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By Jim Larkin
It wasn’t a college degree or even a doctorate that led Tim Retzloff to compose his dissertation on gay life in metro Detroit from 1945-85, but rather his passion to write the dissertation that led him to get his doctorate at Yale last month.
Well, that and his keen desire for Detroit to have a gay introspective done on it, just as such other major cities as New York, San Francisco and Chicago have had done.
“Detroit has never been done – nothing on the scale as your San Francisco or New York – and I thought it important that it should be,” said Retzloff, a Flint native and former Ann Arbor and current Lansing resident. “It has played a pioneering role in gay liberation, particularly in the early 1970s when Detroit had the first city charter that included protections for gay people.”
Detroit was also home to a Catholic conscientious objector by the name of Brian McNaught who staged a hunger fast to call attention to the plight of gay Catholics in 1974, which drew national attention. It was home to an all-male revue of female impersonators who toured the country from Denver and Seattle to Casper, Wyoming and Orange, Conn. from 1935-1940, before returning home to play in the bars in Detroit and suburban Hazel Park – “A testament to the raging popularity of men transgressing gender for nightclub audiences on the eve of World War II.”
Retzloff was fascinated. And he went over and beyond to provide that four-decade plus look at gay life before same-sex marriage was even whispered. He conducted 108 interviews, went through 100,000 court records over a span of eight months and spent eight years at Yale University producing the 680-page dissertation that includes 100 maps and images. The result was “City, Suburb, and the Changing Bounds of Lesbian and Gay Life and Politics in Metropolitan Detroit, 1945-1985.”
The document presents a fascinating look at multiple facets of gay life in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs during those four decades: police crackdowns when gays met in cars or popular meeting spots during an era when homosexuality was looked at as a mental illness; the burgeoning bar scene when gay bars more than doubled from 1965-1985; an all-women commune called Geneva House that served as sort of the nerve center for the lesbian community of metro Detroit for much of the 1970s; the popularity and acceptance of black drag performers; lively characters as Prophet Jones, who was featured regularly in the Saturday Evening Post, Time, Newsweek and Life magazines in the 1940s and 1950s.
Detroit, indeed, had no shortage of gay stories to tell from 1945-85, and Retzloff was committed to telling them. He just didn’t always know how he was going to get it to print.
The Long And Winding Road
Retzloff graduated from Flint Northern High School and went to University of Michigan-Flint, but when he came out, he felt isolated and alone like many gay people in that era. Depressed, he became a college dropout. He worked at the Flint Public Library and later the UM-Flint Library, and continued to work full-time (later at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Library) even after returning to college on a part-time basis. It was there, in the information-rich halls of libraries, that he was able to indulge his love of LGBT history.
That love led him to connect cars and the LGBT lifestyle in Flint in a published contribution to a 1997 anthology on LGBT history, despite the fact that he was a college dropout at the time. It also guided him to write an institutional history of gays and lesbians at the three campuses of University of Michigan, his first paid history gig.
When he became a volunteer writer at Between The Lines in 1993, he was again able to fuel the passion that drove his life.
“Part of my motivation,” he reflected, “was that it gave me an opportunity to write about history.”
Retzloff, with his mountains of LGBT history research, began to realize that he needed to write a dissertation so that his research could find a home. And to write a dissertation, he had to finish his college degree and eventually get his doctorate. He moved to Ann Arbor in 1995 and went to UM-Ann Arbor, where he also worked at the UM-Ann Arbor Library.
Coming from a family that his mom described as “upper poor” required Rezloff to work his way through college and acquire the numerous grants, fellowships and financial assistance he received to get through Yale University, where for eight years he worked under the tutelage of well-known LGBT historian George Chauncey.
Somehow, between the college and the work, he also found time to be an LGBT advocate, though when asked about his advocacy work he initially draws a blank. Retzloff then recalls – “Oh yeah” – he was part of Dignity Flint in 1975, the Stonewall Forum and one of the initial gay and lesbian groups at the University of Michigan-Flint. He attended his first PRIDE event in 1986, hence why he ended his dissertation in 1985 so as to not be part of the story.
“Tim has always been interested in the past, in cataloguing it and understanding it in relationship to what is happening right now,” said longtime friend Julie Enszer, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Maryland. “He cares about our history and getting it right. I really admire the deep research he’s done. It’s an incredible array, and really, a gift to us all.”
Indeed, Retzloff’s dissertation leaves few parts of gay life untouched – city to suburban, white to black, female impersonators to tough lesbian bars, cop arrests in cars, outside bars and in popular gay hangouts and the politics that bloomed from all of it.
Welcome to a glimpse of Detroit, circa 1945-1985, via Retzloff’s dissertation.
Cops Focus On Gay Lifestyle
For much of the period Retzloff covered, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness by most. It wasn’t until 1974 that the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying it as a mental illness. The social and legal attitudes were decidedly anti-gay, unlike today’s mounting acceptance of same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination protections of LGBT residents.
So the gay men in most of the period Retzloff studied took great risks in going to gay bars or other hangouts and took even greater risks in approaching anyone for sex.
The most famous incident: The 1959 arrest of music idol Johnnie Ray as he was leaving the Brass Rail bar on Adams St. across from Grand Circus Park.
“Court cases from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s help document the individual trauma of the men who underwent arrest. Court cases also give some glimpses of who patronized Detroit’s gay bars during the first decades after the war,” Retzloff wrote.
“Those who were prosecuted ranged in age from 19 to 69, with an average age of 38. Eighty-five percent lived inside the city and 15 percent in the suburbs. Nearly a third resided in apartments or rooming houses, all in Detroit. Their occupations included a steelworker, a funeral director, two accountants, a mechanic, a teacher, a welder, a nurse, a dressmaker and several clerks.
