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HARRISVILLE – Way up north along the Lake Huron shoreline is a town of less than 500 people called Harrisville, Michigan. The town became the home of the region’s first Equalityfest last weekend, attracting over 100 LGBT people and allies to the day of celebration and education.
Guests came from as far away as the Detroit area, with several being “up north” anyway to escape the massive Woodward Dream Cruise. Others drove for miles through rural Michigan to be part of the event.
Rev. Steven Hammond of Alpena Presbyterian Church came south about half an hour to attend. He has lived in several places through the country, but landed in Alpena nine years ago. When asked if Alpena is welcoming to the LGBT community, Hammond said optimistically, “It is improving.” Recently a 25 year old drowned, and the tragedy brought the community together, he said. The young man was gay, and had been bullied in school. “His death made people rethink their behavior. People were not kind to him, but this reminded them to think about how they treat people. It’s led to a lot of good conversations.”
Hammond has experienced warmth first hand in the community as well. “My daughter and daughter-in-law were legally married in Connecticut. It’s their 11 year anniversary of being committed, and they’ve been legally married five years. Our family picture is right up on the wall of the church, and no one has ever had anything negative to say about it,” he said.
Patty Wackerly came up from Flint for Equalityfest. The prior weekend she had traveled down to Ferndale for the Transgender Pride in the Park picnic, and earlier this year she went to Flint Pride. “I don’t consider myself transgender,” she said. “I’m just a guy who likes to dress up. But I feel for transgender people. I don’t struggle because I am comfortable when I am a man and when I am a woman. But I think of the struggles transgender people go through and I want to help support them, support their rights and so they can feel accepted.” Wackerly has cross-dressed in private at various times in life, but only began being Patty publically this past year. “I love it,” she said. “Everybody’s been nice so far.” She said she is careful about where she goes, opting for art galleries and antique shops where there isn’t much social pressure or interaction.
Harrisville itself is home to at least a handful of LGBT people. Dave Morey said, “As a gay man in northeast Michigan I like to see the awareness there are LGBT people here. And this gives a chance for us to invite the straight people to come meet us and see what we’re like. We’re not here to steal your children or whatever.”
Morey grew up in Royal Oak, and spent much of his life out in California. He moved to Harrisville to “get away from it all,” and is happy being single and spending time with his friends, who are all straight. “I’ve met a few guys here and there who call themselves ‘bi-curious.’ No one uses the word gay up here, it’s always ‘bi-curious.’ But apart from that there isn’t really any way for gay people to meet each other. Craigslist a little bit, but even that is not very active. I’m okay with it. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had a couple of long term relationships in my life. I’m happy on my own.”
Though he is open about his sexuality, Morey has only had two incidents where it was an issue. “There was one guy who I was friends with who said he couldn’t pal around with me anymore because he didn’t want people to think he was gay. And I said ‘well okay,’ and that was it.
The other was one time I was up at the bar and there was some women in bikinis on the TV and one guy made a comment to me that a gal like that could turn a gay man straight. I had a good response to him though. I said ‘You know what would really turn a gay man straight? A guy like you.’ That got a good laugh and that was it. Most people up here are really laid back, or if they do have a problem with something they don’t say it.”
Dawn Huaman says she gets strange looks around town, but hasn’t had any problems. Her friend Jessica Bassing happened to be in town from Germany and was excited to come to the Harrisville Equalityfest. She’s been to Pride events all over the world, including Amsterdam the weekend before.
“In Amsterdam the whole city gets involved in Pride. There are signs everywhere saying ‘We’re with you,'” Bassing said. “This is not like Amsterdam, but it is nice to see this event and that people are trying to start one here.”
Many of the 100 or so attendees were allies and people involved in progressive movements in that area. The event was organized by Harrisville Holistic Center, and the Alcona County Democrats sold baked goods as a fundraiser for their group.
Rev. Dr. Mel White of California came in to be the keynote speaker, talking about his national movement called Soulforce and how principles of Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Jesus can be applied to the movement for equality for all people. He stressed the importance of loving one’s enemy and recognizing the humanity that is in them.
The event also attracted statewide political attention, with State Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) giving a talk updating the public about what progress is being made towards equal rights. She has introduced bills for second parent adoption, marriage and civil rights protections, and said that a bi-partisan move to amend Michigan’s civil rights law, Elliot Larson, is likely to happen in 2014.
U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI 14) also spoke to the crowd about the need to support candidates that are vocal about equal rights. Peters is running for U.S. Senate and was on an “up north” tour to meet potential voters.
The Harrisville Holistic Center is the gathering place for progressives in the community. To follow events happening there, check out their website at http://www.harrisvilleholistic.org/.