN also created the 100 day Hungry 4 Equality strike, where people would take 24-hour shifts of not eating to raise awareness of LGBT issues. In addition to activist stands, CCN looks to connect the communities in more fun ways, including the upcoming Shore to Shore Equality Ride from September 4-7. This 100-person ride will start in Ferndale and go to Saugatuck, with stops along the way including Kalamazoo.
To keep his spirits up with all the work going on, Bauer sings in the office and does impressions. When he gets together with his partner, who is apparently the most entertaining genetic virologist in southwest Michigan, the two make an unstoppable duet of silly songs and comedy. Their dog Ketchup sometimes also joins in the fun.
Bauer is quick to point out that his work is not a one-man show. "We have a strong board that is very active," he said. "Mary Harper, the former Board President taught me to not be afraid to ask for help if I need it, and I have called on them many times. These are 15 talented leaders in business, higher education and law. We have extraordinary people dedicated to making a difference."
There is also another Bauer in the office, who is of no relation. Megan Bauer joined the KGLRC in July 2012 as an intern with the I Commit Campaign, part of a statewide effort to foster civic engagement. Her position is funded in partnership with Unity Michigan, and her focus is on advancing nondiscrimination policies. Jay Maddock, Program Director, and David Topping, Program Coordinator, also help keep the center running smoothly.