“[For the cases where marital status was documented] more than half of the men were single and living independently, more than a quarter lived with their parents and close to 20 percent lived with female wives. Such statistics suggest trends that were likely common among bar-going gays in metropolitan Detroit in the early postwar decades.”
The Girls Bar
Although Detroit’s gay bars were primarily male, there were some for women, and the most infamous may have been The Palais, which opened in 1949 at 655 Beaubien, three blocks from police headquarters. It was nicknamed The Pit because of all the fights there, and for the fierce way in which lesbians would physically defend their turf.
“Stories abound of straight men showing up to pick a fight,” Retzloff wrote.
“‘And they would have the shock of their lives when this great big huge woman would grab them and throw them through the fu… window,'” said Jerry Moore, who Retzloff interviewed.
The Palais was the first gay bar Brandy Maguire ever went to in 1961, when she was 21.
“‘I’m sitting there at this table, and I had never seen people dancing together and I’d never seen people kissing like this,'” Maguire told Roey Thorpe in an oral history Retzloff found in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell. “‘And this was so traumatic for me. Then all of a sudden a fight broke out, and I mean a fight. These girls were hitting each other, they were knocking tables over, chairs, shoving across the room, they even fought out into the streets.'”
Because of its closeness to police headquarters, The Palais frequently garnered their attention. It racked up unspecified liquor violations, liquor license renewals were denied and oddly enough – several men were placed under arrest for accosting and soliciting a plainclothes vice officer.
“Gay men,” Moore said, “knew not to go there without a female chaperone.”
A Lesbian Commune
Lesbians also made their mark in gay housing. While commune style living may be more synonymous with San Francisco, the Detroit area had its own lesbian commune in the early 1970s when a small group of women took an ordinary wood-frame house at 96 Geneva St. at the corner of Second Blvd. in Highland Park and turned it into a lesbian-feminist sanctuary.
Geneva House had its origins with a feminist guerilla street theater troupe that performed on the Wayne State University campus and around downtown Detroit, but soon shifted to an all-lesbian commune that founder Jaye Spiro said housed the “Dyke House Gang.”
Generally, five women lived at Geneva House at any given time, along with several pets, in an area that was racially mixed. There were four bedrooms, with one resident putting up a hammock to sleep in. One of those residents, Merilee Melvin, said “We all had very bad haircuts and there was a lot of no bra stuff and cotton T-shirts, baggy jeans; there was no dressing up. No girly stuff, it was a very anti-femme scene. And the Geneva House was sort of that thing.”
“It kind of became, to some extent, a kind of lesbian community center,” Melvin explained. “The Wayne State Gay Liberation Front would refer calls from women to our phone number. So we became this sort of informal lesbian helpline. And I remember talking to people on the phone. Man! Because in the early ’70s, it was really hard to get information about what it means to be a lesbian.”
The 1959 arrest of music idol Johnnie Ray as he was leaving the Brass Rail bar on Adams St. across from Grand Circus Park demonstrated the risks gay people took going to gay bars.
A Look At Black Gay Life
Gay African Americans, meanwhile, had widely different options because they were largely unwelcome at the white working-class gay bars around Farmer and Bates during the 1940s and 1950s. Female impersonation became perhaps the most visible and celebrated aspect of black gay culture in the early 1950s and was presented by several nightclubs, including Uncle Tom’s Plantation, Club Casbah, the Old time Cafe, later known as Al’s Castle Rock Night Club and Sportree’s Music Bar.
The performers became local celebrities, among them being Prescilla Dean, Baby Jean Ray, Princess DeCarlo, LaMarr Lyons and Valerie Compton.
Gala drag balls created a world of shared fantasy and opulence and were important and distinct to Detroit’s black gay subculture. Yet, oddly enough, the Michigan Chronicle abruptly stopped reporting on black drag after its coverage of a 1953 Halloween ball.
Some black gay and lesbian Detroiters, meanwhile, enjoyed private house parties such as those thrown by Ruth Ellis and her partner Ceciline “Babe” Franklin in their East side home, where Ellis ran a printing business.
“Ellis’s parties filled a void,” Retzloff explained. “For one, it was a place where black gay people could dance, which particularly appealed to lesbian attendees who could avoid the social pressure to dance with men that they felt when they visited Detroit’s black nightclubs. The parties were also where black gay people would have fun together without pretense or fear.”
And then there was Detroit religious leader Prophet Jones, whose arrest and acquittal on morals charges garnered national attention. Even before then, his flamboyant ways drew followers in the thousands and articles in national publications. And it suggested a conflict among middle class blacks and black gay people.
“As attested by the sudden press blackout on black performance and by the negative response of some in the black middle class to Prophet Jones in the early and mid 1950s, those embracing middle-class propriety often put gay African Americans in messy tension with their straight black neighbors,” Retzloff wrote.
What Happens Now?
As Tim Retzloff looks at the two bound volumes of his dissertation, he notes that eight years of his life is tied up in them, but actually his work on Michigan LGBT history goes back decades more and bits and pieces of his life is scattered throughout the dissertation. It’s scattered in the love of LGBT history he has fostered, in the research he has picked up along the way and in his hardline attention to detail.
Now that it is complete, he knows it is soon to be out of his hands and into the hands of a publisher. A huge phase of his life will be over and he will continue teaching LGBT history at Michigan State University and living in East Lansing with his partner of 14 years and husband of four years, Rick Yuille. What will he do then?
“I want to see it through to publication,” Retzloff said, adding later, “I’d like to eventually be teaching on a tenure track.”
Ah, but that’s not what his friend Julie Enszer sees him doing. She sees the dissertation, which she has read portions of, as much too valuable.
“He cannot rest,” Enszer said. “I will not let him rest until I see it in book form.”