by Jessica Carreras
Marvin Marks can still remember the very first time he went to an LGBT organization’s meeting. It was the late 1970s and a friend told Marks, then a 36-year-old barely out Jewish Detroiter, about a gay Catholic group called Dignity Detroit. Despite the difference of faith, and because there was no gay Jewish organization at the time, he decided to go.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Marks recalled. “I knew that Dignity was a Catholic organization and here I am a good Jewish boy. What am I doing here?”
Marks went three times to the flat where Dignity meetings were held – a bright pink flat known as Gracie’s Palace – and discovered a very odd reaction to his presence. “Nobody came over to speak to me …,” he explained. “So I happened to bump into who was president of Dignity Detroit at that time and I said, ‘You know, I’ve been up here at least three times and nobody’s ever … come over to welcome me to this place. What was the problem?’ He looked at me very sheepishly and he said, ‘Well, we all thought you were a cop.'”
By 1980, Marks, an accountant by trade since 1962 and a natural whiz with numbers, had become their treasurer. From there, his involvement in LGBT organizations exploded. Marks went on to become president of Dignity Detroit, treasurer of Dignity International, president of the Wellness Network, president of the Detroit Area Gay Lesbian Council, founder and president of the Motor City Business Forum and the first president of the Forum Foundation.
Marks’ involvement thrived throughout the 1980s to the early ’90s, at which point he decided that it was time to pass the torch. “All this time all takes effort and takes work,” he said of his decision to leave. “I figured ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to have an accounting practice and try to make a living, or am I going to be captain of all this stuff going on?'”
So Marks decided to put his accounting practice in the forefront and in 1991, made the announcement to let younger leaders take the helm. “I said ‘OK guys, it’s time for you younger people to get into the trenches. I’ve had my tour of duty,'” he said. “I felt very strongly about it – whatever they’re going to do, let them do it. We planted the seeds, let’s see what happens. When I said I’d step back and let them be in the trenches, I meant it.”
Marks may have left his old life as a multi-tasking LGBT activist and volunteer behind – but the community has not forgotten about him.
Several of the organizations Marks’ headed are now defunct, with the exclusion of Dignity Detroit, the Forum Foundation and the Wellness Network, which was one of the state’s first AIDS organizations. Though Marks is nostalgic about the organizations that have come and gone, he remains proud of the ones that thrived. “We accomplished a great deal in the first three years (at Wellness Network) and even a little bit more, and by the time I left, we were ready to hit the big time as far as organizations are concerned,” he said of the organization. “… I figured that I planted the acorns, now let’s see if we can get a mighty oak out of it. And surely, look at it today. AIDS Partnership Michigan – that’s Wellness Network.”
And for his work in the ’80s and early ’90s, Marks was honored at the Pride Banquet – in 1990, 1991 and just last month. All three times, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Marks admits that the final time, he was shocked to hear that the community still wanted to honor him. “I said, ‘Are you guys kidding? Is this a repeat performance?'” Marks recalled with a laugh. “They said, ‘We remember what you did. We want people to know what you did.'”
But he, like the Pride Banquet Committee, saw the importance of helping future generations of activists and community leaders learn where their organizations and their issues have come from. “They should know what it cost in the way of blood, sweat and tears to take (the organization) to where it is today, if it’s still going,” Marks said. “They should learn all that because the history of something is more fulfilling sometimes and helps better with the aspect of looking forward than it does remembering. Not looking back; just remembering. You don’t do it for the handshake or the pat on the back. You do it because look what happened because you did.”
Though Marks sometimes misses his life as a head of multiple LGBT organizations, he enjoys his life by himself, running his practice, and having time for himself. “Somebody once said that being the president of an organization is a lonely place. It is, because you don’t have the time to cultivate friends and this and that,” he said. “You’re too busy doing. … The disconnect (of leaving the organizations) was not easy at first. I would say maybe the first year, I felt I should be having dinner and running some place. But after a while, I felt a little more – I could rest when I went home. I could call my friends. … But I always remember the good times.”
And the community will always remember the work done by Marks.