As Motor City Pride Turns 20, Remembering Pride Fest

Jason A. Michael

OK, so the title is slightly misleading. Pride in Metro Detroit goes back farther than 20 years. It’s more like 34. But, if you’ll kindly continue reading, I’ll give you a brief history lesson and explain how it is that Motor City Pride is only 20.

The first official LGBTQ+ Pride festival in Metro Detroit took place in 1989. It was chaired by Frank Colasonti Jr. and funded by the Detroit Area Gay/Lesbian Council (DAGLC). The event’s location was the gymnasium of the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus. The following year, the event became officially known as Pride Fest and moved to Oakland Community College-Royal Oak campus. Well, in the interest of journalistic accuracy, it was located in the Royal Oak Campus parking lot and garage. Not ideal, but still the gays felt safer in Royal Oak, which already had a reputation as being the most gay-friendly Detroit suburb.

But I digress. Michael Lary became event organizer for Pride Fest in 1991. He founded South East Michigan Pride (SEMP) and broke away from DAGLC. For the next 10 years, Lary worked diligently and with great dedication to elevate the stature of Pride Fest and draw out the crowds. Mind you, Affirmations, Ferndale’s LGBTQ+ community center, was only founded two years prior, in 1989. The queer community in Michigan, at this point, was still in the early stages of organizing.

The crowds did come out, though. And Pride Fest grew bigger each year. So much so that Lary, under the auspices of SEMP, had begun organizing the Michigan Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and the Michigan Lesbian & Gay Comedy Fest. In 2001, SEMP applied for a special event permit with the City of Royal Oak to move the festival, which had outgrown its location, to Washington Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets. The permit application was denied. And Lary decided, rightfully, to move the festival to nearby Ferndale, which by now was giving Royal Oak a run for its money to keep the title of “Gay-Friendliest Little Suburb of Detroit.”

pridefest crowd photo by ric brown
Pride on display at Pride Fest, Motor City Pride's predecessor. Photo: Ric Brown

That same year, Lary decided to retire from the Pride business. He turned control of the festival — as well as the Film Festival, Comedy Fest and other events Lary had begun producing — to Triangle Foundation. Triangle kept control of the event from 2003 to 2008, struggling to reconcile event production with its mission of anti-violence and political advocacy.

Also, in 2003 — and here, dear readers, is where the 20th anniversary comes in — the name of Pride Fest was changed to Motor City Pride. So I’m not lying when I say MCP turns 20 this year. It’s actually the gospel truth.

MCP only grew after it was moved to Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit in 2012. From 2009 to 2017, MCP was headed up by a core group of Triangle Foundation volunteers that formed the MCP Planning Committee. MCP became its own organization and received 501(c)3 status in 2017. And Dave Wait became the organization’s executive director. The festival grew to two days and they added a parade, something the queer community in the region had not staged in years.

But back to Pride Fest. I first attended Pride Fest in 1997. I had just moved back to Michigan from Miami a couple of months earlier. Upon returning to town, I wasted no time in getting involved with Full Truth Unity Fellowship Church. It was a sunny June day when I and several fellow choir members from the church drove up to Royal Oak.

pridefest curtis lipscomb photo by jam (1)
Curtis Libscomb and author Jason A. Michael. Photo: Jason A. Michael

I was excited to see what a Michigan Pride festival looked like. I wasn’t disappointed. It was, of course, much smaller than what I had experienced in Fort Lauderdale. On the other hand, it was much more than I could have ever expected when I fled Michigan for Florida after high school.

I returned the following year with my close friends Ken, Ghesoon and Liz. I’m happy to have memories of that day because we lost Ken just a few years later. After Ken’s death, G and Liz and I sort of drifted apart. Our group was never the same without Ken.

In June of 1999, I had just completed a brief tenure as managing editor of Kick magazine and accepted a full-time position with Between The Lines. The staff of the paper assembled at Pronto! for an early breakfast before the Sunday festival began. There, I met many of the staff for the first time, including columnist and my soon-to-be dear friend Charles Alexander, and we posed for a group photo.

I was young, optimistic and still eager to see what the future would bring. I was also thrilled to be working as a full-time journalist. Or, as the late Triangle Foundation Executive Director Jeff Montgomery christened me, I was now a full-time homo, which gave me the name of my first column.

Lary really did a great job with Pride Fest. The stage and dance area were out in the parking lot. Booths and vendors were located in the parking garage. Not very glamorous, but what it lacked in atmosphere it made up for in shade. (Literal shade. Not gay shade.)

pridefest trixxie deluxxe photo by jam
Trixxie Deluxxe at Pride Fest. Photo: Jason A. Michael

It was great when Pride Fest moved to Ferndale and out of the parking lot and into the actual street. The name change to Motor City Pride didn’t mean much to me. But when the move to downtown Detroit and Hart Plaza was announced, I was skeptical. Shows you what I know — the festival has gotten so large some might say it has outgrown Hart Plaza. (Last year, crowds waited literal hours to get into the plaza.)

Like Lary, Wait deserves a lot of credit. He expanded the entertainment lineup and brought in big names to take the main stage. By all accounts, he’s done a great job. But there’s something about that little Pride Fest in Royal Oak that I long for.

In many respects, the queer community in Metro Detroit has come a long way since then. On the other hand, as attacks against our community at large (particularly against our trans folk) intensify, there was a certain innocence about those special Sundays in the parking lot that I miss.