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Coming out in the 50s, decades of activism

By | 2016-03-10T09:00:00-05:00 March 10th, 2016|Uncategorized|

By BTL staff

Interviews with Our Community Personalities

This year Between The Lines is inaugurating a new LGBT video history project: “Interviews with Our Community Personalities.” The first of this series was taped in the University of Michigan LGBT Student Office and featured BTL columnist and Detroit community artist Charles Alexander and Jim Toy, UofM LGBT Office liaison, longtime activist, and co-founder of the Detroit and Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Fronts.
The interview was held at the Michigan Union shortly after the historic Supreme Court Sodomy Ruling in June.
BTL: Charles and Jim, you’ve both been around in various activist roles for a number of years. When did you come out?
CHARLES: I came out in 1955, and as a teenager discovered a thriving gay community located in downtown Detroit. There were four bars: The 1011, Silver Dollar, La Rosa’s, and the Palais – a notorious butch/femme bar. There were two teen hangouts: the Hub Grill, located at Farmer and Bates, near the First Police Precinct, and Mama’s, just behind the old Greyhound Bus Depot, on once fashionable Washington Blvd.
I came out during my Cass Technical High School senior year. I was a commercial art major and, I suppose, fortunate: I didn’t have to go through a period of adjustment or questioning about my sexuality. I knew since I was 13 that I was different, or, as my Baptist pastor pointed out to my mother, ‘Your son is sensitive.’ (Just how sensitive I’m sure he hadn’t a clue.)
Back then “coming out” meant that you accepted that you were gay and associated with others who knew they were, too. You learned the ropes from those who had been around. They filled you in on which movie stars were gay, and how to avoid police entrapment. You passed for straight as a matter of survival.
I had several gay friends in high school. Many were black. The Cass Tech art department was pretty well integrated as far as students were concerned. We gay kids hung out together, and as “creative types” managed to have a lot of memorable experiences as we explored the parameters of living the life.
We were eager to visit new cities and meet others who shared our orientation. After trips to Toledo, where you could drink godawful Zing beer at age 18, Cleveland, Chicago, and New York, it wasn’t long before it dawned on you that ‘family’ was indeed everywhere. There certainly wasn’t anything unique about being gay. Support could be found in most big cities, even if it wasn’t organized, publicized, or permitted.
In the 50s gays were a subculture, and, for the most part, we went unnoticed by the straight world. Nobody wanted to risk being identified as a ‘known’ or an ‘avowed’ homosexual.
JIM: I moved to Detroit in 1957. I was brought here as a young, somewhat na•ve church organist for St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church by the Rev. Joseph Dixon, a friend from my Ohio hometown. I was closeted and mostly in denial. In 1958, I married a marvelous woman who was a member of the choir. We divorced when I came out in the late 60s, but remain close friends to this day.
I stayed on as music director through several changes of rather courageous rectors, and learned a great deal about human values and compassion in the process. St. Joseph’s, at midpoint between Detroit and Highland Park, has always been in the forefront of civil rights activities.
I witnessed – though I must confess rather quietly – St. Joseph’s open door policy for Northern High School black students striking for educational equality in 1958, strong support for Vietnam War resistors during the anti-draft movement in the 60s, outreach and care during the Detroit riots of ’67, and brave encouragement for the fledgling gay rights movement following Stonewall in 1969.
Among these courageous rectors I especially remember Rev. Robert Morrison, who, among other things, introduced me to pot. I suppose it’s safe to make that a matter of record. Fr. Morrison also at various times permitted members of the Black Panthers to meet on church premises. Heavens! That was certainly a daring thing for a rector to do, and the Black Panthers were understandably appreciative.
In December of ’69, I was sitting in the church office typing up the church bulletin and I saw an item for inclusion. “Gay Meeting, Jan. 1970.” Now what in heck could this be? I said to myself – because there had never been any open, announced meetings of gay people in Detroit. It was a first – although I later learned that the Matachine Society held meetings during the early 60s at the Unitarian/Universalist Church on Wayne State’s campus.
I went directly to Fr. Morrison, who in those radical years was called Daddy-O. ‘Daddy-O, what’s this gay meeting stuff about?’ He was 6’4″, and he said in a booming voice, ‘I haven’t a clue, but one of the guys in draft resistance asked if he could have a gay meeting, and the spirit moved me to tell him OK.’
Next I called my friend John Morris. ‘John, there’s something strange going on at the God Box,’ I said. ‘There’s going to be a gay meeting on the 15th. Should we go?’ I asked. We both said simultaneously that if we go, that means we’re gay. Like myself, John was in the closet. Decisions. Decisions.
Given that the meeting was being held in the church office, John and I struggled and agonized for a month, but somehow we decided that we were going to go. That was my coming out to myself. At the meeting we found about a dozen other men and women, just as excited, just as scared, and just as hopeful as we were.
We talked excitedly, half fearing being overheard. And we said you know, we must meet some more. And what should we call ourselves? We knew there was a Gay Liberation Front after the Stonewall riots. We all had heard of that. Someone said let’s be the Detroit Gay Liberation Front. Someone else said, this town is not ready for a Front. Let’s call ourselves the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement. So, that’s how we got started.
