With only days until the long, hard haul that was 2020 is over, it’s hard to remember a time that the novel coronavirus pandemic and challenges to the legitimacy of the presidential election weren’t the main thing on the news. But as inundated as we’ve been with those reports, 2020 had a lot more to offer. Between The Lines has compiled a month-by-month look back at our issues for a review of everything that made this year what it was.
Well before stay-at-home orders were on the horizon, Michigan’s Episcopal Church kicked off the new year with historic plans to ordain the Rev. Dr. Bonnie A. Perry as its 11th bishop diocesan. She became the first openly gay priest to be elected in the history of the diocese.
History was made politically, too, when a citizen-led coalition created by a group called Fair and Equal Michigan announced plans to launch a petition to finally amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
The Fair and Equal Michigan coalition began to make waves in February with some community leaders fiercely vouching for the initiative, while others hesitated about putting LGBTQ rights up to a vote with the potential for a Republican-led legislature to either reject or conservatively amend petition language.
In the same month, Grace Bacon, founder of transgender advocacy group Crossroads and the grandmother of Kevin Bacon, who was brutally murdered over the 2019 Holiday season, sought justice for her grandson and urged that he be remembered as “a gentle soul, who people loved and he loved in return.”
Unfortunately, one of the first in-person events to be canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, March brought about the news that five Detroit activists sought to visit the UN to fight for women’s equality and strengthen the visibility of women of color. They are Deidre “D.S.SENSE” Smith, Pamela Alexander, Famika Edmond, London J. Bell and Cpl. Dani Woods.
March also brought the community-focused efforts of the Trans Sistas of Color Project to the fore. The group began the process of creating care packages for transgender women in need due to the effects of COVID-19.
“For us, anything to do with trans women of color — to uplift them, or to create a better space for them, is part of our mission,” said the project’s Executive Director Lilianna Reyes.
Photo cap 3: Ruth’s House. Courtesy photo.
April started off with an announcement from various nonprofit organizations that virtual service would the new normal for the time being. At this time, many Pride-focused events were still planned for the summer or in the early stages of being postponed. Executive Director of LGBT Detroit Curtis Lipscomb summed it up well.
“We are open for business, but we’re doing business differently,” he said. “Consider engaging with us virtually as we believe that we can still meet our deadlines and meet our goals.”
That optimism was shared by Ruth Ellis Center Director of Development and Advancement Mark Erwin-McCormick who put his faith in a technology-focused future.
“… I think right now it’s about finding alternative ways for us to be able to somehow still bring the community together, whether that’s through social media or whether that’s doing peer support groups via videoconferencing — those kinds of things,” he said.
Unlike the pro-equality religious reports of January, the same month brought the news of the Archdiocese of Detroit prohibiting LGBTQ-inclusive Catholic liturgies from being held anywhere on Church property.
Community support efforts continued throughout the month of May, notably with Menjo’s Manager Tim McKee-Zazo transforming the entertainment complex into a food pantry to aid the community members who did not have the financial resources or health to shop for groceries.
“The reason I do it is — I’m 54 years old, so I clearly remember the original AIDS epidemic,” McKee-Zazo said. “This is what we used to do: gay people taking care of gay people. When there were no government services, there was none of that stuff. It was literally us taking care of each other. I used to do this back in the ’80s for friends that were [HIV] positive back then or had full-blown [AIDS].”
That same month, Human Rights Campaign took steps to officially back then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“We reviewed his record on marginalized communities,” HRC President Alphonso David said. “We reviewed his prior comments on LGBTQ issues as well as issues that affect people who bring intersectional identities to the table. As an example, I’m Black, I’m gay, I’m an immigrant. All of those issues are important for me and they happen to be for the Human Rights Campaign.”
May also shifted focus to unfair restrictions on LGBTQ people donating blood in the U.S. In particular, the ban affects Men who have sex with men. It’s something that Dave Garcia, executive director of the Affirmations LGBTQ community center, said “didn’t make sense.”
“It is arbitrary. It’s an archaic, asinine policy that is steeped in bigotry and prejudice and ignorance. And frankly, any time you have a … health policy with that kind of prejudice and ignorance associated with it, [it] leads to death. People are dying because of this stupid policy,” he said.
By June, COVID-19 had certainly changed the landscape but for the LGBTQ community, it was especially visible because of the lack of in-person Pride celebrations. However, downtown Detroit did have its fair share of organizing in light of the police brutality the resulted in the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin — among other incidents. One particular protest had LGBTQ people of color in mind organized by Detroit Queer Activist Coalition Founder Dorian Minley.
“You hardly ever hear about a queer trans voice as far as activism is concerned unless we’re dying, unless we’re a statistic. So, I wanted to give people of color, especially here in the city of Detroit, [a voice],” he said. “We have a big dichotomy here in the city where it’s Black half the time and then all the people that are getting credit [for activism] are white. Well, that’s not what this is. White people will not be permitted to speak at this event just because this is a centered event for people of color and for queer people.”
During the same period of time, LGBTQ lawmakers began to raise national public awareness of the importance of mail-in ballots to prevent voter suppression and for public safety during COVID-19.
“During this pandemic, we should be doing everything we can to protect people’s health and their access to the ballot box — expanding vote by mail is critical to ensuring that,” said California State Rep. Mark Takano.
Locally, June also brought more religious news, this time with the firing of Terry Gonda, a lesbian woman who was fired from her job at St. John Fisher Chapel in Auburn Hills, where she served in the music department for 26 years — for six years as its director.
