How Hot is It? Detroit Black Gay Pride Struggles in its Third Decade

By |2016-08-11T09:00:00-04:00August 11th, 2016|Michigan, News|

By Jason A. MIchael

In its heyday, Hotter Than July – Detroit Black Gay Pride – offered a jam packed week full of action and events. There were parades and marches, poetry nights, authors’ events, women’s events, a jazz bash and more parties than you could count. Today, the staples of the week – the candlelight vigil, conference and the picnic in Palmer Park – are still intact. But attendance is down and HTJ, one of the oldest black gay prides in the country, appears to have lost some of its prestige.

A Bit of History

The first HTJ took place in 1996. Community leaders decided to take existing events – the Men of Color Motivational Group annual picnic and the Billionaire Boys’ Club anniversary celebrations – and build a week of events around them. The concept caught on quickly. DBG Pride became the parent group for the week and turnout grew rapidly in the early years.
Johnny Jenkins was the first president of DBG Pride. He helmed HTJ for eight years until Hank Millbourne took over in 2004. HTJ initially continued to thrive under Millbourne’s leadership. But by the end of his tenure in 2010 there was dissension among the ranks. Millbourne left amid disagreements with other members of the board and Robert Clark won in an upset and became the new president of the organization, which by now had undergone a name change from DBG Pride to the Black Pride Society.
Clark was a controversial leader and health concerns caused him to step down after only a year. Kimberly Jones was elected to replace him and she struggled from a lack of support from a board that was largely inactive and had difficulty coming to agreement. HTJ, Jones stressed, was still making money at this point. But she was tired and felt it was time for HTJ to go in a new direction.
“It was up in the air for me whether I was going to give it to KICK (now LGBT Detroit) or Affirmations,” Jones said. “I decided it needed to stay with one of its founders so I met with Curtis [Lipscomb, executive director of KICK]. Our conversation didn’t go that well so I went on and did year 16. For year 16, I didn’t get any help from any of the guys. … After a year of not having any support within the organization, I just went ahead and gave it to KICK.”

A New Era of Black, Gay Pride

The first HTJ produced by KICK took place in 2012. But under the agency’s leadership, the calendar of events gradually got much thinner and attendance declined. In 2013, about 80 people attended the Wednesday night boat cruise on the Detroit River. In 2014, only about 50 attended. The Thursday night film festival drew a crowd of almost 100 in 2013. Attendance in 2014 was less than half that.
“It’s obvious that since LGBT Detroit has become the primary overseer of HTJ a number of folks have chosen to step back,” said Cornelius Wilson, former executive director for Men of Color and longtime member of the HTJ planning committee. “Why, I don’t know. But I’ve had that conversation with some of my committee members and there are individuals in the community who have approached me and said the same.”
Alvina Bursey, who spent a couple of years on the HTJ planning committee before stepping down, said it’s undeniable HTJ is in decline.
“It’s dramatically changed,” she said. “The momentum for it is no longer there. Years ago when I first started going, it was what everyone was talking about. Now, people don’t even know about it. I don’t know if there’s nothing to really bring people in or if people are just not drawn to it.”
For his part, Lipscomb feels it’s not his agency that’s the problem, but rather the cost of events that turn certain people off.
“This is our take on that,” Lipscomb explained. “We noticed that when there was a paid event attendance was low. But when there was a free event attendance was very high. That’s us listening to the movement. The movement said they were interested in having no barriers. So this year there was only one event that was a paid event.”
The highlight of the week, the picnic in Palmer Park, was free as always. But attendance was still down. An estimated 400-500 people came out throughout the course of the day. In its peak, thousands came out each year.
Admittedly, it sprinkled throughout the day and Lipscomb said that the rain kept people away.
“It seems to always rain on the day of the picnic,” he said. “It rained early for a long period of time. So some people, some vendors, made the decision to leave. At the end of the picnic there’s always this younger presence. Everyone loved the mini-ball. But I do know that the rain made a big impact on people deciding not to come out.”

Disorganization Among Organizers

Weather conditions and admission fees aside, it’s clear that HTJ is going through a critical period. Attendance at planning committee meetings, which take place at LGBT Detroit’s offices, is minimal and averages less than 10 people – mostly comprised of LGBT Detroit staff and volunteers.
“I have wondered over the years why folks who were key with doing the film festival, some folks who were working with the picnic and did the children’s corner, I wondered, why didn’t they come back?” said Wilson. “What’s going on or what happened that they didn’t come back to the table? Even certain staff members who have left LGBT Detroit … once they left they completely disassociated, as far as I can tell anyway. It’s like, what’s going on?”
Corporate sponsorship is also at an all-time low.
“Corporate sponsorship is a mainstay in developing prides,” said Lipscomb. “Unfortunately, LGBT Detroit, which manages HTJ, has to compete with other non-profits, many with more capacity for corporate support. Yes, there was corporate support but it was low. But that did not hinder our ability to listen to the people and to provide events for Hotter Than July.”
It did make the task more difficult though. Wilson, who is in charge of planning the annual conference, said he had no budget for the event at all.
“This is the first year that I did not have any funding,” Wilson said. “Usually, we get a grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. This year I had no backing from nobody.” To subsidize costs, Wilson brought in AARP to do a presentation in exchange for them providing a free continental breakfast. He did the same for Gilead for lunch.
For his part, David Nelson, who organizes the picnic, did so on a shoestring budget.
“I’ve heard people say they want more ‘mega pride,'” he said. “I guess that means they want celebrities and big parties and stuff like that. That’s why I tried to raise extra money for the picnic. I raised about $2,000 but that’s not enough for a mega pride. But me and my team have talked about doing fundraisers from October to June so we can have some extra income to do things for the picnic.”
Jones said that the group of young leaders organizing HTJ today are lacking a historical perspective.
“I know that Curtis has a team organizing HTJ,” she said. “But his team never had experience organizing HTJ when we organized on a grand scale.”
If people are not pleased with the condition HTJ is in, Lipscomb said there is only one thing to do: join the planning committee and have an active voice in the shaping of events.
“If people hear this plea maybe they’ll come and join us,” he said. “To come in June, that’s just useless. So join us starting in September when planning begins and say ‘I want to join the committee and I want to be an effective player.’
“I think bigger and better is always great,” Lipscomb continued. “I think with additional resources – financial and human – those things can occur. But if it’s a challenge to have people at the planning committee join to make something bigger and better that makes the actual manifestation of it difficult. But it could be bigger and better. It could always be bigger and better.”
Planning for next year’s HTJ will start in September. Watch Between The Lines for details.

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.