In April that year there was an anti-war rally in downtown Detroit at Kennedy Square. And all the so-called radical groups were invited to march down Woodward Avenue and have rally speakers. We certainly qualified as radical.
So one of our bolder Gay Liberation guys said, I’ll give a speech. But when the time came he chickened out. Without thinking about the full consequences of my response, I volunteered. I had paper with me and I quickly scribbled down what I was going to say.
I went up those big concrete steps to the podium and I castigated the Episcopal Bishop of Michigan for his, what we called, “pro-war” stance. And I said I was from the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement and gay. My announcement made big news in the Free Press.
BTL: That certainly qualifies you for being the first person to come out publicly in Michigan.
JIM: I suppose it does. If so, it’s an honor I gladly accept.
CHARLES: Jim, may I ask you a question? You were able when you came out to maintain your faith, your religious beliefs and your practice. When I came out I left the church. I knew I was gay and that I had no place in my American Baptist church. You had a different experience. You’ve been able to maintain your faith ties.
JIM: Over the years I’ve thought, perhaps somewhat simplistically: Here’s my gay chair and over there’s my Episcopal faith chair. And they were different chairs for a number of years. But through those years of struggle with myself, and because of the support of other people, I’ve been able to consolidate these two chairs into one. It didn’t happen quickly, but now I feel that this combined chair holds me securely, both in my sexual orientation and my faith.”
BTL: The UofM Office for LGBT Concerns is among the first of its kind in America. How did it get started, Jim?
JIM: At the time several gay friends and I were taking courses at UofM. and we were getting tired of trekking into Detroit two or three times a week for our gay meetings. We decided to start a group here on campus. We put an ad in the Michigan Daily. A guy by the name of Larry Glover offered us the use of his apartment, and about 100 people showed up at our first meeting.
Shortly thereafter we decided as a group – we called ourselves the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front – to protest Nixon’s terrorist war on Cambodia. We took our protest to the front steps of the Michigan Union. The building director did not appreciate our being there. He said the Gay Liberation Front was permanently banned from the premises.
Well, the director was overthrown at his next board meeting. The entire board voted against his decision, without prompting. And, somewhat encouraged, we decided that we wanted to have a statewide gay meeting – that was the term we used. So, I went to the secretary on campus and said, we want to have a meeting on campus, how do we get space?”
And she said, ‘Well, you have to write a memo.’ So we wrote the memo and heard nothing. Several weeks later, we received a formal letter from the President: “I forbid of the use of University facilities for such a gay conference because it is not educational enough, and we would have to have police presence on campus.”
However, the Vice President of the Student Government Council said to me, ‘Forget about him. I have keys to the student activities room, just use the room.’ Unbeknownst to any of us, the University sent an observer, to see what was going on. Several months later, an administrative assistant said to me, ‘Jim I found something very interesting, do you want to see it?’ Of course I wanted to see it.
So she pulled out a memorandum from the observer of the conference and it said, “I went to a workshop that had very low attendance, very low energy. If the University just disregards this group, they will wither up and be thrown away.”
Six months later, neither withered nor wilted, we were granted space along with the other offices of student concerns. We were also given a small amount of financial help. The University said it would provide half-time funding for us. We said, ‘We’ve got to have gender parity in the directing of the office.’ So they hired Cindy Garret, a lesbian. She was the first-ever lesbian advocate and I was hired as the first-ever gay male advocate.
BTL: Was there any first-ever negative reaction?
JIM: Not very much. The Vice President of Student Services said publicly that there had been very little complaint. I’ve had two or three letters, he mumbled. A nationally syndicated writer did write a snide column about the office and did say that the University of Michigan had appointed “these people” and “they are exploring the farther shores of lust.” To which I wrote her back, ‘Shores of lust, indeed! I hadn’t even gotten to the beach yet.’
BTL: So what’s for the future at UofM?
JIM: We are continuing an attempt that’s been going on for about 10 years of having gender identity added to the University’s non-discrimination policy. In the city of Ann Arbor, WRAP has proposed to the police department and sheriff’s office to provide in-services particularly dealing with transgender issues. I just recently provided a workshop on transgender concerns to the Department of Public Safety Office here on campus. We’re now looking at dealing with the backlash from the Supreme Court’s Sodomy Ruling.
BTL: Please share your personal responses to their recent landmark decision.
CHARLES: When I learned about it, all of a sudden I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt elated. It was an unseen burden I had carried with me for decades I suppose.
JIM: The lightness I experienced informed me of how heavy the oppression had actually been. There will be backlash. Make no mistake. That’s expected. But the future is ours. We shape it. We create it. Perhaps now, as never before, we are uniting and moving closer to our shared goals of acceptance, dignity, and personal fulfillment as LGBT persons. God knows, it’s been a very long time in coming.

About the Author:

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.