Photo cap 2: (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
Notably in July, a lesbian-owned bakery in Detroit was trolled by an alt-right group that was hostile toward Pride month and LGBTQ rights. April Anderson, the co-owner of Good Cakes and Bakes, chose to write a message of positivity instead.
“We’re in Detroit, we’re in a predominantly Black city, a Black neighborhood. There is still, to this day … some phobia within the Black community of homosexuality. I’m not gonna be naïve about that,” Anderson said. “But, again, when we take a stand — as long as we’re happy with who we are, the decisions that we make — we stand by it, we’re OK with it.”
Although normally scheduled for August, Transgender Pride in the Park was another event that ended up choosing to be virtual in 2020, showcasing that COVID-19 concerns would be here to stay for longer than anticipated. Executive Director and Co-Founder of Transgender Michigan Rachel Crandall-Crocker said that it was the best option for the safety of attendees
“People are lonely and isolated, especially now. This is a great way for us to all come together without the tremendous risks [of COVID-19],” Crandall-Crocker said. “It will be a celebration of being trans, [and] because it’s online we will be able to reach out to more people.”
Oak Park English language arts teacher Owen Bondono made the BTL cover in August after being named Michigan’s Region 9 Teacher of the year and, being an openly transgender teacher himself, making a pro-equality stance on his approach to education.
“I think that, in general, as teachers it is our job to make students safe and comfortable in our room so that they can bring whatever version of their authentic self that they’re comfortable bringing,” he said. “Because, beyond the academics, our whole purpose is to grow them into confident, successful people.”
August also brought the news of Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential primary win less than two hours after the polls closed.
Nationally, the state department sided in favor of a gay couple who had had difficulty recognizing the U.S. citizenship of their children who were born abroad via surrogates.
“We are very relieved, on behalf of our daughter, on behalf of our family, and on behalf of LGBT families across this great country of ours,” said Roee Kiviti, a member of the couple.
As fall rolled around, more anti-LGBTQ sentiment sprang up in the religious community as lesbian Grand Rapids Chief Judge Sara Smolenski received news that she could no longer receive Communion at St. Stephen Catholic Church where she was a lifelong parishioner. She learned that it was because a new priest at the parish, Father Scott Nolan, discovered that she was married to a same-sex partner. Despite the difficult decision, Smolenski decided that she would not return to the parish.
“I don’t want to go back when I can’t go up for Communion,” Smolenski stated. “I feel like I’m being told I’m not good enough to be a real member — but you can visit. And that’s no way to have a faith-based group to be with.”
The same month brought a slew of unfounded and homophobic attacks against Jon Hoadley, the challenger of U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan). Ironically, Upton had just weeks before condemned hate-filled political attacks.
“The attacks against Jon are nothing more than a despicable attempt to make something out of nothing. Jon’s record is clear: he has been a voice for women and children throughout his career and will continue to be our champion when elected to Congress,” said Michigan State Rep. Kristy Pagan (D-Canton) and legislative leader on women’s rights.
October was a court-focused month as the world continued to reflect on the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg who had died the month prior. Staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s LGBT Project Jay Kaplan summed up what many in the U.S. were feeling at the time.
“It was devastating,” Kaplan said. “Just an incredible loss to the Court, to our country and, of course, what immediately also came up was the fear — what’s going to happen next? Because I had read before that Senate Leader Mitch McConnell had told donors at several fundraisers that, ‘Should Justice Ginsburg drop dead before the election, even if it’s a week before the election, we’ll get somebody else on that court, I promise you.’”
Then, in October, the Senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court by a vote of 52-48, solidifying a 6-3 conservative majority on the bench and President Trump’s lasting impact on the judiciary.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first out lesbian elected to the Senate, joined other critics in saying Barrett’s confirmation was rushed through and said on the Senate “voters across America should be allowed to cast their ballots first,” but Republicans “have no interest in listening to the people.”
After days of uncertainty and thorough ballot-counting, BTL and many other news organizations felt comfortable declaring that Joe Biden won the presidency. Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the victory by Biden and Harris “proves once again that equality is a winning issue.”
“The Biden/Harris ticket is the most pro-equality ticket in history. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are not just willing to be our allies, but they are true advocates for equality,” David said. “And they’ve done it for decades.”
That same month, Pope Francis expressed support for civil union laws for same-sex couples that made DignityUSA — the organization of Catholics committed to justice, equality and full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church and society — cautiously optimistic.
“If true, the Pope’s comments could represent an international game-changer and a major step forward for LGBTQI equality,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA. “It would remove a key obstacle to LGBTQI inclusion in many places around the world, especially in areas where LGBTQI people are especially vulnerable to discrimination and violence.”
As World AIDS Day came on Dec. 1, 2020, it felt different than other years due to the pandemic. Across the state of Michigan, many HIV/AIDS agencies certainly felt similarities between the AIDS crisis and COVID-19 as well as the many impediments to service that it provided like in-person care.
This month also marked a settlement in the historic Aimee Stephens case. Stephens, who died in May at 59 from kidney disease, did not live to see the Supreme Court rule in her favor and decide that she and other LGBTQ people were protected from discrimination under federal employment law.
U.S. District Judge Sean Cox has signed off on a $130,000 settlement, which includes $63,724 in back pay with interest and $66,276 in damages. The R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home in Garden City, where Stephens worked for six years, also has to pay $120,000 in legal fees to the ACLU.
“This settlement marks a closing chapter in Aimee Stephens’ remarkable fight for justice,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. “We are sad that Aimee is not here to experience this moment with her wife Donna and grateful for all that Aimee, Donna, and the many trans fighters for justice and their families have done to bring us to this place. As Aimee always said, this fight is about more than just her and it will stretch far beyond this case.”