Charles Alexander, Beloved Michigan Writer and Artist, Leaves Behind Enormous Impact on Local LGBTQ+ Community

Dead at 86, Alexander wrote his popular column Parting Glances and raised thousands for charity

Jason A. Michael

Longtime Pride Source and Between The Lines columnist Charles Robert Alexander, also a beloved artist and community activist, died Dec. 10 following a brief battle with pneumonia. He was 86.

Called Bobby as a child, Alexander was born and raised in Detroit’s Midtown section as an only child. Alexander attended the then very prestigious Cass Technical High School downtown as a commercial arts major and graduated in 1956. At Cass, Charles befriended other closeted gays and they formed a sort of secret fraternity. After Cass Tech, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Wayne University (later renamed Wayne State University).

For some time, Alexander worked jobs ranging from surgical technician at Harper Hospital to public relations for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He came out officially in 1959, a rare move for that time and became an early activist. Ultimately, he would work 28 years with the Detroit Public Schools, first as an instructor and later as an administrator.

Recalling the late '50s and early ‘60s, Alexander said in a 2011 profile in BTL that “back then people really knew nothing about homosexuality. There was a requisite anonymity. You had a nickname. You didn’t give any information about where you worked. It was a very guarded existence.”

Through the years, Alexander developed a drinking problem. But by the time of his death, he was a recovering alcoholic with more than 40 years of sobriety under his belt. It was while in rehab that he reconnected with art. A group therapist asked him to cut photos out of a magazine to describe his feelings. Alexander created a collage, a method he would employ for some time before embracing his signature mixed media presentation.

Even before BTL first published in 1993, Alexander wrote for a predecessor publication called “10 Percent.” Alexander was a BTL columnist from 1994 until 2021, writing more than 700 columns. He also wrote for other sections of the paper from time to time and for several years created original art to grace the paper’s cover for World AIDS Day issues.

Alexander befriended BTL co-publisher Jan Stevenson while she was still executive director of the then-fledgling Affirmations LGBTQ+ community center. Stevenson and her partner Susan Horowitz would take over the publishing reins of BTL in 1994. Charles’ column was called Parting Glances, initially a take on the end of the millennium and his remembrances of days gone by.

“What gave his column the depth it needed to become the longest-running feature in the paper was his ability to tie historical events to the current times,” said Stevenson. “He’d pull on his own experiences or historical references he’d gleaned from his prodigious reading and show how LGBTQ+ issues have shaped our world forever. That context made his column a must-read for thousands of readers.”

Stevenson said Alexander’s column became a critical part of the paper.

“Often when I would be out in the community, people would tell me Charles’ column was a highlight of their week,” she said. “In fact, I often said, and felt, that my one claim to fame was that I know Charles Alexander, the renowned columnist and artist.”

In 2017, a collection of Alexander’s art was produced in book form. “The Art of Charles Alexander” was edited by John Douglas Peters and released by his Treasure Press. All proceeds from the book went to the Scarab Club.

In his official artist’s statement, Alexander explained that “there is little conscious planning as I create my art. I work intuitively and rather quickly.” At one point, Alexander was so prolific he was creating a piece a day. Alexander went on to call his work “whimsical, satiric, metaphysical, convoluted and highly detailed. As much as possible I try not to censor my work but to let it flow from my psyche.”

PXL 20221210 145542380 2 scaled

Treena Flannery Ericson, gallery director for the Scarab Club, said in the book’s preface that Alexander’s work “is imbued with a fluent energy expressed in a graceful flow of dots, dashes, swoops of color and fragments of letters that seem to be from a forgotten language.”

In addition to raising funds for the Scarab Club, Alexander donated his art to various LGBTQ+ and AIDS-related charities. All told, he raised nearly $100,000 over the years and was particularly giving to Affirmations, for whom he served as curator of the Pittman-Puckett Art Gallery for eight years.

"Charles has been a lifetime supporter of Affirmations, including being awarded the Jan Stevenson Award in 2008 for his amazing work and contributions to the LGBTQ+ community and beyond,” said Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia. “His art, writings and beautiful sense of humor has graced us all and he will be deeply missed.”

Alexander was a member of Metropolitan Community Church – Detroit (MCCD) for over four decades. He enjoyed the fellowship the church provided and was often called upon to read the scripture.

“The words that come to mind when thinking about Sir Charles Alexander are artist, storyteller, writer and overcomer,” said Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, pastor of MCCD. “If you knew him, the first three descriptors were apparent.  The fourth word was reserved for those who truly knew his story.”

Stringfellow said that Alexander conquered many demons in his life, ranging from internalized homophobia and alcoholism to a sense of spiritual emptiness.

“He was happy to brag on his church,” Stringfellow explained. “His spirituality was so very important to him because it was [through that] lens that he saw everything.”

Through the years, Alexander served on the boards of the Detroit Area Gay and Lesbian Council, Affirmations, MCCD and the advisory board of the Triangle Foundation, which was later renamed Equality Michigan. He was awarded the Spirit of Detroit Award from the Detroit City Council in 1994, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pride Award Banquet in 1997.

In addition to Affirmations and the Scarab Club, Alexander exhibited his art across Metro Detroit as well as in Chicago and San Francisco. He was also an artist instructor at the Detroit Institute of Arts on multiple occasions.

“What helped him in conquering alcoholism is that he turned to art as a panacea at first, and then as his life’s mission,” said longtime friend and renowned pointillist Jon Strand. “He was both authentic and original, always curious, and because of it, he lived a privileged and interesting life — and he lived it on his own terms.”

Historian and scholar Tim Retzloff knew Alexander for many years. "Charles leaves a unique and enduring legacy to Metro Detroit’s LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “As someone who came out in the gay bar scene of the 1950s and who endured the trauma of arrest by undercover police at age 23, he served as witness to an earlier era of enforced secrecy.

“He went on to blend brilliant art with out-and-proud activism,” Retzloff continued. “We are all heirs to the tremendous, generous gay life that Charles lived.”

Alexander is survived by his family, including Jan Stevenson and Susan Horowitz, John Floros, Jason A. Michael, Rick Robinson and Jon Strand. A memorial service is planned for Saturday, Dec. 17 at noon. It will take place at Ferndale First United Methodist Church, located at 22331 Woodward Ave. Donations may be made in Alexander’s name to MCCD or the Scarab Club. 


From the Pride Source Marketplace

Go to the Marketplace
Directory default
Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce MemberO’FLAHERTY’S HAS BEEN A STAPLE IN THE GROSSE POINTE…
Learn More
Directory default
Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce MemberTax Preparation - 30 Years ExperienceIndividuals -…
Learn More